Mourning in America for Reagan's often-forgotten ideas

Posted: Jan 21, 2006 12:01 AM

"It is time to check and reverse the growth of government, which shows signs of having grown beyond the consent of the governed."

It could be a clip from one of today's talk radio shows. After all, federal spending has jumped 33 percent since President Bush took office. Washington now spends nearly $22,000 per household, the most since World War II. Government is doing so much "for" us, it's difficult to keep track of everything it's doing "to" us.

But the quote above actually comes from Ronald Reagan's first Inaugural Address on Jan. 20, 1981. Reading that speech again 25 years later -- an exercise that would benefit many conservative policymakers today -- shows how far our country has come since then, and how far we still have to go.

"It is no coincidence that our present troubles parallel and are proportionate to the intervention and intrusion in our lives that result from unnecessary and excessive growth of government," Reagan told his countrymen back then.

Those "troubles" included high unemployment, gas lines and the Iranian hostage crisis. His predecessor's attempts to respond to those troubles had failed. Indeed, in his famous "malaise" speech in 1979, President Carter basically told the American people to get used to a lower standard of living.

Reagan chose a different route: Cut taxes to generate economic growth. Stabilize the value of the dollar to ease inflation. Trim federal spending. Ease regulation.

Getting government out of the way allowed the American economy to flourish. GDP growth averaged 3.2 percent a year during the 1980s. Unemployment dropped and, with inflation under control, so did interest rates. Reaganomics produced a genuine economic miracle, and we're still enjoying its effects to this day.

Overseas, too, Reagan launched a new era. "As we renew ourselves here in our own land, we will be seen as having greater strength throughout the world. We will again be the exemplar of freedom and a beacon of hope for those who do not now have freedom," he announced.

Renewal was especially important, since earlier that day Iran had finally released the 52 Americans it had held hostage for 444 days. American pride was at a low ebb. But Reagan rebuilt our military, allowing Americans to regain our confidence and allowing the United States to remain the beacon of democracy.

Of course, Reagan's reforms weren't always enacted. "It is my intention to curb the size and influence of the federal establishment and to demand recognition of the distinction between the powers granted to the federal government and those reserved to the states or to the people," Reagan added in his inaugural.

Unfortunately, this worthy goal was thwarted. As American affluence grew, we also allowed our government to grow -- one of the reasons it now spends so much and promises even more than it can ever afford.

Reagan was always optimistic, though, as we should be today. "The economic ills we suffer have come upon us over several decades," he said. "They will not go away in days, weeks, or months but they will go away. They will go away because we, as Americans, have the capacity now, as we have had in the past, to do whatever needs to be done to preserve this last and greatest bastion of freedom."

Some of the challenges we face today are different than the ones Reagan faced in 1981. Today, for example, we have to solve illegal immigration and fix unsustainable programs such as Medicare and Social Security. Some, though, are all too familiar, such as federal overspending, which was "mortgaging our future," Reagan said.

But we'll solve those problems, just as we solved the problems of unemployment, inflation and malaise in Reagan's time. Because, as he would remind us 25 years after he took office: We're Americans. Solving problems is what we do.