Romanticizing Reagan: Part II – Regulations And Free Trade

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Continued from Part II: Regulations and Free Trade.

Perhaps Reagan’s most egregious hypocrisies were his actions in the name of the “War on Drugs” while espousing the common bromides about liberty. “Government’s first duty,” a common Reagan quote from a 1981 speechbegins, “is to protect the people, not run their lives.” But when it came to what people put into their bodies – even for medicinal purposes – Reagan was energetically devoted to running the lives of United States citizens.

In 1982, the National Academy of Sciences published a six-year study that concluded with a recommendation for the decriminalizing of marijuana which, the study said, had “as yet no clear evidence on the possible long-term effects” on potential health consequence. Reagan chose to ignore this study and, in the same year, picked up the Nixon mantle and raised “the battle flag . . . to win the war on drugs.” California marijuana was one of his primary targets.

Under this small-government, liberty loving president, government spending on law enforcement, prisons, and the Drug War skyrocketed along with incarceration rates. By 1989, the number of prisoners had doubled, and the majority of those added under Reagan’s tenure were non-violent marijuana offenders.

On top of his expansion of government for the purpose of curtailing civil liberties, Reagan convinced Congress to suspend the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 which was passed to prevent the government from deploying the military against US citizens. The president then used the military and law enforcement (which itself was now becoming militarized) to move through California to destroy marijuana plants.

His offenses didn’t stop there, either. In 1984, Reagan signed the Comprehensive Crime Control Act into law. Among other things, this is the law that reinstated the legality of civil asset forfeiture by law enforcement officials. According to this policy, police can seize property from somebody regardless of the owner’s innocence in the eyes of the law; it is effectively charging the property with the crime, and regaining your seized assets is nearly impossible.

When James Burton was arrested in 1987 for growing marijuana to treat his glaucoma, his entire 90-acre farm was seized, and both he and his wife were given ten days to leave the property. Burton was not allowed to give any testimony in defense of this property seizure because, in the words of the District Judge Ronald Meredith who ordered the confiscation, “there is no defense against forfeiture.” In this, we see the Reagan legacy on property rights.

This law created a major avenue for corruption and police revenue that is still abused today.  By 1987, police were sizing more than $1 billion a year from US citizens, 80% of whom were never charged with a crime.

In 1986, Reagan signed into law The Anti-Drug Abuse Act. In this bill, mandatory minimum sentences for drug related arrests were not only reinstated, but they were made more severe. This removed a judge’s right to use his or her own discretion when applying a sentence to a drug offender. Under this law, people have spent decades in prison for peacefully smoking marijuana, something that Reagan’s own daughter admitted to doing in her autobiography. This, of course, b
egs the question if he would have put his own daughter through the same severe punishments that he made hundreds of thousands of other people go through.

And if conservatives believe Reagan’s pro-Constitution rhetoric, his actions in the Drug War only serve to disappoint. While enforcing the Reagan drug laws, the military and law enforcement agents regularly violated the 4th Amendment to the Constitution, which was intended to protect citizens against “unreasonable searches and seizers.” In a dissenting opinion, Justice Thurgood Marshall argued that “There is no drug exception to the Constitution.” Reagan, of course, thought otherwise.

And while Conservatives will continue to praise Reagan for his Cold War policies, they should at least acknowledge his hypocrisies in his Drug War/Cold War contradictions. After Congress passed the Boland Amendment, the US military was explicitly prohibited from providing military aid to Manuel Noriega’s “contras” who were fighting against Communists in Nicaragua. To continue secretly funding the contras, the Reagan Administration – headed by Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North – illegally sold weapons to Iran (a country whose potential dangers Conservatives continue to bluster about) to funnel money under the table to Noriega. While this was taking place, Noriega was directly aiding the smuggling of cocaine into the US from Colombia. This was not a secret to the administration. While the Reagan administration had no issues with jailing medical marijuana patients domestically, they turned a blind eye to Cold War allies who were smuggling harder drugs to the US.

If these affronts to civil liberties aren’t enough, Reagan was also terrible on the issue of the Conservative sacred cow: gun rights. Not only did Reagan ban open-carry handguns in California in 1967, he also signed a Federal automatic weapons ban in 1986. This bill, the Firearms Owner Protection Act is praised as a pro-gun act for its repeals of previous regulations, but one can’t ignore the restrictions that were added. Reagan’s support of gun control continued after his presidency, when he supported both the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act and the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban (Conservatives like to criticize Clinton for this law, but it likely could never have passed without Reagan’s support, passing the House of Representatives by only two votes).

Conclusion: Why is Reagan so popular?

Just like Democrats laud Bill Clinton for the 1990s economy, Conservatives revere Reagan for the boom of the 1980s. Regardless of party affiliation, a President is going to get the credit for the good things and the blame for the bad things that occur under his presidency, regardless of causality.

But if we are going to claim principles in our political views, causality matters. If we are going to say, “I support limited government, low taxes, and liberty” then we have to acknowledge that Ronald Reagan stood steadfastly against all those things – not in words, of course, but in practice. Given these facts and the 1980s economic growth, either our political philosophy is wrong and we should praise not only Ronald Reagan but also the many Progressives he resembled in office, or our philosophy is correct and other elements should be credited with the Reagan economy.

In this case, the most likely explanation is the tightening of monetary policy that took place in the Reagan years. From a free market standpoint, this was an unquestionably good policy. Paul Volcker, the Federal Reserve Chairman during the Reagan years, allowed interest rates to float back up toward their natural levels, allowing for economic correction following the so-called “stagflation” period of the 1970s.

The only problem with this explanation: Paul Volcker was a Carter appointee; Reagan merely inherited him. Some people, like Milton Friedman, claim that without Reagan, Volcker never would have allowed interest rates to rise. This doesn’t hold water, either, considering that Volcker had already allowed interest rates to begin rising in 1979. Perhaps, though, Reagan did understand the benefits of Volcker’s policies and supported them. If so, it serves as a minor positive – considering the President merely has influence but not control over monetary policy – in the middle of countless negative policies.

Another reason Conservatives and even some Libertarians continue to idolize Reagan is because he was a fantastic public speaker and provided some wonderful quotes. This is something I have no intention of contesting. When I read quotes by Ronald Reagan, I can’t help but appreciate their wit and veracity (quips like “Socialism only works in two places: Heaven where they don’t need it and hell where they already have it” are absolutely cheer-worthy). But rhetoric is an insufficient basis for judging a president, and if we accept the adage that “actions speak louder than words,” then Ronald Reagan was yelling Progressivism during his entire Presidency.