The Shining City on a Hill: Commentary on Reagan
By Bryan Caplan
While wrapping up my graphic novel, I wound up reading Ronald Reagan’s famous Farewell Address – his “Shining City on a Hill” speech. Given my broader views, I obviously have some objections. But I was amazed to read an actual presidential speech where I agreed with entire paragraphs. Here’s the abridged speech, with my commentary. Reagan’s in blockquotes, I’m not.
My fellow Americans:
This is the 34th time I’ll speak to you from the Oval Office and the last. We’ve been together 8 years now, and soon it’ll be time for me to go. But before I do, I wanted to share some thoughts, some of which I’ve been saving for a long time.
You know, down the hall and up the stairs from this office is the part of the White House where the President and his family live. There are a few favorite windows I have up there that I like to stand and look out of early in the morning…
I’ve been thinking a bit at that window.
I’ve been reflecting on what the past 8 years have meant and mean. And the image that comes to mind like a refrain is a nautical one–a small story about a big ship, and a refugee, and a sailor. It was back in the early eighties, at the height of the boat people… As the refugees made their way through the choppy seas, one spied the sailor on deck, and stood up, and called out to him. He yelled, “Hello, American sailor. Hello, freedom man.”
Notice that Reagan is reflexively pro-refugee. He doesn’t wonder if the
refugee is a Communist spy, warn that he’s likely to go on welfare, or fret about a “clash of civilizations.”
A small moment with a big meaning, a moment the sailor, who wrote it in a letter, couldn’t get out of his mind. And, when I saw it, neither could I. Because that’s what it was to be an American in the 1980’s. We stood, again, for freedom. I know we always have, but in the past few years the world again–and in a way, we ourselves–rediscovered it.
If you’re inclined to treat Reagan’s praise of “freedom” as platitudinous, read on.
It’s been quite a journey this decade, and we held together through some stormy seas. And at the end, together, we are reaching our destination.
The fact is, from Grenada to the Washington and Moscow summits, from the recession of ’81 to ’82, to the expansion that began in late ’82 and continues to this day, we’ve made a difference. The way I see it, there were two great triumphs, two things that I’m proudest of. One is the economic recovery, in which the people of America created–and filled–19 million new jobs. The other is the recovery of our morale. America is respected again in the world and looked to for leadership.
Well, back in 1980, when I was running for President, it was all so different. Some pundits said our programs would result in catastrophe. Our views on foreign affairs would cause war. Our plans for the economy would cause inflation to soar and bring about economic collapse. I even remember one highly respected economist saying, back in 1982, that “The engines of economic growth have shut down here, and they’re likely to stay that way for years to come.” Well, he and the other opinion leaders were wrong. The fact is, what they called “radical” was really “right.” What they called “dangerous” was just “desperately needed.”
On the economy: It’s always good to see the “This time, the recession is permanent” crowd served a good helping of crow.
On foreign policy: Growing up in the 80s, many people took Reagan’s warmonger status for granted. But it’s striking how few people the U.S. military killed on his watch. Perhaps he moved the world a lot closer to nuclear war, but got lucky with Gorbachev; I honestly don’t know.
And in all of that time I won a nickname, “The Great Communicator.” But I never thought it was my style or the words I used that made a difference: it was the content… They called it the Reagan revolution. Well, I’ll accept that, but for me it always seemed more like the great rediscovery, a rediscovery of our values and our common sense.
Common sense told us that when you put a big tax on something, the people will produce less of it. So, we cut the people’s tax rates, and the people produced more than ever before… We’re exporting more than ever because American industry became more competitive and at the same time, we summoned the national will to knock down protectionist walls abroad instead of erecting them at home.
Reagan conveniently overlooks the general fact that U.S. recessions always end, whether taxes happen to be high or low. At the time, many economists lamented his betrayal of free trade principles for the auto industry, but perhaps Reagan’s general picture is still accurate.
Common sense also told us that to preserve the peace, we’d have to become strong again after years of weakness and confusion. So, we rebuilt our defenses, and this New Year we toasted the new peacefulness around the globe. Not only have the superpowers actually begun to reduce their stockpiles of nuclear weapons–and hope for even more progress is bright–but the regional conflicts that rack the globe are also beginning to cease. The Persian Gulf is no longer a war zone. The Soviets are leaving Afghanistan. The Vietnamese are preparing to pull out of Cambodia, and an American-mediated accord will soon send 50,000 Cuban troops home from Angola.
What common sense really says is that military buildups are a big gamble. Maybe you’ll scare your enemies into submission. Maybe you’re provoke them into war. But later in the speech, Reagan seems to admit that he got really lucky.
The lesson of all this was, of course, that because we’re a great nation, our challenges seem complex. It will always be this way. But as long as we remember our first principles and believe in ourselves, the future will always be ours. And something else we learned: Once you begin a great movement, there’s no telling where it will end. We meant to change a nation, and instead, we changed a world.
Countries across the globe are turning to free markets and free speech and turning away from the ideologies of the past. For them, the great rediscovery of the 1980’s has been that, lo and behold, the moral way of government is the practical way of government: Democracy, the profoundly good, is also the profoundly productive.
Long-run Economic Freedom of the World scores bear Reagan out on economic freedom. I’m pretty sure the same goes for global free speech, but I can’t readily find measures that go back to the 80s.
Ours was the first revolution in the history of mankind that truly reversed the course of government, and with three little words: “We the People.” “We the People” tell the government what to do; it doesn’t tell us. “We the People” are the driver; the government is the car. And we decide where it should go, and by what route, and how fast. Almost all the world’s constitutions are documents in which governments tell the people what their privileges are. Our Constitution is a document in which “We the People” tell the government what it is allowed to do. “We the People” are free. This belief has been the underlying basis for everything I’ve tried to do these past 8 years.
But back in the 1960’s, when I began, it seemed to me that we’d begun reversing the order of things–that through more and more rules and regulations and confiscatory taxes, the government was taking more of our money, more of our options, and more of our freedom. I went into politics in part to put up my hand and say, “Stop.” I was a citizen politician, and it seemed the right thing for a citizen to do.
I think we have stopped a lot of what needed stopping. And I hope we have once again reminded people that man is not free unless government is limited. There’s a clear cause and effect here that is as neat and predictable as a law of physics: As government expands, liberty contracts.
Reagan indulges in the standard American conflation of freedom and democracy, but he errs in the right direction, slighting democracy to the profit of freedom.
Nothing is less free than pure communism-and yet we have, the past few years, forged a satisfying new closeness with the Soviet Union. I’ve been asked if this isn’t a gamble, and my answer is no because we’re basing our actions not on words but deeds. The detente of the 1970’s was based not on actions but promises. They’d promise to treat their own people and the people of the world better. But the gulag was still the gulag, and the state was still expansionist, and they still waged proxy wars in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
Well, this time, so far, it’s different. President Gorbachev has brought about some internal democratic reforms and begun the withdrawal from Afghanistan. He has also freed prisoners whose names I’ve given him every time we’ve met.
We must keep up our guard, but we must also continue to work together to lessen and eliminate tension and mistrust. My view is that President Gorbachev is different from previous Soviet leaders. I think he knows some of the things wrong with his society and is trying to fix them. We wish him well. And we’ll continue to work to make sure that the Soviet Union that eventually emerges from this process is a less threatening one. What it all boils down to is this: I want the new closeness to continue. And it will, as long as we make it clear that we will continue to act in a certain way as long as they continue to act in a helpful manner. If and when they don’t, at first pull your punches. If they persist, pull the plug. It’s still trust but verify. It’s still play, but cut the cards. It’s still watch closely. And don’t be afraid to see what you see.
Notice that Reagan doesn’t even claim that he somehow induced the Soviets to put a reformer in charge. They just happened to do so on Reagan’s watch. And once Gorbachev was in power, what difference did Reagan’s military buildup really make? Indeed, one of the few things that might have stalled Gorbachev’s reforms is if Reagan failed to gamble on peace.
Finally, there is a great tradition of warnings in Presidential farewells, and I’ve got one that’s been on my mind for some time. But oddly enough it starts with one of the things I’m proudest of in the past 8 years: the resurgence of national pride that I called the new patriotism. This national feeling is good, but it won’t count for much, and it won’t last unless it’s grounded in thoughtfulness and knowledge.
An informed patriotism is what we want. And are we doing a good enough job teaching our children what America is and what she represents in the long history of the world? Those of us who are over 35 or so years of age grew up in a different America. We were taught, very directly, what it means to be an American. And we absorbed, almost in the air, a love of country and an appreciation of its institutions..
But now, we’re about to enter the nineties, and some things have changed. Younger parents aren’t sure that an unambivalent appreciation of America is the right thing to teach modern children. And as for those who create the popular culture, well-grounded patriotism is no longer the style. Our spirit is back, but we haven’t reinstitutionalized it. We’ve got to do a better job of getting across that America is freedom – freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of enterprise. And freedom is special and rare. It’s fragile; it needs production [protection].
And let me offer lesson number one about America: All great change in America begins at the dinner table. So, tomorrow night in the kitchen I hope the talking begins. And children, if your parents haven’t been teaching you what it means to be an American, let ’em know and nail ’em on it. That would be a very American thing to do.
I’m tempted to say, “America’s children clearly failed.” But from all the data I’ve seen, Reagan was just romanticizing earlier generations of Americans. Freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom of enterprise have long enjoyed widespread lip service. But the more specific the question, the more statist Americans look.
And that’s about all I have to say tonight, except for one thing. The past few days when I’ve been at that window upstairs, I’ve thought a bit of the “shining city upon a hill.” The phrase comes from John Winthrop, who wrote it to describe the America he imagined. What he imagined was important because he was an early Pilgrim, an early freedom man. He journeyed here on what today we’d call a little wooden boat; and like the other Pilgrims, he was looking for a home that would be free.
Bad though poetic example. In fact, the Pilgrims established a brutal theocracy in Plymouth Colony: “There were several crimes that carried the death penalty: treason, murder, witchcraft, arson, sodomy, rape, bestiality, adultery, and cursing or smiting one’s parents.”
I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That’s how I saw it, and see it still.
Amazingly, this passage all but demands open borders. “And if there had to be city walls…” strongly suggest a longing for no walls at all. Doors “open to anyone with the will and heart to get here” is hard to interpret as anything but support for migrational laissez-faire. And the phrase “teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace” reveals tremendous optimism about the likely effects of even extreme cultural and ethnic diversity.
And how stands the city on this winter night? More prosperous, more secure, and happier than it was 8 years ago. But more than that: After 200 years, two centuries, she still stands strong and true on the granite ridge, and her glow has held steady no matter what storm. And she’s still a beacon, still a magnet for all who must have freedom, for all the pilgrims from all the lost places who are hurtling through the darkness, toward home.
Or in modern parlance, #RefugeesWelcome.
Back in 1993, one of my friends opined, “Reagan talked the talk, but didn’t walk the walk.” Given public opinion, I’m shocked that he even talked the talk. Indeed, I’m amazed that any politician with such a non-Neurotic persona was even able to beat Carter or Mondale.