Inside Ronald Reagan

A Reason Interview

(Page 2 of 7)

I don’t believe in a government that protects us from ourselves. I have illustrated this many times by saying that I would recognize the right of government to say that someone who rode a motorcycle had to protect the public from himself by making certain provisions about his equipment and the motorcycle–the same as we do with an automobile. I disagree completely when government says that because of the number of head injuries from accidents with motorcycles that he should be forced to wear a helmet. I happen to think he’s stupid if he rides a motorcycle without a helmet, but that’s one of our sacred rights–to be stupid.

But to show you how these grey areas can creep in, the other day I was saying this to a man who happens to be a neurosurgeon, and who has treated many cases of this particular kind of injury and accident, and he disagreed with me on this issue. He disagreed with me on the basis of the individuals who become public charges as a result of permanent damage–he has pointed to an area where it does go over into not just hurting the individuals directly involved but now imposes on others also. I only use this extreme example to show that when we come down to government and what it should or should not do for the good of the people and for protecting us from each other, you do come into some grey areas and I think here there will be disagreements between conservatives and libertarians.

So, I think the government has legitimate functions. But I also think our greatest threat today comes from government’s involvement in things that are not government’s proper province. And in those things government has a magnificent record of failure.

REASON: Could you give some examples of what areas you’re talking about?

REAGAN: Well, many of them in the regulatory fields of our private enterprise sector. We’ve noticed, for example, that for half-a-century the railroads have been saying that they could take care of themselves and would have no problems–if they could be freed from a great many government regulations and the ICC. Finally their plight was such that the government had to take over the passenger traffic with Amtrak and one of the first things that Amtrak did was ask to be relieved of the ICC regulations!

REASON: Are you in favor of decontrolling the railroads and the other regulated industries?

REAGAN: Yes. Again this comes down to the point at which we get into regulations that are for the protection of the people. I don’t think anyone suggests that we should do away with those regulations which insure safety for the passengers in transportation. I don’t think that we should do away with those regulations in the field of pure foods and so forth, that make sure that some unscrupulous individual can’t sell us canned meat that gives us botulism. But, we start with those legitimate areas and then we go on and regulations just keep spreading like spores of a fungus until we find that they literally are taking away the rights of management to make business decisions with regard to their competition.

REASON: Governor, are you familiar with economist Sam Peltzman’s work on the Food and Drug Administration, where he pointed out the high cost of entry now and the very high cost of developing and bringing in new drugs to the market?

REAGAN: Well, I’ve used some figures of my own– maybe he’s responsible for them. I’ve been trying to keep track of some of these things and in my own talks have pointed out that now we’ve added about $200,000,000 to the cost of drugs because of these regulations. I know of one particular drug firm, which just a few years ago, could license a drug with some 70 pages of supporting data. Today it takes that same company 73,000 pages for an additional drug. I know that there’s been about a 60 percent drop in the development of new drugs in this country.

But here again, it’s the degree to which it’s done. We want the protection of knowing that a drug on the shelf is not going to poison us or have an adverse effect, and yet the FDA has gone beyond that point. It’s a little bit like the cyclamate question-: feeding 20 rats cyclamates and then destroying millions of dollars of artificially sweetened soft drinks because it’s "hazardous to our health," and then only years later, do we find out that to eat an amount of cyclamate equivalent to what the rats were given we’d have to drink 875 bottles of soft drink a day!

REASON: Don’t you think the Food and Drug Administration basically serves the Big Brother role, the protectionist role, and that the free market could adequately deal with it in the absence of the regulations?

REAGAN: Well, if they would. And I’m sure the free market would today, but remember that the FDA was born at a time when people in this country were being killed. Back in the Spanish American War, for instance, we lost soldiers who were sent poisoned canned meat and this is when the scandal erupted that led to the pure food laws.

Maybe what we should look at are those areas where government should be a "Big Brother" in ensuring that the private sector is doing the job. In other words, suppose the whole food industry would police itself. Then I think government would have a legitimate place in keeping a watchful eye on them to make sure that industry did not gradually, for profit, erode the standards. This I think could hold true with a great many other things.

REASON: What about higher education? Is there a proper role for government in providing a university education?

REAGAN: Well, I think here there’s been an exaggeration. Originally public education was based on the idea that you cannot have our kind of society without a literate citizenry. If you’re going to have government of, by and for the people, then you’re going to have a citizenry that is able to read, and to make decisions at the polls. It then extended to higher education because there was a segment of our society that could not get education. Now you wonder why government didn’t think in terms of saying, "We will provide an education for the individual that can’t provide for himself, but we’ll do it by way of the private sector universities." Then they would have expanded and there would be more private universities and they would be far cheaper than they are today.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • ||

    I like Reagan, but I wonder sometimes how different and how better the world might be had he read Atlas Shrugged. Oh if only!

  • ||

    I have a feeling he did. Google Reagan and "Red Hen" - he had his own mini-fable version of Atlas Shrugged that he told many times.

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    Remember kids, all right thinking people in the 1970s thought Reagan was stupid. Just a senile old man and a dumb actor. People said as bad or worse things about Reagan than they say today about Sarah Palin. He was absolutely demonized.

    You read that interview and you may not agree with everything. But it is remarkable how smart the guy was and how well thoughtout his views were. And moreover how much higher of a level he spoke at than politicians of today. Can you imagine Nancy Pelosi or McCAin or our alledged Willie Coyote super genius in the Whitehouse giving an interview that plain spoken and well thought out? I can't.

  • ||

    I was just thinking along these precise lines while reading this.

    While I'm not a huge Reagan fan, there is simply no comparison between him and Sarah Palin. It's laughable to consider her giving an off-the-cuff interview half this intelligent, knowledgeable, and clear.

    Yeah, a formidable individual whatever your opinion of his politics or policies.

  • DDavis||

    That's what occurred to me too.

    Seeing Reagan refer to the views of Lenin was an eye opener. Seeing the references to Von Mises and Hayek and Bastiat were less surprising in terms of content, but a little surprising in terms of intellectualism.

    I had always considered Reagan smart, but thought that he had just worked out a decent political philosophy on his own over a period of years.

  • Dickhead||

    I know all are too lazy to question what doesn't agree with us. But what of the Spanish American War? Did you know a powerful politician overruled an army leader (who wanted to just kill local animals for protein as armies had always done) to direct business to hometown Chicago meat companies? So did the free market cause that problem or large government cronyism? I always ask persons who think the government FDA protects us (actually it protects the producers) why would a private company, that has no leverage but the quality of its product, intentionally harm its customers? In a real free market, a company harming its customers no longer has customers. Instead the FDA promotes shoddy quality.

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    We have a core problem in United States the Withholding /Compliance / Lobbying System as it effectively runs our country. A repeal of the 16th must happen and the Fair Tax Act is a painless way of doing that.

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