The Book Club

Reagan’s Triumph Over Collectivism

Dear Alan:

Now you’ve done it. You have ruined our chance to make history by achieving almost complete unanimity. I knew this bipartisanship was too good to last. Oh well, back to the battlefront.

I don’t want to fall into the trap of disagreeing with you by defending Edmund Morris. I’ll concede that in the areas where Morris embraces Reaganism, it’s generally for wrong and simple-minded reasons. The amazing truth, which I take it you accept, is that it is Morris and not Reagan who is the political simpleton.

So why don’t we leave poor Morris behind to enjoy his Robert Frost and Edna Millay? And let’s examine the two main elements of Reaganism: his attack on the welfare state and his role in the collapse of the Soviet Union. Actually, Reagan saw these as a single crusade. His life was devoted to challenging and discrediting collectivism. For Reagan, Soviet communism was only the most grotesque version of the collectivist impulse. Reagan devoted his career to bringing down the “evil empire.” But Reagan was equally determined to discredit the Great Society because he didn’t trust intellectuals to plan the economy, and he (correctly) worried that high taxes and government programs like welfare would diminish individual freedom and responsibility.

In practice, Reagan didn’t cut domestic spending very much. Actually, government spending on domestic programs grew under Reagan. I think this is the price that Reagan consciously paid for fighting the Cold War. He knew that the Democratic House, led by Tip O’Neill, would never agree to cut domestic programs and put the money into B-1 bombers. So Reagan settled for keeping government domestic spending roughly constant, while he focused his energy on defense hikes aimed, as he put it, at inviting the Soviets into an arms race that they couldn’t win.

But if Reagan lost the battle to control domestic spending, he won the war over the larger question of the growth of the welfare state. Reagan launched a powerful moral attack on the idea of Big Government. He challenged the idea, popularized by JFK, that if you were an idealistic American, you should join the Peace Corps or do “public service,” in other words, become a bureaucrat. Reagan denounced the bureaucrat as a do-nothing and a loser, and celebrated the entrepreneur as one of the highest embodiments of American creativity and possibility. And I think that Reagan prevailed. The era of the welfare state that began with FDR effectively ended with RR. Bill Clinton admitted as much when he said “the era of big government is over.” Today it’s a settled question that markets, not intellectuals and bureaucrats, run the economy.

Alan, I expect that you think this is a bad outcome. I’m not trying to change your mind about this. But I am trying to establish that it is Reagan who brought about the change. Previous Republicans such as Eisenhower, Nixon, and Ford had made their peace with the welfare state. Their view was that Republicans would run programs with greater attention to fiscal responsibility than Democrats. Reagan, by contrast, proclaimed that “government is not the solution, government is the problem.” He launched a principled attack on the notion that government is more capable of running the country than the private sector. And we have Reagan to thank (or blame) for the era that we’re living in now: the era of the entrepreneur.

So what about the Soviet Union? My view is that two people deserve the credit for the fall of the evil empire: Reagan and Gorbachev. Of these two, Reagan deserves the greater praise because he predicted the collapse of the Soviet regime, intended the outcome, and implemented policies aimed at producing that result. Gorbachev, by contrast, desperately tried to save the regime, adopted glasnost and perestroika to that end, and saw the system blow up in his face.

Your theory, which is that the Soviet empire suffered from “grave internal weakness” and collapsed of its own weight, makes little sense to me. If you are referring to economic inefficiencies, I am not aware of any weaknesses that the Soviets suffered in the ‘80s that were not also present during the ‘70s (or the ‘60s, or the ‘50s, or any decade since the Bolsheviks came to power). The Soviet economy has always been a basket case and the butt of grim jokes.

Moreover, even if the ‘80s dramatized Soviet economic incompetence because the U.S. economy was growing so rapidly, this is no reason for the Soviet empire to implode in the way that it did. There is simply no historical precedent for a large empire calling it quits because it could not compete economically or technologically. As you know, the Roman and the Ottoman empires suffered from “grave internal weaknesses” but persisted for centuries. Why should a ruling elite give up power because the gross national product is declining or because the country is falling behind technologically?

I cannot hope to settle this large issue here. Nor am I claiming that Reagan single-handedly produced the result. The pope was critical, especially in Poland. Margaret Thatcher, Lech Walesa, and Vaclav Havel all performed important supporting roles. And the West benefited from the appointment of Gorbachev, an incompetent but good-natured fellow who played his part as the opposing team’s quarterback who kept throwing interceptions.

But Reagan was the prime architect of Soviet collapse. He united the Western coalition, and he led Gorbachev over the precipice. I honestly believe that if Reagan and Gorbachev had not come to power when they did–if Brezhnev had lived, and if Carter had served a second term, and Mondale and Dukakis had succeeded him–the Soviet empire would be intact today. I asked Czech president Vaclav Havel about this when he came to Washington a few years ago, and he agreed wholeheartedly with my analysis. And Henry Kissinger, no fan of Ronald Reagan, acknowledges in his book Diplomacy that Reagan’s role in bringing about the end of the Soviet empire represents “the greatest diplomatic feat in the second half of the twentieth century.”

I think history will vindicate that judgment. I don’t expect today’s generation of historians, many of whom opposed Reagan all their lives, to admit their errors. But the new generation of historians, who won’t have a personal stake in opposing Reagan, will recognize his achievement. As for me, I wrote my book about Reagan because I’d like to see him get at least some of the recognition he deserves during his lifetime.