Ronald Reagan’s Inauguration as 40th president of the United States occurred 25 years ago, on January 20th, 1981. At the time, I was in the audience with my mother, listening intently to the loud speakers some distance away from the West End of the White House. On special leave from West Point, having been a part of Reagan’s youth—and no one had excited young people to politics like he had, at least not since Kennedy—I had worked in a volunteer capacity for this day since 1976. Indeed, I had been in the audience too at the Republican National Convention in Kansas City in ’76, the youngest one there, my trip having been sponsored by the youth organization for Ford—when Ford won the nomination, and Ronald Reagan stole my heart. I share this with you, in order to convey a sense of the historical, as well as an individual connection to it. Your connection may or may not be as personal, as regards Reagan and his Inauguration, but we all do live in time and are shaped and influenced by the currents of history. At times, we are even privileged to swim against the tide, and maybe to feel the tide as it changes. The Reagan Revolution was a great moment in history, and I am prideful merely to have been alive at the time.
I am mindful, however, that the Reagan Revolution has not been completed, at least not to the full extent, as I understood it then. Now let me state, that there are disagreements within the conservative movement, in terms of just what this Revolution entailed. But I was a student of politics at the time and listened to what Reagan said. I cannot agree that Reagan would have supported the runaway spending in Washington, and the concentration of power in the federal government. He would no doubt have supported the War on Terrorism, possibly even before 9/11. He probably would have supported the invasion of Iraq, although we cannot know how his execution of that war would have differed. In no wise, however, would he have refrained from using his veto to cut out Republican or Democratic pork. It is hard to imagine we could have doubted his intent to nominate conservative judges, especially after an election mandate to do so. He would not have sanctioned the trade of sacred American rights, in a cynically named "Patriot Act"—without sunset provision or oversight—for a parcel of Executive perk and privilege, and the shirk of responsibility to live according to the rule of law, including the organic law of the Constitution. The Reagan Revolution also has not succeeded to the extent of redressing the imbalance of power between the States and federal government, effectively restoring federalism. "New Federalism" was something the modern conservative movement talked about and promised to do, from Goldwater to Nixon to Reagan. Somehow that notion was high-jacked in the ’90s by a conservative nationalist and crusading zealotry to keep and hold power, instead of returning it to the people, in order to administer the Welfare State simply "better" than liberals. Conservatives would spend money on better things, in other words, but with the same level and national prerogative of control. Fascism is perhaps better than communism, but if neoconservatives have more or less implemented Reagan’s vision abroad (which I’m not prepared without serious caveat to say they have), they have failed in the most miserable fashion to restore self-determination and meaningful freedom to the people at the State and local level.
Self-determination and meaningful freedom at the State and local level does not include Republican sponsorship of a mega-state that subsumes everything to it. It does not sanction the transmogrification of avowedly conservative political platforms to the embrace of extra-constitutional powers, because ends do not justify the means—at least not to free peoples. The "conservative" Congress and President have essentially adapted Franklin Roosevelt’s own sleight of hand: speaking in tongues, to convince the American people they need rights not found in the Constitution—the right to a job, to food and to clothing, to medical care and to an education—all guaranteed by the federal government. These things are of course vitally important, necessary for life or the quality of life in fact, but they are the province of free minds, free markets and free men. They are not to be had or sustained from a guaranteed dole out, levied and redistributed as all things are by the federal government, breaking the backs of productive and working citizens. If you want to subsidize education or healthcare, find a constitutional way (through tax deduction, tax credit, or facilitation of choice) to do it. Top-down bureaucratic control of matters that are essentially local or private or both, is not what the Founders had in mind. It isn’t what the Reagan Revolution was about either. To paraphrase Larry Arnn, president of Hillsdale College, Michigan, the importance of things like education, food and medicine have been known to practically any fool since the start of civil society. The question is how these things should be provided! The Founders practiced the art of constitutional government, under which government is limited and people have the right to provide for themselves. Under this system one gets more food, more medicine and more education than under bureaucratic rule. One also gets his liberty under the law—which is, as yet, an unfulfilled promise of the Reagan Revolution 25 years later.
Wes Allen Riddle is a retired military officer with degrees and honors from West Point and Oxford. Widely published in the academic and opinion press, he ran for U.S. Congress (TX-District 31) in the 2004 Republican Primary.