Ronald Reagan’s centennial this year is a good opportunity to remember what sort of a man he was, what he achieved and the era in which he lived. This is particularly true for Central Europeans. His contribution — which was a significant one — to the fact that the countries of Central and Eastern Europe live in freedom today should never be forgotten.
Nor should we forget to commemorate his philosophy of life, his principles, his patriotism, his faith in God, his humbleness, his sincerity, his straightforwardness, his decisiveness, his sense of humor and his natural skepticism.
It is also appropriate to use this occasion to discuss the present. Reagan used to speak and write about what is and what will be, rather than about what used to be, although he did recall the past and draw lessons from it. He often reflected on James Madison and his warning in 1788 that, throughout history, “Freedom has been most often been taken from the people not in armed clashes but in the gradual and silent encroachment of those in power.”
Reagan also used to say that those who founded the United States believed that government should be as close as possible to the people, that it should guarantee national security and democratic freedoms, and that it should limit its intrusions into the lives of Americans. He said that the Founding Fathers “never envisioned vast agencies in Washington telling farmers what to plant and teachers what to teach.”
These words are apt for today’s European reality. To criticize what comes from the European Commission in Brussels is not Euroskepticism, nor is it anti-Europeanness, any more than Reagan’s criticism of the Washington administration was an expression of anti-Americanism. This is not to suggest that the European Union is or should be similar to the US.
Criticism of the fact that many things in the EU today are decided by unelected bureaucrats does not mean that they should be elected. It means instead that there should be as few of them as possible, that their powers should be radically reduced, and that no new institution — such as the European External Action Service — should be created, because any newly created department, agency, body or international institution will never cease to exist. Reagan used to say that a government bureau is the nearest thing to eternal life we will ever see on this earth.
Reagan used to say that a government bureau is the nearest thing to eternal life we will ever see on this earth. “The bureaucracy once created has one fundamental rule above all others: Preserve the bureaucracy.” The same is true for every new EU competence and only dreamers believe that they will ever be transferred back to the member states.
The same goes for union programs, subsidies and funds. This is what Reagan wrote about his first year in office: “We started to restore the authority of states and municipalities, which had been taken away from them by the federal bureaucracy and we increasingly used the so-called aggregate subventions which enabled the teachers and local representatives to talk into the distribution of aid and limited the competences of the social engineers from Washington who were used to decide and prescribe through “earmarked” subsidies what the states and towns should do”
Self-government vs. Brussels
It is the same in the European Union today. The bureaucrats from the European Commission in Brussels determine the projects for which the money from the EU budget will be used, and for which the regions, towns and municipalities can apply.
In order to be able to apply, however, applicants often need to allocate up to 40 percent of the final sum of the Union subsidy to projects on which they did not decide and which therefore do not constitute a necessary priority for them. This means that they are spending money which could be put to better and more effective use on projects other than those which have been decided in the capital of another member state.
Just before the 1964 election, Reagan said: “This is the issue of this election: Whether we believe in our capacity for self-government or whether we abandon the American revolution and confess that a little intellectual elite in a far-distant capital can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.” In Brussels, when they celebrate Reagan, they only recall his Berlin speech and the fall of the Iron Curtain.
They do not like to hear this in Brussels. That is why, when they celebrate Reagan, they only recall his Berlin speech and the fall of the Iron Curtain. You will not hear from them about democracy, freedom or elections, let alone about the defense of capitalism or the free market. They are not saying the EU should do less, or that what Reagan used to say about the American federal government holds true for the EU as well: that it is often the problem, not a solution.
They do not criticize the omnipotence of the European Court of Justice. They do not discuss the need to reduce EU legislation, the power of the Commission and the number of its officials. They compare their number with the number of government employees in the member states, and if they do want to reduce anything, it is the powers of the member states and their governments themselves. They do not aim at creating a federation: their ambition is to create a European Union without states, in which nations will be a historical relic.
The very word “nation” is not politically correct in today’s European Union, because it relates to a clearly defined demos, with its historically given territory, its past, traditions, distinctiveness and uniqueness; an entity which has its own interests and with which the citizens identify. This is something of which Reagan was always proud and which he always awakened in the Americans.
Lesson for the Eurozone
The year of Reagan’s centennial is a year when politicians in the EU are trying to deal with the consequences of the economic crisis. They all celebrate Reagan, but they are tackling the crisis in a manner against which Reagan warned. They wrongly assume that the crisis was primarily a market failure, and that any future crises can be prevented by greater government intervention in the economy. The exact opposite is true. They are trying to cure the illness by prescribing what caused it in the first place. Reagan said: “The more the plans fail, the more the planners plan.”
Instead of abolishing useless restrictions and repealing thousands of pages of regulations and directives which stand in the way of the economic growth, they are trying to come up with new ones. The impacts of the crisis will not be minimized by greater amounts of redistribution, and the budgetary discipline of some eurozone countries will not be improved like this either.
On the contrary, it will motivate some eurozone members to make irresponsible decisions and to rely on help from others, instead of taking responsibility for their own decisions. It is equally bad to increase taxes instead of cutting public spending. Reagan cut taxes because he knew that it would enable people to spend, invest and save more money: tax cuts help to revive the economy.
Hatred for Colonel Gaddafi
This year is also the year of the war in Libya. Ronald Reagan detested Colonel Gaddafi and he considered him “one of the worst terrorists in the world.” He did not hesitate to make it clear that is unacceptable for Libya to break international law. He wrote the following words in his memoirs: “I sensed that we must do something with that clown in Tripoli. We had a range of plans, but realized that no matter what we were to do, we had to bear in mind that there were more than a thousand American workers in the oil industry in Libya. Gaddafi would certainly not hesitate and make them the victims of his anger.”
Reagan, however, was not among those who shook hands with Gaddafi or had their pictures taken with him in a friendly hug, only to call for his resignation four months later and send fighter jets against his troops. Reagan was not among those who shook hands with Gaddafi only to call for his resignation four months later and send fighter jets against his troops.
His dislike for Gaddafi, especially after the assassination of the Egyptian president Sadat, did not come from some momentous attempt to divert attention from domestic problems, or from an attempt to make himself more visible before an election campaign. For some politicians in Europe today, the war in Libya is a substitute topic. It does not originate in their contempt and long-term denouncements of Colonel Gaddafi. It originates in a feeling they did not have four months previously.
They present themselves as messengers and importers of the good. They decide about someone without him, just like the unelected officials in Brussels who do not have — and do not want to have — a program which they would have to defend before the electorate. They are not accountable to the people, but they are convinced that they know what is best for them and they use the greatest efforts and financial means for media campaigns to try to convince citizens that this is the case.
“Yet any time you and I question the schemes of the do-gooders, we are denounced as being against their humanitarian goals. They say we are always ‘against’ things, never ‘for’ anything. Well, the trouble with our liberal friends is not that they are ignorant, but that they know so much that isn’t so,” Reagan said.
According to his former advisor, Peggy Noonan, “The biggest misunderstanding about Reagan’s political life is that he was inevitable. He was not. He had to fight for every inch; he had to make it happen.” He did not believe in a destiny that will come about no matter what we do. He believed instead in a fate that will befall us if we do nothing. Today’s world is no less complicated than Reagan’s era. The difference is that there is so little of Reagan in it. There are plenty of short-sighted politicians and too few statesmen who have the backbone, ideals, long-term vision and sense of direction which were Ronald Reagan’s finest qualities.
Jiří Brodský is Deputy Director of the Foreign Affairs Department in the Office of the President of the Czech Republic.