Monthly Archives: February 2017

Ronald Reagan Hated Big Government Like a Rat Hates Cheese, Part 7: Gun Control

Here we come to what will probably be the last post in this series. Reagan was the first presidential candidate endorsed by the NRA, shortly after it shifted from a largely nonpartisan, pro-gun control organization to a pro-Republican, anti-gun control organization. In death, he has been invoked to defend gun rights. One meme of Reagan reads, “Survives Bullet Wound From Assassination Attempt; Continued to Protect Gun Rights for Citizens.” This statement is only true in the sense that, like most American presidents, Reagan never explicitly disputed the very basic right of citizens to own some sorts of firearms under certain conditions. In that sense, Barack Obama protected gun rights for citizens. But if “protected gun rights for citizens” means that Reagan was a firm opponent of excessive restrictions on gun ownership, then the claim is incorrect.

Many, though not all, of America’s early gun control laws were aimed at keeping guns out of the hands of black people and thus preventing slave rebellions and later on, rebellions against Jim Crow. Long after the days of slavery, race arguably played a role in stricter gun control in California. In 1965, a long history of systemic racism led to the Watts Riots. The following year, the Black Panther Party was formed. I will not attempt to sanitize the Black Panther Party. There was plenty to criticize about the organization, as well as some major commendable aspects. Nonetheless, it is true that the organization emerged in response to systemic racism, which Reagan did his part in perpetuating. According to PBS.org, “Members of the BPP would listen to police calls on a short wave radio, rush to the scene of the arrest with law books in hand and inform the person being arrested of their constitutional rights. BPP members also happened to carry loaded weapons, which were publicly displayed, but were careful to stand no closer than ten feet from the arrest so as not to interfere with the arrest.” In 1967, the California state government passed a law called the Mulford Bill “prohibiting the carrying of firearms on one’s person or in a vehicle, in any public place or on any public street.” There is no way of proving that this bill was solely a response to the Black Panther Party, and it is quite possible that there were other contributing factors. Nevertheless, there is also no disputing the fact that fear of the Black Panther Party, both from legitimately anti-racist people and from bigots, played a major role in the Mulford Bill. The press nicknamed it “the Panther Bill.” Reagan signed it. He also signed a state law imposing a mandatory 15-day waiting period for gun purchases; someone needing an emergency purchase to protect themselves from a stalker was out of luck. The waiting period in the law that Reagan signed was three times as long as the one that would later be contained in the Brady Bill. (More on that later.)

As president, Reagan hobnobbed with the NRA but walked a tightrope on gun issues. He signed the Firearm Owners Protection Act, which was popular with many gun rights activists and weakened the Gun Control Act of 1968. But this new legislation included a ban on fully automatic rifles. After his presidency, Reagan defended stricter gun control measures on at least three occasions. The month after he left office, Reagan gave a speech in which he stated, “I do not believe in taking away the right of the citizen for sporting, for hunting and so forth, or for home defense. ” Nonetheless, “I do believe that an AK-47, a machine gun, is not a sporting weapon or needed for defense of a home.” In a 1991 editorial, he wrote in support of the Brady Bill and went so far as to defend the portion of the bill mandating a seven-day waiting period for gun purchases (reduced to five before passage). Reagan asserted that, “since many handguns are acquired in the heat of passion (to settle a quarrel, for example) or at times of depression brought on by potential suicide, the Brady bill would provide a cooling-off period that would certainly have the effect of reducing the number of handgun deaths.” Additionally, he lumped mentally ill people, even those with no criminal records or pattern of violent behavior, with murderers. He asserted, “While there has been a Federal law on the books for more than 20 years that prohibits the sale of firearms to felons, fugitives, drug addicts and the mentally ill, it has no enforcement mechanism and basically works on the honor system, with the purchaser filling out a statement that the gun dealer sticks in a drawer.” No one would deny that some handguns are bought spur of the moment for murders or suicides. Yet as referenced earlier, waiting periods also penalize people in imminent danger from stalkers or other criminals in situations when police are unable or unwilling to protect them. Representative Bernie Sanders voted against the bill, creating a bizarrely humorous dichotomy: a Democratic Socialist was to the left of a conservative icon on gun control.

In 1994, Reagan joined with Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford in signing a letter supporting a federal assault weapons ban. Reagan’s position on assault weapons was an implicit contradiction of what he had written in a 1975 edition of the Guns and Ammo magazine to gin up support for a primary challenge to Ford. “The gun … ” Reagan had written, “insures that the people are the equal of their government whenever that government forgets that it is servant and not master of the governed. When the British forgot that they got a revolution.” Of course, Reagan was well aware that a traditional shotgun is great “for sporting, for hunting and so forth” but not so great for overthrowing a tyrannical government. Generally, armed insurrections against oppressive regimes require assault rifles to have any chance of success. Thus, to appeal to gun owners, Reagan correctly praised gun rights as a tool for a revolution if the government became tyrannical. At the same time, he supported laws to ban precisely the type of weapons needed for a revolution if the government became tyrannical.

These seven blog posts do not represent the full extent of Reagan’s support for big government. I have not discussed his belief in the right of the State to put people to death, his suggestion that “maybe we should not have humored” Native Americans by allowing them tribal sovereignty, his support for military interventionism, or various other policies and views. At the same time, I would not claim that he favored big government in all areas. On many but not all economic issues, Reagan did support reducing government. While he was generally not good on free speech issues, he did at least oppose the Fairness Doctrine. And on immigration, Reagan was at least somewhat libertarian, with his support for amnesty and his acknowledgement, after some prodding, of the cruelty of Japanese American internment. Few people and very few politicians are statist on all issues or libertarian on all issues. Nonetheless, the idea that Reagan (or conservatives in general) were or are strongly for small government in general cannot stand up under close scrutiny. That idea is an “alternative fact.”

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Ronald Reagan Hated Big Government Like a Rat Hates Cheese, Part 6: Federal Spending

 

Thus far, we have examined Reagan’s support for big government on issues where the pro-government position is generally considered right-wing (obscenity laws, State persecution of gay people, and the War on Drugs) or is difficult to classify on the political spectrum (conscription and the drinking age.) The final two posts in this blog series, however, will look at two areas in which conservatives are generally considered to be for small government. The first of these areas is spending. The Right is typically associated with support for lower levels of federal spending and balanced budgets.

Traditionally, Republicans tended to believe that tax levels had to be commensurate with spending levels. This belief dated back to Abraham Lincoln, imposing an income tax to help finance the Civil War. Republican presidents could certainly overspend, but they rarely created budget deficits by combining high spending with low taxes. Despite arguably supporting overly high spending, Eisenhower was able to achieve a balanced budget through maintaining high taxes on the wealthy. In 1963, with both domestic and military spending very high, most House Republicans rejected John F. Kennedy’s tax cuts. Richard Nixon, while certainly spendthrift, nonetheless submitted a balanced budget to Congress. (It was rejected.) This is not to say that high spending and taxes is a form of small government by any means. It is merely to point out that pre-Reagan Republicans mostly tried to avoid massive federal debt and deficits. In the 1970s, however, some fiscal conservatives developed a theory called “Starve the Beast.” This theory was that if taxes were cut, it would force the government to reduce spending, since they would be taking in less money. Additionally, it was believed that the economic boom caused by tax cuts would make some federal spending on public assistance programs unnecessary. In his September 21, 1980 debate with third party candidate, John Anderson, Reagan took this position, with Anderson representing traditional Republicanism. A ten-term Representative from Illinois, Anderson had begun his career as a staunch conservative but had drifted to the center as time went on. His candidacy drew much of its support from Republicans who thought that the party was becoming too conservative. While Anderson stated that he would like to sign on for Reagan’s proposed tax cuts, he maintained, “what I’m going to do is to bring federal spending under control first.” Reagan dismissed this idea thusly: “Now, John’s been in the Congress for 20 years. And John tells us that first, we’ve got to reduce spending before we can reduce taxes. Well, if you’ve got a kid that’s extravagant, you can lecture him all you want to about his extravagance. Or you can cut his allowance and achieve the same end much quicker.” Did Reagan prove this claim correct?

As many people admit, defense spending increased greatly under the Reagan Administration. From 1980 to 1985, for example, annual defense spending more than doubled. In a 1983 speech, Reagan stated, “Now, I know that this is a hard time to call for increased defense spending. It isn’t easy to ask American families who are already making sacrifices in the recession, or American businesses which are struggling to reinvest for the future, and it isn’t easy for someone like me who’s dedicated his entire political career to reducing government spending.” But call for an increase he did. This played an important role in buoying up overall federal spending. According to FactCheck.org, “total federal spending soared” in Reagan’s first term. In addition to defense spending, the tools necessary for the drug war came with a high price tag.  Reagan’s own budget director, former Congressman David Stockman (R-MI) resigned in disgust and published a book in 1986 eviscerating his old boss for not cutting spending along with taxes. Did Reagan’s tax cuts spur enough economic growth to prevent the national debt and budget deficits from ballooning? Far from it. The national debt went from a little under a trillion dollars to almost three trillion, and the debt ceiling was raised seventeen times, while the budget was never balanced. Conservatives often attribute these problems to liberal Democrats in Congress spending heavily on economic programs. And it is certainly true that domestic spending on the economic safety net was very high in the 1980s. But throughout his presidency, Reagan never submitted a balanced budget to Congress. Moreover, these defenders are ignoring the fact that their argument goes against what Reagan himself had claimed in the debate with Anderson. Remember, he had insisted that once taxes were cut, federal spending would decrease accordingly. His own record would prove him wrong.

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Ronald Reagan Hated Big Government Like a Rat Hates Cheese, Part 5: Gay Rights

On July 1, 1975, Reason, a libertarian magazine, published an interview with Ronald Reagan. Reagan was preparing for an unsuccessful attempt to defeat Republican President Gerald Ford in a primary challenge. Reason acknowledged that, “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.” As if to shy away from their own conclusion, however, they added, “But one’s administrative decisions, constrained as they are by existing laws, institutions, and politics, do not necessarily mirror one’s underlying philosophy.” At the beginning of the interview, Reagan stated, “If you analyze it I believe the very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism.” Less than two months earlier, however, Reagan had given the lie to his own claim.

In the 1970s, many states still had anti-sodomy laws on the books. By banning anal and oral sex, these laws effectively outlawed sexual intercourse between same-sex couples. Thus, they both discriminated against gay people and quite literally amounted to government control over what people did in the bedroom. In 1962, Illinois had become the first state to repeal its anti-sodomy law. For the rest of the decade, no other states followed suit. However, in the 1970s, starting with Connecticut in 1971, a number of states began rescinding their bans. In 1969, California Assemblyman and future San Fransisco Mayor Willie Brown began annually introducing a bill that would allow consenting adults to do as they pleased in the bedroom while protecting youth from sexual exploitation. The proposed bill would decriminalize adultery, “fornication,” and “sodomy” while tightening the state bans on nonconsensual sex and sex with minors. Brown was supported by a minority of legislators, as well as the ACLU of Southern California. Nationally, the far Left and the Libertarian Party had some degree of convergence on this issue. In 1971, a young candidate for the Liberty Union Party in Vermont named Bernie Sanders opined, “Let us abolish all laws which attempt to impose a particular brand of morality or ‘right’ on people. Let’s abolish all laws dealing with abortion, drugs, sexual behavior (adultery, homosexuality, etc.).” In its 1972 platform, the Libertarian Party proclaimed, “We favor the repeal of all laws creating “crimes without victims” now incorporated in Federal, state and local laws — such as laws on voluntary sexual relations, drug use, gambling, and attempted suicide.” But in California, as author William N. Eskridge, Jr. explains, “Brown’s bill had little likelihood of being enacted during the administration of Governor Ronald Reagan (1967-1975.)” In 1975, however, Reagan was replaced by Jerry Brown, a young Democrat. That same year, Jerry Brown signed Willie Brown’s repeal bill. It would be difficult to be too hard on Reagan for not pushing repeal of the state’s sodomy law. No previous governor, including his direct predecessor and Jerry Brown’s father, Pat Brown, had taken this courageous step. More disturbing is Reagan’s response to the repeal. In a May interview with Christianity Today, he stated that he would have vetoed the repeal bill, because, “You can make immorality legal, but you cannot make it moral.” While there is a great deal of room for disagreement on specific policy questions within libertarianism, and few people (including this author) are libertarian on all issues, there is simply no way to advocate government prohibition on private, consensual sexual activity between adults and still call oneself a libertarian. Three months later, the Libertarian Party further contrasted itself from Reagan. At its national convention, the party unanimously adopted a resolution affirming their opposition to both sodomy laws and the military’s ban on gay service members.

Much has been made of the fact that in 1978, Reagan opposed Proposition 6, a California ballot initiative that would have banned gay people from teaching in public schools. Although both Jerry Brown and President Carter opposed the initiative also, this commendable stance should not be ignored, especially considering the fact that Florida’s contemporary “liberal” Governor Reubin Askew flatly opposed gay teachers. Nonetheless, this does not erase Reagan’s earlier and later support for government-imposed persecution of gay people. Dan White opposed Proposition 6 while also opposing a gay rights ordinance in San Fransisco. Does that mean he was a gay rights advocate? Of course not. We generally recognize (or should recognize) that support for one aspect of civil rights for a group of people does not magically cancel out opposition to other aspects of civil rights for that group. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, many politicians, from Thomas Jefferson and George Mason to Roger Taney and Jefferson Davis, opposed the African Slave Trade while condoning slavery itself. In the twentieth century, such politicians as Claude Pepper and Strom Thurmond opposed poll taxes while defending segregation.

In fact, Reagan would largely backpedal even from his support of gay public school teachers. In 1986, he was asked about a New York City ordinance outlawing housing and job discrimination against gay people. He could have simply stuck to the issue of private-sector discrimination and repeated his old, contradictory stance on the “right” of businesses to discriminate. Instead, he specifically addressed the issue of gay teachers, lamenting, “But I do have to question sometimes whether individual rights are being defended in this particular field, or whether they are demanding an acceptance of their particular lifestyle that others of us don’t demand. For example, should a teacher in a classroom be invoking their personal habits and advocating them to their students as a way of life?” This response seemed to pivot away from private sector discrimination straight to public sector discrimination, which had been illegal in New York City since 1980. More disturbingly, Reagan seemed to be deliberately conflating a teacher not going out of their way to hide being gay with describing their sexual escapades to students. Perhaps thinking that the president had misunderstood the question, the interviewer pointed out that, “This bill essentially applies the same antidiscriminatory measures as are applied to blacks, as to women, to other people. Do you think that’s all right?” Reagan responded, “How would we feel if a teacher, male or female, a heterosexual, insisted on the right in the classroom to discuss their sexual preferences and why and whether they believed in complete promiscuity or not? We would be quite offended and think that our children should not be exposed to that.” Like the modern day social conservative who considers same-sex couples holding hands to be “flaunting their sexual orientation,” Reagan ignored the fact that gay teachers had been held to standards not imposed on heterosexual teachers. Once restrictions about married women teaching were phased out, a heterosexual teacher could not be fired from their job for referring to their spouses with gendered pronouns. Nor were heterosexual teachers expected to hide from colleagues that they were heterosexual. It was as if Reagan felt some embarrassment about his earlier libertarian stance and was attempting to tacitly disavow it.

Reagan was equally non-libertarian when it came to the issue of government forcing gay people out of the military. His administration implemented a policy clarifying and solidifying the U.S. military’s longstanding ban on gay soldiers. The policy took the form of a Department of Defense Directive declaring that “homosexuality is incompatible with military service.” The proposal had been put forth under Carter, but it was under Reagan that it was effectively put into practice. More damningly, while Reagan’s views on gay people in the military were not much different than Carter’s, they put him markedly to the Right of Walter Mondale, his 1984 Democratic presidential opponent. Mondale promised an executive order ending government discrimination against gay people in all forms of federal employment, including the military. And despite having eight years to shift policy, Reagan made no attempt to rescind the ban on gay military personnel during his administration. Some critics of his presidency have pointed to his response to the AIDS crisis to suggest that Reagan ignored gay Americans. In fact, they are incorrect. Far from ignoring gay people, he was, for the most part, perfectly fine with the government actively abridging their rights. In fact, he was an excellent case study in how the very heart and soul of conservatism was not libertarianism, unless “libertarianism” means “the State policing what consenting adults do in their bedrooms.”

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Ronald Reagan Hated Big Government Like a Rat Hates Cheese, Part 4: The War on Drugs

Perhaps the two most important social issues for the majority of libertarians are the War on Drugs and strict gun control, both of which they (rightfully, in my opinion) oppose. It is thus worth noting that Reagan was extremely un-libertarian on the War on Drugs. (We’ll get to gun control in one of the later posts in this series.) In a publication for the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank that has received funding from the Koch brothers, Gene Healy sums it up thusly: “President Nixon popularized the phrase ‘the war on drugs,’ but Reagan was the first chief executive who really took that metaphor seriously.” On October 14, 1982, the man who had declared that government was not the solution to the problem announced that the government needed to enforce drug prohibition for the sake of national security. Not only did Reagan strongly favor drug prohibition, he also believed that imprisonment as opposed to merely treatment was necessary. Nor did he limit his authoritarian stance to so-called “hard drugs.” When the National Academy of Sciences concluded that marijuana should be decriminalized–a proposal that had been previously endorsed by some members of his own party, such as Jacob Javits and Edward Brooke–Reagan balked at the idea. He signed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986. This legislation established mandatory minimum sentences for both possessing and selling drugs. For example, possessing one kilo of heroin or five kilos of cocaine carried a minimum penalty of ten years in prison.

In an article for The Atlantic, journalist Eric Schlosser explained that, “The 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act marked a profound shift not only in America’s drug-control policy but also in the workings of its criminal-justice system. The bill greatly increased the penalties for federal drug offenses. More important, it established mandatory-minimum sentences, transferring power from federal judges to prosecutors. The mandatory minimums were based not on an individual’s role in a crime but on the quantity of drugs involved. Judges in such cases could no longer reduce a prison term out of mercy or compassion. Prosecutors were given the authority to decide whether a mandatory-minimum sentence applied.” Additionally, “A public-health approach to drug control was replaced by an emphasis on law enforcement. Drug abuse was no longer considered a form of illness; all drug use was deemed immoral, and punishing drug offenders was thought to be more important than getting them off drugs.” And while the bill included laudable efforts to ban the sale of drugs to minors, the term “minor” was implausibly defined as 21 and under the same way it was with Reagan’s alcohol legislation. All of this played a key role in the federal prison population increasing nearly eight-fold between 1980 and 2014. Schlosser and other writers, such as Randall Kennedy, have pointed out that many liberal Democrats voted for the legislation, complete with the infamous “crack vs powder” discrepancy that has tacitly favored white drug users over black drug users. Nonetheless, in the House of Representatives, fifteen of the sixteen Congress members to vote against the bill were liberal Democrats, including John Lewis and Barney Frank. Thus, most of the Representatives to take libertarian or semi-libertarian stances on the Drug War were from the Left. In 2000, Joseph McNamara, a Harlem beat cop-turned police chief of first Kansas City, Missouri and then San Jose, California, reflected on Reagan and the War on Drugs. McNamara had crusaded admirably against racism, police brutality, and the War on Drugs, and he speculated that Reagan might have come around to a more libertarian stance on narcotics. Of course, this is theoretically possible, just as it is theoretically possible that Tip O’Neill would have become an advocate for abolishing all public assistance programs. But while I do not want to in any way detract from the great work that McNamara did, there is simply little or nothing in Reagan’s record to indicate that he would have ever soured toward the War on Drugs. On this issue, as with many others, the Gipper found the might of the State to be superior to free choice.

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Ronald Reagan Hated Big Government Like a Rat Hates Cheese, Part 3: Raising the Drinking Age

Like many conservatives, Reagan had a relationship with America’s mainstream universities that might be described as rocky at best. (And like many conservatives, Reagan had a rather warm relationship with Bob Jones University, but that’s another story.) It is thus fitting that Reagan played a key role in creating a major headache for university presidents all over the country by helping raise the drinking age. Historically, the drinking age had been decided at the state level and often fluctuated. During the 1970s, many states lowered their drinking ages to 18. This coincided with the lowering of the voting age to 18 and reflected the position that a person old enough to fight in the military was old enough to make any other adult decisions. Unsurprisingly, some Americans considered this shift toward more libertarian policies to be a public safety hazard. New Jersey was one of the key states to take the pro-raising the drinking age position. The state’s Republican Governor Thomas Kean would take liberal and libertarian positions on a number of social issues  before, during, and after his governorship, including racial justice, teacher-led prayer in public schools, immigration, abortion, same-sex marriage, and restitution for survivors of Japanese American internment. But on issues such as gambling, the War on Drugs, and drinking, he supported nanny-state policies, including a ban on drinking for people under 21. In a speech to New Jersey high school students in 1984, Reagan declared that drunk driving was “a national tragedy involving transit across state borders,” and one of a few “special cases in which overwhelming need can be dealt with by prudent and limited Federal action.”

That year, with Reagan’s support, Congress passed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act. The law stipulated that any state which allowed residents under the age of 21 to buy or publicly possess alcohol would automatically forfeit ten percent of federal highway funds. Reagan signed the bill on July 17. While few would dispute that drunk driving was and is a problem, banning drinking by adults ages 18 to 2o seems counterintuitive. Firstly, it represents a flagrant restriction on individual freedom of choice for people who legally bear all responsibilities of adulthood up to and including the ability to be tried as an adult and executed. ( I do not support the death penalty, but it remains in place, and people under 21 are eligible for it.) Secondly, it stands to reason that a person willing to break the law by driving drunk would have no compunctions about purchasing alcohol illegally. Thirdly, drunk driving was and is hardly limited to 18-to-20 year olds–as demonstrated by the fact that Reagan’s own Vice President’s oldest son went drunk driving at age 30. In essence, Reagan viewed 18-to-20 year olds as old enough to be forced to register for the draft. But they were too young to use beer to drown their sorrows at the loss of civil liberties.

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Ronald Reagan Hated Big Government Like a Rat Hates Cheese, Part 2: Conscription

In the 1960s and 1970s, controversy over the military draft created some strange bedfellows. Much of the radical left, with Noam Chomsky being a notable exception, opposed the draft, as did a significant number of liberal Democrats, liberal Republicans, and conservative Republicans. On the other hand, plenty of liberal Democrats, liberal Republicans, and conservative Republicans, along with most conservative Democrats, favored it. Both anti-draft leftists and conservatives often argued that forcing people into the military was a violation of their civil liberties. Those who opposed both the draft and the Vietnam War tended to believe that conscription was allowing the government to continue to wage an immoral war. Those who favored the draft but opposed the war often believed that an all-volunteer military would be more efficient and might actually weaken anti-war protests. Indeed, to this day, proposed bills in the House of Representatives to shut down Selective Service are generally cosponsored by a mix of liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans. For a time, Reagan seemed to align with the pro- war, anti-draft faction. During his time as Governor of California, he supported ending the draft, though in 1969, activist Karl Hess criticized him for including the caveat that the draft should continue until the Vietnam War ended. There was, however, an ominous harbinger of Reagan’s future stance on this issue. In 1970, the then-governor responded to efforts to reinstate Muhammad Ali’s boxing license by stating, “Forget it. That draft-dodger will never fight in my state.” This was an odd statement, not only due to Reagan’s stated opposition to the draft but also due to the fact that he had no problems pardoning (white) country singer Merle Haggard for crimes such as robbery.

Of course, thanks largely to pressure from activists and anti-draft politicians, the draft ended in 1973 under right-leaning centrist, Richard Nixon. Selective Service was terminated in 1975 under another right-leaning centrist, Gerald Ford. Mandatory Selective Service registration, though not the draft itself, was reinstated in 1980 by left-leaning centrist Jimmy Carter. This demonstrates the difficulty in labeling support for the draft as right-wing or left-wing. In 1979, perhaps anticipating Carter’s actions, Reagan wrote that conscription, “rests on the assumption that your kids belong to the state…. That assumption isn’t a new one. The Nazis thought it was a great idea.” The point that conscription has been a hallmark of fascist/totalitarian regimes was fair, though it would make Reagan’s later actions rather jarring. In his 1980 presidential campaign, he promised to end Selective Service if elected. The year after becoming president, however, he did a 180. “We live in a dangerous world,” he warned, announcing that he would continue forcing young men to register for the draft. Senator Mark Hatfield of Oregon, a moderate Republican and longtime critic of conscription, warned that, “The president by this action is issuing an invitation to establish a peacetime draft.” Representing left-wing opposition to the draft, David Landau of the ACLU denounced Reagan’s pivoting as, “an unconscionable decision,” and Reverend Barry Lynn of Draft Action called it, “a hypocritical and morally bankrupt decision representing a total break with Mr. Reagan’s historic commitment to volunteerism and individual freedom.” While Lynn was correct that bringing back Selective Service was morally bankrupt, he was wrong that Reagan had historically been committed to volunteerism and individual freedom. After a “grace period,” the Justice Department resumed prosecuting people who failed to register in the Summer of 1982. By September of 1983, there had been fifteen indcitments. All in all, it was quite a reversal for a man who, the year before being elected, had publicly linked conscription with Nazism.

 

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Ronald Reagan Hated Big Government Like a Rat Hates Cheese, Part 1: Obscenity Laws

For many longtime Republicans who dislike Donald Trump, especially non-Rockefeller Republicans, Ronald Reagan represents the yin to his yang. To be certain, there are major differences between the Gipper and the Groper, as is the case with every president. But there are also a lot of similarities. Reagan could make very mean-spirited, divisive statements (hoping that poor people would get botulism), cozy up with repressive foreign regimes (vetoing sanctions on both South Africa’s Apartheid government and Iraq under the Hussein regime), and act racist (it can sometimes be easier to keep track of times when he DIDN’T act racist.) Doubtless, many #NeverTrump Republicans also see Trump and Reagan as having very different views about the role of government, viewing Trump as authoritarian and Reagan as supporting small government. They are half-right. Trump is indeed a supporter of big government, but to claim that Reagan favored small government flies in the face of historical evidence. In order to see why, we must peel back his rhetoric and look at his actual policy record. With that in mind, I am doing a series of blog posts highlighting cases in which Reagan favored big government and am starting off with obscenity laws.

When Reagan got involved in California politics during the 1960s, he offered a great case study of using libertarian rhetoric as a cloak for bigoted policies. As I have discussed in detail elsewhere, from 1964 to his victory in the governors’ race in 1966, Reagan blasted anti-discrimination laws for housing. His arguments, however, hinged on small government. It wasn’t that he supported racism or discrimination, he insisted. He just believed in small government. Which made his position on obscenity laws rather jarring. Reagan also backed the unsuccessful Proposition 16, which would have greatly ramped up the state’s obscenity laws. California’s incumbent liberal Governor Pat Brown tried to head off Reagan on the issue by promoting laws to keep obscene materials away from children, but this did not satisfy Reagan and many other social conservatives. Obscene material, Reagan believed, must be kept away from adults as well. Among other superb displays of nanny-statism, Proposition 16 would have made it easier to classify material as obscene, such as by removing the requirement that such material be “utterly without redeeming social importance” in order to be banned. As a result, even some conservatives feared that it would lead to the banning of the Bible. This was Reagan’s vision for California: minorities being forced to commute two hours to work every day due to being shut out of the housing market was simply freedom of choice, while buying dirty magazines was a criminal matter.

Reagan persisted in his obsession with using the force of government to save Americans from smut as president. He appointed a commission to study pornography chaired by Henry Hudson, a Virginia D.A. praised by Reagan for “shutting down every adult bookstore in his district.” Unsurprisingly, the commission proposed new anti-porn laws. Reagan also found that he could more effectively censor obscene material by blending anti-free speech legislation with necessary, beneficial laws against child pornography. Late in his administration, he introduced a hodgepodge of laws called the Child Protection and Obscenity Enforcement Act. This legislation rightfully cracked down on child pornography, a vile, contemptible practice, by banning parents or guardians from selling their children to pornographers and forcing pornographers to carefully monitor the ages of their employees. For this, Reagan should be commended. Unfortunately, his legislation also banned the distribution of any obscene material, even if it involved consenting adults, via computers, Cable T.V., and phone lines. Unsurprisingly, the legislation passed, and Reagan signed it. But one must ask: is it consistent with a belief in limited government to be unable or unwilling to distinguish between pornography that exploits children and pornography that, however distasteful it is, depicts consenting adults? If his support for statism in this area were an anomaly, the depiction of Reagan as an advocate of small government might hold water. But as will be demonstrated in upcoming blog posts, it was very far from an anomaly.

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