"I don't believe in a government that protects us from ourselves."
Those of us concerned about liberty have had good reason of late to be interested in Ronald Reagan. Increasingly, California's former governor has been turning up in first place among Republican figures in political opinion polls, among Independents as well as Republicans. In addition, in recent months Reagan has taken to using the term "libertarian" (or "libertarian-conservative") to describe his political philosophy. All of which naturally made us interested in taking a closer look at the man and his ideas. Thanks to the efforts of the late Ned Hutchinson (a former Reagan aide), REASON was able to obtain time out of Reagan's busy schedule for him to be interviewed by Editor Manuel S. Klausner.
Ronald Wilson Reagan was born in Illinois in 1911. After a varied career as a radio sports announcer, motion picture actor, and TV host, Reagan became active in conservative politics. After achieving national publicity for his televised speeches for Barry Goldwater in 1964, Reagan went on to win the California governorship in 1966 and was re-elected to a second four-year term in 1970. Throughout his eight years in office, Reagan stressed the idea of holding down the size and cost of government, nonetheless, the state budget increased from $5.7 billion to $10.8 billion during his time in office.
Reagan did institute property and inventory tax cuts, but during his tenure the sales tax was increased to six percent and withholding was introduced to the state income tax system. Under Reagan's administration, state funding for public schools (grades K-12) increased 105 percent (although enrollment went up only 5 percent), state support for junior colleges increased 323 percent, and grants and loans to college students increased 900 percent Reagan's major proposal to hold down the cost of government was a constitutional amendment to limit state spending to a specified (slowly declining) percentage of the gross income of the state's population. The measure was submitted to the voters as an initiative measure, Proposition One, but was defeated when liberal opponents pictured it as a measure that would force local tax increases.
Reagan instituted a major overhaul of the state welfare system that reduced the total welfare caseload (which had been rapidly increasing) while raising benefits by 30 percent and increasing administrative costs. He encouraged the formation of HMO-like prepaid health care plans for MediCal patients, a move that has drawn mixed reactions from the medical community. His federally-funded Office of Criminal Justice Planning made large grants to police agencies for computers and other expensive equipment, and funded (among other projects) a large-scale research effort on how to prosecute pornographers more effectively. He several times vetoed legislation to reduce marijuana possession to a misdemeanor, and signed legislation sharply increasing penalties for drug dealers
Thus, Reagan's record, while generally conservative, is not particularly libertarian. But one's administrative decisions, constrained as they are by existing laws, institutions, and politics, do not necessarily mirror one's underlying philosophy. We were therefore curious to find out more about the real Ronald Reagan. Looking relaxed and healthy despite his 64 years and a hectic schedule, Reagan welcomed us to his Los Angeles office on Wilshire Boulevard and talked political philosophy with us for over an hour. Here is what we learned.
REASON: Governor Reagan, you have been quoted in the press as saying that you're doing a lot of speaking now on behalf of the philosophy of conservatism and libertarianism. Is there a difference between the two?
REAGAN: If you analyze it I believe the very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism. I think conservatism is really a misnomer just as liberalism is a misnomer for the liberals—if we were back in the days of the Revolution, so-called conservatives today would be the Liberals and the liberals would be the Tories. The basis of conservatism is a desire for less government interference or less centralized authority or more individual freedom and this is a pretty general description also of what libertarianism is.
Now, I can't say that I will agree with all the things that the present group who call themselves Libertarians in the sense of a party say, because I think that like in any political movement there are shades, and there are libertarians who are almost over at the point of wanting no government at all or anarchy. I believe there are legitimate government functions. There is a legitimate need in an orderly society for some government to maintain freedom or we will have tyranny by individuals. The strongest man on the block will run the neighborhood. We have government to insure that we don't each one of us have to carry a club to defend ourselves. But again, I stand on my statement that I think that libertarianism and conservatism are travelling the same path.
REASON: Governor, could you give us some examples of what you would consider to be proper functions of government?
REAGAN: Well, the first and most important thing is that government exists to protect us from each other. Government exists, of course, for the defense of the nation, and for the defense of the rights of the individual. Maybe we don't all agree on some of the other accepted functions of government, such as fire departments and police departments—again the protection of the people.
REASON: Are you suggesting that fire departments would be a necessary and proper function of government?
REAGAN: Yes. I know that there was a time back in history in which fire departments were private and you insured your house and then had an emblem on the front of your house which identified which company was responsible for protecting it against fire. I believe today, because of the manner in which we live, that, you can make a pretty good case for our public fire departments—because there are very few ways that you can handle fire in one particular structure today without it representing a threat to others.
REASON: How would you distinguish "socialized" fire departments and "socialized" fire insurance companies? Or would you be in favor of socialized fire insurance also?
REAGAN: No. Nor am I in favor of socialized medicine. But, there's bound to be a grey area, an area in there in which you ask is this government protecting us from ourselves or is this government protecting us from each other.
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.