Thumbs Down on the Reagan Years


Assessing the Reagan Years, edited by David Boaz, Washington, D.C.: Cato Institute, 431 pages, $14.95 paper

The American political movement opposed to collectivism at home and abroad is split over whether the Reagan presidency was a net gain or loss. The Cato Institute, never supportive of Ronald Reagan the candidate but quite willing to take advantage of his periodic libertarian rhetoric in office, has published an essay collection tilted decidedly toward the critical camp.

Assessing the Reagan Years, edited by Cato vice president David Boaz, faults the administration's fiscal policies for failing to provide a better check on congressional spending and to attend sufficiently to incentives while cutting tax rates. Its contributions to monetary and banking affairs are seen as spotty. Its management of military and foreign policy is found to be greatly a shambles, government is still growing on the domestic front, and the judiciary (conservatives will no doubt disagree) has mostly moved in the wrong direction.

Many of the 31 analysts are drawn from Cato's familiar stable of speakers and authors, as well as its staff. Enthusiasm over the president's record is limited to installments by U.S. Chamber of Commerce economist Richard Rahn and Malcolm S. (Steve) Forbes, Jr., deputy editor of the magazine his father heads. For the most part, the book projects a pessimism that contrasts starkly with conservatives' prevailing satisfaction with the Reagan legacy.

Supply-side elder Norman Ture, initially a Reagan Treasury official, decries the 1986 tax revision for undoing many of the earlier changes that had boosted investment and productivity. He sees no equity rationale for having enacted the great Tax Reform, yet he doesn't discuss the heavier payroll taxes that skewed the tax burden in the early '80s.

Jerry L. Jordan, who served early on with Cato chairman William Niskanen on Reagan's Council of Economic Advisers, sees the dollar devaluation engineered by Treasury Secretary James Baker beginning in late 1985 as a form of inflation, "a tax no one has to vote for." It was the administration's way of engendering widespread and false prosperity—"monetary protectionism (as) an alternative to legislated protectionism." He suggests that the strong dollar of the first term was a reward for correct policymaking and implies that trade imbalances and depressed industries are best left alone.

Defense policy, too, comes under fire. Early Pentagon escapee Lawrence Korb finds that his Reaganite colleagues raised military spending precipitously (double the growth rate planned by President Carter as he left office), only to have to bring it down abruptly as part of the belt tightening forced by the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Act. Ronald Reagan may therefore "have the dubious distinction of presiding over the biggest defense buildup and the biggest defense decline in the nation's history." Korb's criticisms would seem more even-handed had he included congressional pork-padding and micromanagement in his indictment.

Doug Bandow, a Cato hand, jumps on the administration in which he, too, briefly served for continuing the promotion of socialism abroad through U.S. multilateral aid programs. This abject failure of the Reagan team has occurred notwithstanding the worldwide movement toward market economies, which the domestic example of the United States and others has helped to foster. The particular culpability of George Shultz and other administration "pragmatists" in this area has sometimes been lost amid strident conservative criticism of them. However, the dismal record is all the more disappointing for the fact that ideological gains could have been had in foreign aid at next to no political cost at home.

Some of the book's particularly well-founded criticisms actually deserve lengthier treatment than they receive. For example, Peter J. Ferrara, the nation's leading advocate of a private social security alternative, recalls only at the end of his essay the administration's fateful steps, completed in 1988, toward the "catastrophic coverage" expansion of Medicare. Yet this, along with the bailout of depository institutions, is clearly the most expensive legacy of statism left by the Reagan years.

In criticizing the Reagan era, the book's authors do come to some damning conclusions. Robert Crandall of the Brookings Institution, for example, finds that "the real cost of the most expensive regulatory problems has risen more rapidly under Reagan than under Carter." Congress is due for more blame than Crandall (or this book in general) gives it, but often it is the president's own men who were at work. Witness the October 1988 article in the Wall Street Journal by a former midlevel official in Reagan's Justice Department bragging about how his team had gone to court more often in the name of pollution control than any previous group of prosecutors.

At other times, some authors in this collection probably expected too much from the Reagan administration and were bound to find disappointment. Thus Morgan Reynolds ruefully concludes that "certainly there was no tampering with federal labor law, nor its statist ideology." He only grudgingly praises the progress against union monopolies scored before Ray Donovan was forced out of the cabinet and the AFL-CIO got cozy with the regulators again.

On legal philosophy, Assessing the Reagan Years clearly parts company with conservative appraisals. Cato's legal beagles want a natural-rights interpretation of the Constitution, and the Bork nomination split them off from most of the conservative coalition. Remarkably, in the wake of Bork's defeat, they almost obtained, in Douglas Ginsburg, a Supreme Court justice of their dreams—as a gift from Ed Meese, no less! Ginsburg's abrupt demise in a mini-scandal, however, shattered that hope and ought to have reminded the libertarian lawyers (as Bernard Siegan's later defeat for an appellate court seat should have also) how powerless they are against the statist-liberals without a controlling conservative alliance. Where that alliance did hold sway, the Reaganites emplaced judges who are in many instances making sounder the rule of law.

In Clarence Thomas, one of the administration's most interesting members as head of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Boaz found the perfect man to discuss Reagan's civil-rights policies. However, his essay is itself a disappointment, as it doesn't discuss his reported disagreements with other shapers of the Reagan policy; instead, Thomas hews to the party line against the political foes who vanquished that policy. He places blame not on Reagan policymakers but on their inability to overcome opposing forces—the principle of color-blind law was routed at nearly every turn by interest group accounting of who ends up with what.

Nonetheless, Thomas never fails to intrigue: near the end of his chapter he quotes from Barry Goldwater's remarks about the "whole man" in his 1964 acceptance speech in San Francisco. These words (actually an elaboration on what he had told the GOP convention four years earlier) were, I believe, the last time an undiluted expression of natural-rights philosophy was heard in American presidential politics. That Thomas should summon them, especially given that they were spoken by the man who symbolized the Republican Party's break from the progressive civil-rights orthodoxy, only makes you hunger for more reflection from him about Reaganism and the immutability of black voting patterns.

Neoconservative-cum-libertarian social critic Paul H. Weaver winds down the book with what could be considered an epitaph of the whole collection. He laments that "an administration that should have been a source of new ideas and stimulator of public debate has been a giant wet blanket smothering our political and cultural life." The past seven years, he says, will be known for "hustling, hypocrisy, lying, sleaze and stasis."

Some conservatives who've staked their intellectual capital on the success of the "Reagan Revolution" will find all this to be small-minded carping, given what they say Reagan has brought: sweeping changes in the American political debate, dramatic cuts in tax rates, and a sometimes bold reassertion of the U.S. role in the world. To others, however, the picture is different: a Republican Party still on the defensive, promising a dime-store welfare state; bigger government relative to the size of the economy, with higher trade barriers and an effective tax burden that is weightier for most Americans; and a foreign policy whose apparent successes cannot mask its actual failures on the ground in Lebanon and in much of Central America. The Cato crowd has prepared a rough brew that is tonic all the same.

Tim W. Ferguson is editorial features editor of the Wall Street Journal.