America’s 40th president, Ronald Wilson Reagan, in Tampico, Illinois in 1911.
Now almost two decades since he died at 93, things he said are far better remembered than the things critics said about him. And that is a good thing, because Reagan got more things right than most of them did.
When Reagan first flirted with the Republican nomination in 1968, I was not quite 15 years of age. I was intrigued because his criticism of big government resonated with my youthful instincts. When he challenged incumbent Gerald Ford in 1976, I cheered him on. Like it was yesterday, I remember his smashing victory in the North Carolina primary, then his sweep of every delegate in Texas, followed by a nail-biting, narrow loss to Ford at the GOP convention. After he trounced Jimmy Carter in 1980, I was teaching at Northwood University, where I wheeled in a TV set for one of my classes to watch his inaugural address live.
It is hard to describe today how I felt 40 years ago as Reagan took office. Up until then, it seemed as though freedom was losing every battle, everywhere. The Soviets were on the march in the world. Stagflation at home was the new normal as Jimmy Carter seemed incapable of anything more than lecturing us to get used to it. Then into the White House came a man of boundless optimism, of infectious confidence in American freedom and exceptionalism. It gave me hope at the same time my libertarian principles reminded me, “This is government. Be prepared for disappointments.”
I had the pleasure of meeting Reagan three times—once during his 1980 campaign, then during my own (for U.S. Congress) in 1982, and then for lunch with a small group at the White House in 1987. I will never forget his uncanny ability to put one immediately at ease and to show interest in whoever he was talking to. Yes, he was an actor, but I believe his character was the real source of so much good in him, including the sincerity he exuded and the faith in free people he so eloquently and repeatedly expressed. He was the best president of my lifetime, and likely the only one who regularly read FEE publications.
This is not to say that Reagan was perfect. I wish he had vetoed more bills. I wish he had understood the harm of the drug war. And because he was too much of a nice guy, he probably didn’t fire or criticize enough bad apples in government. But remember a couple things: He was not a dictator; the opposition party controlled the House all of his eight years and greeted his proposed spending cuts as “dead on arrival.” His focus on the big-ticket issues—rolling back the Evil Empire, cutting punitive tax rates, taming price inflation and reducing over-regulation—sometimes prompted him to compromise on other matters to save political capital for these more critical ones.
For the most part, and more than any of his fellow presidents since Coolidge, Reagan knew that there was no loftier achievement for any society than freedom. We do ourselves a service to get re-acquainted with that notion. Recognizing that for many reasons (some no fault of his), Reagan’s rhetoric sometimes soared higher than actual results, I offer here some of the best things he said on the subject.
- Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it on to our children in the bloodstream. The only way they can inherit the freedom we have known is if we fight for it, protect it, defend it, and then hand it to them with the well fought lessons of how they in their lifetime must do the same. And if you and I don’t do this, then you and I may well spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it once was like in America when men were free. – 1961
- One of the traditional methods of imposing statism or socialism on a people has been by way of medicine. It’s very easy to disguise a medical program as a humanitarian project. – 1961
- If we lose freedom here, there is no place to escape to. This is the last stand on Earth. And this idea that government is beholden to the people, that it has no other source of power except to sovereign people, is still the newest and most unique idea in all the long history of man’s relation to man. This is the issue of this election. Whether we believe in our capacity for self-government or whether we abandon the American revolution and confess that a little intellectual elite in a far-distant capital can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves. – 1964
- Government is like a baby: An alimentary canal with a big appetite at one end and no responsibility at the other. – 1965
- There are those in America today who have come to depend absolutely on government for their security. And when government fails they seek to rectify that failure in the form of granting government more power. So, as government has failed to control crime and violence with the means given it by the Constitution, they seek to give it more power at the expense of the Constitution. But in doing so, in their willingness to give up their arms in the name of safety, they are really giving up their protection from what has always been the chief source of despotism—government. – 1975
- Lord Acton said power corrupts. Surely then, if this is true, the more power we give the government the more corrupt it will become. And if we give it the power to confiscate our arms we also give up the ultimate means to combat that corrupt power. In doing so we can only assure that we will eventually be totally subject to it. When dictators come to power, the first thing they do is take away the people’s weapons. It makes it so much easier for the secret police to operate, it makes it so much easier to force the will of the ruler upon the ruled. – 1975
- The size of the Federal budget is not an appropriate barometer of social conscience or charitable concern. – 1981
- If the big spenders get their way, they’ll charge everything on your Taxpayers Express Card. And believe me, they never leave home without it. – 1984
- If we look to the answer as to why for so many years we achieved so much, prospered as no other people on earth, it was because here in this land we unleashed the energy and individual genius of man to a greater extent than has ever been done before. Freedom and the dignity of the individual have been more available and assured here than in any other place on earth. – 1981
- Government’s first duty is to protect the people, not run their lives. – 1981
- In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem. From time to time we’ve been tempted to believe that society has become too complex to be managed by self-rule, that government by an elite group is superior to government for, by, and of the people. Well, if no one among us is capable of governing himself, then who among us has the capacity to govern someone else? – 1981
- We are a nation that has a government—not the other way around. And this makes us special among the nations of the Earth. Our Government has no power except that granted it by the people. It is time to check and reverse the growth of government which shows signs of having grown beyond the consent of the governed. – 1981
- It is time for us to realize that we’re too great a nation to limit ourselves to small dreams. We’re not, as some would have us believe, doomed to an inevitable decline. I do not believe in a fate that will fall on us no matter what we do. I do believe in a fate that will fall on us if we do nothing. So, with all the creative energy at our command, let us begin an era of national renewal. Let us renew our determination, our courage, and our strength. And let us renew our faith and our hope. We have every right to dream heroic dreams. Those who say that we’re in a time when there are no heroes, they just don’t know where to look. – 1981
- Government’s view of the economy could be summed up in a few short phrases: If it moves, tax it. If it keeps moving, regulate it. And if it stops moving, subsidize it. – 1986
- How do you tell a Communist? Well, it’s someone who reads Marx and Lenin. And how do you tell an anti-Communist? It’s someone who understands Marx and Lenin.– 1987
- The nine most terrifying words in the English language are “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help. – 1986
- You can’t be for big government, big taxes, and big bureaucracy and still be for the little guy. – 1988
- I hope we once again have reminded people that man is not free unless government is limited. There’s a clear cause and effect here that is as neat and predictable as a law of physics: As government expands, liberty contracts. – 1989
- Whatever else history may say about me when I’m gone, I hope it will record that I appealed to your best hopes, not your worst fears; to your confidence rather than your doubts. My dream is that you will travel the road ahead with liberty’s lamp guiding your steps and opportunity’s arm steadying your way. – 1989
- Let’s close the place down and see if anybody notices. – 1995 (on the federal government shutdown)