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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