Inside Ronald Reagan
A REASON Interview: "I don't believe in a government that protects us from ourselves."
"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.
REASON: Could you give some examples of what areas you're talking about?
REAGAN: Well, many of them in the regulatory fields of our private enterprise sector. We've noticed, for example, that for half-a-century the railroads have been saying that they could take care of themselves and would have no problems—if they could be freed from a great many government regulations and the ICC. Finally their plight was such that the government had to take over the passenger traffic with Amtrak and one of the first things that Amtrak did was ask to be relieved of the ICC regulations!
REASON: Are you in favor of decontrolling the railroads and the other regulated industries?
REAGAN: Yes. Again this comes down to the point at which we get into regulations that are for the protection of the people. I don't think anyone suggests that we should do away with those regulations which insure safety for the passengers in transportation. I don't think that we should do away with those regulations in the field of pure foods and so forth, that make sure that some unscrupulous individual can't sell us canned meat that gives us botulism. But, we start with those legitimate areas and then we go on and regulations just keep spreading like spores of a fungus until we find that they literally are taking away the rights of management to make business decisions with regard to their competition.
REASON: Governor, are you familiar with economist Sam Peltzman's work on the Food and Drug Administration, where he pointed out the high cost of entry now and the very high cost of developing and bringing in new drugs to the market?
REAGAN: Well, I've used some figures of my own—maybe he's responsible for them. I've been trying to keep track of some of these things and in my own talks have pointed out that now we've added about $200,000,000 to the cost of drugs because of these regulations. I know of one particular drug firm, which just a few years ago, could license a drug with some 70 pages of supporting data. Today it takes that same company 73,000 pages for an additional drug. I know that there's been about a 60 percent drop in the development of new drugs in this country.
But here again, it's the degree to which it's done. We want the protection of knowing that a drug on the shelf is not going to poison us or have an adverse effect, and yet the FDA has gone beyond that point. It's a little bit like the cyclamate question: feeding 20 rats cyclamates and then destroying millions of dollars of artificially sweetened soft drinks because it's "hazardous to our health," and then only years later, do we find out that to eat an amount of cyclamate equivalent to what the rats were given we'd have to drink 875 bottles of soft drink a day!
REASON: Don't you think the Food and Drug Administration basically serves the Big Brother role, the protectionist role, and that the free market could adequately deal with it in the absence of the regulations?
REAGAN: Well, if they would. And I'm sure the free market would today, but remember that the FDA was born at a time when people in this country were being killed. Back in the Spanish American War, for instance, we lost soldiers who were sent poisoned canned meat and this is when the scandal erupted that led to the pure food laws.
Maybe what we should look at are those areas where government should be a "Big Brother" in ensuring that the private sector is doing the job. In other words, suppose the whole food industry would police itself. Then I think government would have a legitimate place in keeping a watchful eye on them to make sure that industry did not gradually, for profit, erode the standards. This I think could hold true with a great many other things.
REASON: What about higher education? Is there a proper role for government in providing a university education?
REAGAN: Well, I think here there's been an exaggeration. Originally public education was based on the idea that you cannot have our kind of society without a literate citizenry. If you're going to have government of, by and for the people, then you're going to have a citizenry that is able to read, and to make decisions at the polls. It then extended to higher education because there was a segment of our society that could not get education. Now you wonder why government didn't think in terms of saying, "We will provide an education for the individual that can't provide for himself, but we'll do it by way of the private sector universities." Then they would have expanded and there would be more private universities and they would be far cheaper than they are today.
REASON: These days, most private universities are the recipients of Federal funds. Do you think that it's proper to use tax revenue to finance higher education?
REAGAN: Well, if I answer that question then I'm answering that we should do away with our state universities and frankly I haven't given enough thought to what could be a counter-system.
At first, there was a great opposition to most of the Federal revenues that are going to education on the part of many educators. Once the money was there, however, it was like the farmer who went into the woods and came back with the wagon loads of wild pigs. When they asked him how he had done it—they'd been wild for a hundred years—he said, "I built a fence and I put corn down and fed them, and they got used to eating the corn there, so l extended the fences's sides and finally I had an enclosure and I corralled them." He said, "If I can get them to take food from me, I'll own them." And this is what really happened with Federal aid to education. You know, the Federal Government could have done it differently if the Federal Government did not at the same time want control.
REASON: Many students at universities are middle class or upper middle class and tax support means that a lot of the lower class/lower income people are paying for that education. Don't you feel that there's something immoral or unethical about redistributing wealth from the lower class up to the middle class.
REAGAN: Yes. And I used that argument in my fight to get tuition in the University of California. I have to tell you about that fight with the University of California—they were very much opposed! They wanted it kept totally free, as it had been. The tuition I was proposing was less than 10 percent of the actual cost of educating the student—which is more than $3,500 now, and at that time was roughly $3,000. I was proposing $300 tuition—and I used the exact same argument you're using. Finally, tuition was instituted.
But, I had always said that tuition should never be a block to anyone getting an education who could not otherwise afford to go to the university. I fought for a plan that would have allowed the financially needy student to defer until after graduation all or part of his tuition. And the same university administration that had fought me and did not want tuition at all, fought me equally hard on deferred tuition and did not want that benefit for the students!
REASON: Let us shift for the moment from education to your Proposition One initiative that you campaigned so hard for. How would you describe the purposes of Proposition One, Governor?
REAGAN: Well, first of all, we realized that at the state level we could not do an awful lot to reduce the vast tax burden that the people of America carry. Right now, virtually half of every dollar earned in the United States is taken by governments—Federal, state or local. And governments in the United States are all growing at about the same rate, which is about 2½ times as fast as the increase in population. We couldn't do anything with the Federal rate, which is the big villain. Nor could we impose on local governments. But we said that if the biggest state in the Union can put itself on a basis of establishing a percentage of the people's earnings above which government cannot go in taxation without the consent of the people, and if it works, then it sets an example that makes it almost impossible for the Federal government not to follow suit and do the same thing. And hopefully local governments also.
So I appointed a task force and this task force talked to economists like Milton Friedman who then volunteered to help. The task force report came back with all the facts and figures. We concluded that we could over 15 years reduce the percentage the California state government was taking—from about 8-3/4 cents out of every dollar down to 7 cents out of every dollar. It doesn't sound like much, but at the end of 15 years the difference would be that you could triple the present budget of California at a seven percent rate, and you'd have a budget three times the present size of the budget. We thought the growth of the economy was such that people could recognize that you could have this tax rate reduction without doing away with any useful government service.
Now we could have probably passed Proposition One if we had settled for the percentage the state is now taking and proposed freezing the percentage at the present level. But you see, the opposition was very dishonest. (And when I say this I include the State Employees Association, the whole educational establishment of California that opposed it, and the League of Women Voters, who made it very plain that they were going to oppose anything that limited government's ability to get more money.) These people dishonestly campaigned and convinced the people that to reduce the state's share we were going to dump the load on local government, so that the local property taxes would go up. We couldn't make clear the fact that in our plan there was a distinct prohibition on the state transferring this cost over to local government without lowering the percentage comparably. And so we lost. I still think it's an idea whose time has come.
REASON: Governor, given the way that Prop. One was misrepresented in California by these very strong interest groups (which would exist in other states as well), how would you restructure a campaign to sell it to the people, to counteract that kind of misrepresentation?
REAGAN: Well, as I say, it was so complicated. Maybe if we had to do it all over again, I shouldn't be so greedy. Maybe we should have settled for the present percentage, and then just held at the present spending, while waiting for people to realize that maybe you could then reduce spending in the future as you were successful with it. That would have robbed our opponents of their argument. You see, if they hadn't been able to say, "They're going to reduce the money the state's getting—so they must be going to get it from someplace else"—if they hadn't been able to say that, we could have refuted anything else they said by saying, "Wait a minute—if they don't want it frozen at the present percentage they must be telling you that they're going to raise taxes if they have their way."
REASON: Governor, isn't it true that in your first year in office there was actually a 24 percent increase in the state budget?
REAGAN: Oh, for heavens sakes, I don't know what the percentage was—but you see, the problem was that the state budget we inherited didn't mean anything. We got in and found that to get through the election year, the previous administration had changed the bookkeeping and had a budget that was financed by 15 months' revenue. By changing to an accrual method of bookkeeping, what they really were doing was postponing until after the election what they knew was going to have to be a tax increase. We won and found that out to our surprise—because we were quite unable, even in the period between election and inauguration, to get very much information from the outgoing administration. It was not an orderly transition! In fact, the Director of Finance in his briefing said to one of my representatives, "Look, we're spending a million dollars a day more than we're taking in—I've got a golf game—good luck." That was our briefing in finance! We had to—much as we objected—institute a gigantic tax increase, and put the state back on a solvent basis. I said at the time that I did not recognize that as permanent—that we were going to try to give the money back to the people, just as we could institute reforms. Over the eight-year period we gave back in the form of one-time rebates, tax cuts and even bridge toll cuts $5.7 billion—which comes pretty close to giving back the amount of that increase.
REASON: Let me ask you—still in the area of tax reform, Governor—how you feel about the Liberty Amendment, which would abolish the income tax. Is that something you're in favor of?
REAGAN: Well, let me tell you where my doubts are there. I am very critical of the income tax—the progressive features and the complications of it—it's the one instance in your whole fiscal experience in life in which you figure out what you owe and government reserves the right to come back and tell you your figures are wrong. If you're going to have a tax the people should know what the tax is and the government should be able to tell them without the people having to go to the expense of figuring it out themselves.
On the other hand, I have always felt that taxing income is probably as fair a method of raising revenue for government as any. Let's take a simple case. Suppose 100 of us were shipwrecked on an island and we knew there was little chance of release and we established a community to get along—to survive there. In a sense we set up a government. What you'd probably do is ask each individual to dedicate a certain amount of his time to such things as standing guard or hunting and fishing to keep the people alive and providing fresh water and so forth, so you'd probably each one contribute a certain amount of service to the community. You'd basically be on your own except for X amount of time. Well, this in a sense is what you do with your income tax.
REASON: Of course, if you're talking about starting from scratch—the shipwrecked people on the island—you're really talking about a voluntary approach, aren't you—as against taxation?
REAGAN: Well, we're inclined to think that our government here is a voluntary approach and that we've set up a government to perform certain things, such as the national protection, etc.
REASON: Aren't we deluding ourselves to talk in terms of consent, though? When we talk about taxation, aren't we really dealing with force and coercion and nothing less than that?
REAGAN: Well, government's only weapons are force and coercion and that's why we shouldn't let it get out of hand. And that's what the founding fathers had in mind with the Constitution, that you don't let it get out of hand.
But you say voluntary on the island. Let's take a single thing. Let's say that there was some force on the island, whether it's hostiles or whether it was an animal, that represented a threat and required round-the-clock guard duty for the safety of the community. Now I'm sure it would be voluntary but you get together and you say look, we're all going to have to take turns guarding. Now what do you think would happen in that community if some individual said "Not me; I won't stand guard." Well, I think the community would expel him and say "Well, we're not going to guard you." So voluntarism does get into a kind of force and coercion where there is a legitimate need for it.
REASON: You said earlier that government doesn't exist to protect people from themselves. Let's take the desert island shipwreck situation. Would you be in favor of any laws against gambling in the shipwrecked island situation?
REAGAN: You've named an issue that is one of the most difficult for me to reconcile. I know this gets into the whole area of the sin laws and here again I think you're in one of the grey areas. There's one side of me that says I know this is protecting us from ourselves; there's another side of me, however, that says you can make the case that it does get into an area in which we are protecting us from each other.
I cannot go along with the libertarian philosophy that says that all of the sin laws can be ruled out as simply trying to protect us from ourselves. You can take the case of the father who gambles his money away and thus leaves his family dependent on the rest of us. You can take surrounding areas—the necessity for protection against dishonest gambling—which requires added government duties and obligations—
REASON: But isn't it really very selective law enforcement when it comes to nonvictim crime areas?
REAGAN: Well, now, you know the nonvictim crimes. Here again I think you're in a grey area that requires certainly more study than I've given it. Prostitution has been listed as a nonvictim crime. Well, is anyone naive enough to believe that prostitution just depends on willing employees coming in and saying that's the occupation they want to practice? It doesn't.
REASON: Well, it partly depends on the options. There are a lot of jobs that people might find distasteful in a free market. I suppose that if you work in a paint shop and you're breathing paint fumes all day, it might not be a very desirable job either.
REAGAN: Yes. But get into the seamy side. Talk to law enforcement people about the seamy side of how the recruiting is done, including what in an earlier day was called the white slave traffic—and you will find that the recruiting for prostitution is not one of just taking an ad in the paper and saying come be a prostitute and letting someone walk in willingly.
REASON: Yes, but, Governor, we really haven't lived in a time when prostitution has been decriminalized.
REAGAN: Yes, we have lived in such a time. In many areas of the country in the old days, prostitution operated with local control and there was no problem and they even claimed inspection and so forth. Once, at the beginning of World War II, I asked the medical officer at our post (it was in New Orleans) why they were closing up the brothels with so many military bases there. And he gave me a pretty hard, cold answer. He said the army isn't interested in morals. The army's interested in keeping soldiers healthy. He showed me the difference in the statistics. He said the average girl in a house handled roughly 40 to 50 customers a night. And he said if you give her a five day week, that's 200 to 250. Suppose the first man infects her and here are 200 to 249 men that follow suit during that week and he said the most often that you could possibly inspect would be once a week. He said we also know statistically that by putting a girl out on a street because of the difficulty of soliciting and getting to a place and getting back out on the street again, they only handle about 9 customers. Now, he said, the first thing that's done when they're picked up is inspection. So every 10 days she averages inspection—and there's only been 90 customers in between. Now, you stop to think of the public health situation of this. You have to, then, take on certain regulatory chores if you're going to have this.
REASON: Back to taxes, you've been very critical of the People's Lobby and the League of Women Voters' drive to change the Constitution to do away with the 2/3 majority requirement for raising bank taxes…
REAGAN: If they're really a People's Lobby, why aren't they going to do what we tried to do and were opposed all the time that I was governor. Don't change that part of the law—change the other part of the law that says the rest of us can be taxed by a simple majority. If they really want to put a referendum on the ballot, why don't they go out and say to the people, do you want to change this and make it so that a simple majority can increase that tax or do you want to make it that it requires a two-thirds majority of the legislature to change any tax?
REASON: You're sounding like a libertarian, now, Governor. We'd like to go all the way to 100 percent requirement for taxes!
REAGAN: Well, I don't know if that would work or not…but I think that this other one will. Look—you've got a legislature that takes two-thirds to pass the budget, it takes two-thirds to pass an appropriation bill, a spending bill—so why shouldn't it take a two-thirds majority to say whether you're going to raise the taxes. But these are fools who are circulating this petition, and again the League of Women Voters have explained that they are against any effort on the part of government to restrict government's ability to meet the needs and so forth. In other words to spend your money.
But they are fools in thinking that business somehow is getting a special break. Who pays the business tax anyway? We do! You can't tax business. Business doesn't pay taxes. It collects taxes. And if they can't be passed on to the customer in the price of the product as a cost of operation, business goes out of business. Now what they're going to do is make it easier for demagogic politicians—and you've got plenty of them in the state legislature—to say to the people, look, we need money for this worthwhile project but we're not going to tax you, we're going to tax business, now that we can do it by a one vote margin. So they'll tax business and the price of the product will go up and the people will blame the storekeeper for the rise in the price of the product, not recognizing that all he's doing is passing on to them a hidden sales tax.
If people need any more concrete explanation of this, start with the staff of life, a loaf of bread. The simplest thing; the poorest man must have it. Well, there are 151 taxes now in the price of a loaf of bread—it accounts for more than half the cost of a loaf of bread. It begins with the first tax, on the farmer that raised the wheat. Any simpleton can understand that if that farmer cannot get enough money for his wheat, to pay the property tax on his farm, he can't be a farmer. He loses his farm. And so it is with the fellow who pays a driver's license and a gasoline tax to drive the truckload of wheat to the mill, the miller who has to pay everything from social security tax, business license, everything else. He has to make his living over and above those costs. So they all wind up in that loaf of bread. Now an egg isn't far behind and nobody had to make that. There's a hundred taxes in an egg by the time it gets to market and you know the chicken didn't put them there!
REASON: Governor, how did you develop your philosophy of individualism?
REAGAN: Oh, Lord! I suppose I did it myself and I did it by way of the mashed potato circuit. I started out in life as a New Deal Democrat, and I campaigned many times for that. In later years—you know if you don't sing or dance and you're in show business as I was, you find that you either wind up as the toastmaster or the after-dinner speaker—there were two or three of us in the business who were used quite widely: the industry would always call on us to represent show business someplace where speaking was to be done. But if you make a speech about Hollywood, for example, and the sorrows and problems of the motion picture industry, you've got to tie it into the people you're talking to and why they should be interested. I used to use the very obvious comparison that if one industry could be discriminated against taxwise and otherwise as ours had been—threats of censorship and all—then how long could it be before this happened to their industry. Pretty soon businessmen were coming to me and saying, " Let me tell you what's already happening to our industry!"
Finally after years of this I came back home once from a speaking trip and said to Nancy, "Look, you know it's just occurred to me that I go out and make all these speeches of things that I'm against and then I go out and campaign for the Democrats who are making it happen. I'm going to stop." Now it took me a while to get around to reregistering. But I started campaigning even though I was still a Democrat, for people on the other side; and then finally I didn't want to become one of those professional Democrats who goes all his life saying he's never voted for a Democrat, so I reregistered.
REASON: You said you were speaking out against censorship at that time?
REAGAN: Oh yes, yes.
REASON: Are you still against censorship?
REAGAN: Yes. I believed in the voluntary motion picture code. I think the motion picture industry is destroying itself and I think it is displaying bad taste in its lousy theatre.
REASON: Would you allow anything to go by way of hard core pornography as long as there are willing and consensual buyers?
REAGAN: I didn't want the picture industry doing it. I just think it's bad business. But I'm opposed to outside censorship.
REASON: Now that you're in the minority party, how do you feel about other prospects for minor parties or third party activities?
REAGAN: Well, third parties have been notoriously unsuccessful; they usually wind up dividing the very people that should be united. And then we elect the wrong kind—the side we're out to defeat wins. I have been doing my best to try to revitalize the Republican Party groups that I've spoken to, on the basis that the time has come to repudiate those in our midst who would blur the Republican image by saying we should be all things to all people in order to triumph. Lately, we find that of the 26 percent of the people who didn't vote, more than half of them now say they didn't vote because they don't see any difference between the parties. I've been urging Republicans to raise a banner and put the things we stand for on that banner and don't compromise, but don't try to enlarge the party by being all things to everyone when you can't keep all the promises. Put up a banner and then count on the fact that if you've got the proper things on that banner the people will rally round.
REASON: Do you have any views as to the effectiveness of the Libertarian Party?
REAGAN: I'd like to see the Libertarian Party—I don't say they should quit being a party—I'd like to see them, I'd like to see the conservatives, I'd like to see some of these other parties maybe come to this remnant of the Republican Party which is basically conservative in its thinking and, I think, akin to the philosophy I'm talking—I'd like to see them all come in (and this would include a large segment of the Democratic Party in this country, that certainly proved in 1972 that they do not follow the leadership of the Democratic Party any longer) and be able to say to them, OK we're not saying to you give up what you're doing, but, can't we find a common meeting ground in order at least to defeat first of all those who are doing what they're doing to us (and this present Congress is an example)? I think this is the most irresponsible and most dangerous Congress, in my experience, that this country has ever had. I think we're seeing it in the crumbling now of our position worldwide, their attitude in Indochina. Maybe many of the young people that you write for, with their hatred of war and disillusionment with what went on, don't feel this way and any thought of Indochina is going to be a red flag to them; but, for the first time in 200 years, the United States has violated its word, has abandoned an ally that it pledged to help and we're seeing the result. Mr. Kissinger came home from the Middle East empty handed because even the Israelis said, "What? Give up the passes on the basis of your word that you will help us? We now see evidence that maybe you won't help us. You can't guarantee your promise." So the dominos fall. To me this is what's most important—if we could all make a change in that Congress that now has a two-thirds majority.
I think the Republican Party should take the lead and, as I say, raise that banner and say this is what we stand for. And what we stand for would be fiscal responsibility. I know that you can't get a balanced budget instantly, but at least an end to deficit spending. Then the goal, established as quickly as possible, of a balanced budget, and begin the retirement of the national debt, or the reduction of it certainly. I think that it should be a government, or a party, that has a position that makes it plain that even though there are social faults that may lead to people turning to crime the individual must be held accountable for his misdeeds. That on the world scene we're going to do whatever is necessary to insure that we can retain this free system of ours; in other words, we will maintain a defensive posture that is sufficient to deter aggression.
REASON: Are you thinking in terms of a Fortress America approach or a world policeman approach?
REAGAN: No. Fortress America is just what Lenin wanted us to have—whether it is world policeman or not. You know, Lenin said the Communists will take Eastern Europe, they will organize the hordes of Asia, he said they will then move into Latin America, and he said the United States, the last bastion of capitalism, will fall into their outstretched hands like overripe fruit. And that's all that Fortress America is. Now, you don't have to come through someone's beachhead—you just go over them with missiles; and one of these days, under the present policies of the Congress, the United States will stand alone as Lenin envisioned it and then face the ultimatum from the enemy.
REASON: Do you think that the war in Indochina represents any real military threat to the security of the United States?
REAGAN: Not in the sense that the North Vietnamese are going to attack the United States. But if anyone keeps asking why we are involved in Vietnam, they also should ask the question, why is Russia involved in Vietnam. Why is Russia sponsoring the aggression of the North Vietnamese?
REASON: Well, to the extent that you may have wrongdoers or criminals elsewhere in the world, is that a justification for the American government to use conscripts and tax funds to send American boys half-way around the world?
REAGAN: Well, of course, we never should have sent them halfway around the world. You see, the Eisenhower policy had always been one of logistical support—help the South Vietnamese to be able to resist and take care of themselves, maintain themselves as a nation. It was John Kennedy who sent the first division in there. And he had to do it and when he did it he had to know that they were going to be followed by hundreds of thousands of men, that you couldn't do it with just one division. I'm not privy nor is anyone else privy to the information that a President has when he makes such a decision, but, then came the mistake. Once you are going to commit yourself to a combat role and you're going to ask young men to fight and die for your country, then you have a moral obligation as a nation to throw the full resources of the nation behind them and to win that war as quickly as possible and get it over with, and this is where we made the mistake: to pour half a million men in there, to kill 54,000 young men in a cause that Washington, that the government was unable or unwilling to win. And don't tell me that we couldn't have licked the North Vietnamese—my God! their gross national product is the equivalent of that of Cleveland, Ohio!
REASON: Let me ask you do you believe in conscription?
REAGAN: Only in time of war.
REASON: What about in the last 10 years?
REAGAN: I disagreed with it, and I'll tell you why: I believe Lenin also on that. Lenin said that he would force the capitalist nations to maintain military conscription until the uniform became a symbol of servitude rather than patriotism.
REASON: Governor, what about the United Nations? Are you in favor of the United States withdrawing from the UN?
REAGAN: Well, I am in favor of certainly a different policy than we've had. I think the United States should have taken a very drastic action; perhaps it should have staged a walk-out at the time of the recognition of Red China. I think that the United Nations today is virtually impotent when you stop to think that countries representing two-thirds of the votes of the United Nations represent less than 10 percent of the world population. It's a funny thing that everybody who wants one man-one vote doesn't hold it true for the United Nations!
REASON: Governor if the Republicans were to nominate a candidate that was unacceptable to you in 1976, could you support a Libertarian third party candidate?
REAGAN: I have to wait and see what you're doing and what you are standing for.
REASON: Are there any particular books or authors or economists that have been influential in terms of your intellectual development?
REAGAN: Oh, it would be hard for me to pinpoint anything in that category. I'm an inveterate reader. Bastiat and von Mises, and Hayek and Hazlitt—I'm one for the classical economists.…
REASON: What about Rand or Rothbard?
REAGAN: No. I haven't read Ayn Rand since The Fountainhead. I haven't read Atlas Shrugged. The last few years, I must say, have been a little rough on me for doing that kind of reading—for eight years I found that when I finished reading the memorandums and reports and so forth, then I found myself digging into nonfiction, economists and so forth, for help on the problems that were confronting me.
REASON: As far as problems confronting us, a quick response if you could, Governor: the pro and con assessment of Jerry Brown. How do you think he's doing so far?
REAGAN: Well, he is an enigma. I am overjoyed, of course, at his budget approach. And I just assume that that probably stems from his Jesuit training—that that has him thinking in terms of property and economy. I think he's going to find that some of his own appointees are not sympathetic to his budgetary approach. They've got their own constituencies and pretty soon they're going to be wanting to do things for those constituents and that's going to call for spending and then he's going to find that he might be battling the legislature on one side and his own appointees on the other.
REASON: Governor, you've taken a lot of time out of your busy schedule and we appreciate it. Thank you very much.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Inside Ronald Reagan".