Lessons of 25 years

Posted: Dec 19, 2005 12:05 AM

At year's end, it is often useful to look back at the year past and seek to learn its lessons. But it's more useful now, I think, to look back at the past quarter-century.

 Twenty-five years ago, in December 1980, Jimmy Carter was serving his last full month in office and Ronald Reagan was president-elect. More than 50 Americans were being held hostage in Iran -- an act of war by the revolutionary mullahs. The Soviet Union was on the march in Afghanistan. The American economy was finishing a decade of high inflation and sluggish growth, at best -- stagflation. The past three presidents had been repudiated: Richard Nixon in 1974, Gerald Ford in 1976 and Jimmy Carter 1980.

 Experts preached that America's best days were behind it, counseled that we seek accommodation with the Soviet Union and urged nations of the avaricious North to share their wealth with nations of the deserving South. Low-inflation economic growth was no longer possible.

 Now we know, with as much certainty as is possible in these things, that these experts were dead wrong. Less than a decade later, the Berlin Wall fell -- and not long after that, the Soviet empire was no more. If you had told anyone in the early 1970s that advances in human freedom would be led by the king of Spain and the pope, he might have doubted your sanity. But King Juan Carlos I moved to bring democracy to Spain, with reverberations in Portugal and Latin America, while Pope John Paul II, speaking to crowds of millions in his native Poland, spread the message that the people of Eastern Europe need not be afraid and could build for themselves a better future.

 Ronald Reagan had similar hopes -- and produced similar results. The hint that he would use force persuaded the mullahs to return the hostages the moment he took office. His assertion that communism was on the ash heap of history gave heart to jailed dissidents like Natan Sharansky, and his robust defense budgets laid down a challenge that the Soviets' sclerotic economy could not meet. Reagan's tax cuts and tight money squeezed the inflation out of the economy and produced vast economic growth.

  What are the lessons of the past 25 years?

  First, American military power can advance freedom and democracy to all corners of the world. Under Reagan and his three successors, America has played a lead role in extending freedom and democracy to most of Latin America, to the Philippines, Indonesia and almost all of East Asia, and, most recently, to Afghanistan and Iraq, with reverberations spreading through the Middle East. Area experts said, often plausibly, those countries' cultures were incompatible with democracy. Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and brave men and women in those nations proved them wrong.

 Second, markets work, and lower taxes and less onerous government produce more economic growth than the alternative. About 43 million jobs have been created in the United States since December 1980, while the number in the more statist nations of Western Europe is on the order of 4 million. Markets are creating millions of jobs in nominally Communist China and once-socialist India.

 Third, politics and effective government can, as Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, change the culture. The crime-control methods pioneered by New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and the welfare reforms pioneered by Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson, imitated around the country and followed up by federal legislation, resulted in huge decreases in crime and welfare dependency.

 These lessons have been widely learned and widely applied, by George W. Bush but also to a large extent by Bill Clinton. But not, curiously enough, by those who see themselves as the best and the brightest, our university and media elites. They would still like to see America's power reined in, as it was in the 1970s.

 They are insouciant about the costs that larger and more intrusive government and higher taxes impose on the economy. They think that leniency and subsidy are the appropriate responses to deviant and self-destructive behavior. They think our most important right is a right to kill our unborn children. You have to be awfully smart, someone once said, to believe something so stupid. And to be so blind to the clear lessons of the past quarter century of history.