George Will

As Diggins says, Reagan's "theory of government has little reference to the principles of the American founding." To the founders, and especially to the wisest of them, James Madison, government's principal function is to resist, modulate and even frustrate the public's unruly passions, which arise from desires.

"The true conservatives, the founders," Diggins rightly says, constructed a government full of blocking mechanisms -- separations of powers, a bicameral legislature and other checks and balances -- in order "to check the demands of the people." Madison's Constitution responds to the problem of human nature. "Reagan," says Diggins, "let human nature off the hook."

"An unmentionable irony," writes Diggins, is that big-government conservatism is an inevitable result of Reaganism. "Under Reagan, Americans could live off government and hate it at the same time. Americans blamed government for their dependence upon it." Unless people have a bad conscience about demanding big government -- a dispenser of unending entitlements -- they will get ever larger government. But how can people have a bad conscience after being told (in Reagan's First Inaugural) that they are all heroes? And after being assured that all their desires, which inevitably include desires for government-supplied entitlements, are good?

Similarly, Reagan said that the people never start wars, only governments do. But the Balkans reached a bloody boil because of the absence of effective government. Which describes Iraq today.

Because of Reagan's role in the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Diggins ranks him among the "three great liberators in American history" -- the others being Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt -- and among America's three or four greatest presidents. But, says Diggins, an Emersonian president who tells us our desires are necessarily good leaves much to be desired.

If the defining doctrine of the Republican Party is limited government, the party must move up from nostalgia and leaven its reverence for Reagan with respect for Madison. As Diggins says, Reaganism tells people comforting and flattering things that they want to hear; the Madisonian persuasion tells them sobering truths that they need to know.

George Will

George F. Will is a 1976 Pulitzer Prize winner whose columns are syndicated in more than 400 magazines and newspapers worldwide.
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