It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.
—Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
It's easy to understand the euphoria felt by our conservative friends and colleagues at the Reagan landslide. More clearly than in any election in decades, the voters had a sharp choice between less government and more of the same. And overwhelmingly they opted for less.
At the same time, however, we share the concern of many libertarians over what else the election may signify:
• A political debt to the New Right/Moral Majority crowd, which could mean setbacks for the legitimate rights of women, homosexuals, and others to equality before the law.
• A runaway defense budget, responding to widespread perception of military inadequacies by the usual government expedient of throwing money at the problem.
• Increased risk of war, brought on by an increased tendency for the US government to intervene in local crises around the globe.
• Abandonment of real change (that is, abolition of departments and programs) in an effort to placate numerous interest groups that are committed to the status quo, thereby preserving the new majority.
The challenge for advocates of freedom is to seize the opportunity provided by the electorate's endorsement of the GOP's rhetorical commitment to our ideas—limiting the size of government, relying more on the free market, expanding individual rights, providing sound defense—while simultaneously pressuring the new administration to resist dangerous antilibertarian overtures.
To begin with the "family" or "morality" issues, it must be stressed that not even as a matter of political pay-offs does Reagan owe a special debt to the New Religious Right. His landslide encompassed all regions of the country, blue-collars as well as white, women as well as men, Jews as well as Christians, and numerous Democrats and independents. Thus, no special interest group has a particular claim to favored treatment by the Reagan administration.
All of that notwithstanding, it seems to us that there are ways in which the new administration could respond legitimately to the concerns of many Christians over moral issues. Where federal programs require taxpayer-funded schools to inculcate moral values—whether sex education or prayers—those programs ought to be abolished. Where the taxes of people who believe abortion is—literally—murder are taken from them to pay for abortion, it is legitimate to ask government to step aside, leaving this troubling issue to be resolved privately. Where government would force people to hire or rent to people whose sexual preferences they find morally intolerable, it is legitimate to end such requirements. None of these moves would infringe any individual rights. On the contrary, they would bar government from areas in which it has no business interfering.
In the field of defense, the preliminary Reagan budget is staggering in its scope—immediate production of the B-1 bomber, development of a new bomber, increased production of Trident submarines and missiles, acceleration of the MX missile program, deployment of more Minuteman missiles, a new antiballistic missile system, increased R&D on space-based laser antimissile systems…the list goes on and on. What is missing from this laundry-list approach is any clear relationship between means and ends, or the thoughtful application of cost- effectiveness principles to the sphere of military defense. Such a brute-force effort might impress the Soviets and US allies. But it will also cost US taxpayers far more than an effective defense needs to cost.
The Reagan approach to foreign policy appears to echo the Carter/Brzezinski commitment to US intervention in trouble spots everywhere, with differences only in emphasis and in choices of heroes and villains. In the area where this approach is most likely to lead to war—the Persian gulf—the Reagan team appears unable to appreciate the connection between its energy policy proposals and its defense plans. The whole rationale for possible Persian Gulf intervention is that "vital US interests" are at stake—namely, the flow of oil. Yet if the administration succeeds in accomplishing what its platform and Reagan's rhetoric have promised—immediate decontrol of oil and gas prices and abolition of the Department of Energy and its regulations—US dependence on Persian Gulf oil (and on imported oil generally) could be substantially eliminated (see Trends, p. 16). Either the Reagan planning teams have been working in isolation from one another, or they aren't really serious about their energy program.
This brings us to the final concern, the temptation to abandon the "radical" less-government vision and return to politics as usual. Here is where libertarians and Young Turk conservatives must be especially vigilant. Never before has there been such an apparent mandate for cutting back the American State. And never before has there been such a wealth of creative new ideas from libertarian and conservative sources, among them:
• The Cato Institute's imaginative and carefully worked-out plan for phasing out the bankrupt Social Security system and replacing it with economically sound Individual Retirement Accounts.
• The Heritage Foundation's "alternative budget" proposals to replace numerous aid-to-cities boondoggles with urban enterprise zones, promoting revitalization by the private sector instead of the bureaucracy.
• The Reason Foundation's forthcoming proposals for marketplace alternatives to the major federal regulatory agencies—OSHA, ICC, FCC, FDA, etc.
The time is right for such new ideas. The intellectual groundwork has been laid over the past two decades. And now political conditions have opened the door for their implementation. It is up to us to seize the day, to use this opportunity to roll back the State, on both economic and family issues, both at home and abroad.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "What Kind of Mandate?".