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  • George Radanovich

What Paralyzed the Reagan Revolution

The institutions of the private sector, not government, are the engines that will fuel the rebuilding of our faltering nation.

It ended soon after it began, this revolution. Not with a bang, or even a whimper. The soldiers, unsure of their cause, simply left the battlefield. As the sun set on the retreating army, the sun also set on the vision of President Ronald Reagan's "Shining City on a Hill," which remains darkened to this day.

The revolution’s first salvo came not from the barrel of a gun, but by the stroke of a pen. President Reagan’s vision that government was the problem, not the solution, sought outlets to reduce government’s role in the life of the nation. Believing that a robust economy would give private charities the resources to step in and provide social services as the federal government slowed its welfare spending, President Reagan signed Executive Order Number 12329 on October 14, 1982 creating the President’s Task Force on Private Sector Initiatives.

Finished by New Year’s Eve 1982, midway through Reagan’s first term, the Task Force reported back to the president the disappointing news.

Richard C. Cornuelle, a libertarian and once a member of the intimate circle around the émigré Russian novelist Ayn Rand, and author of Reclaiming the American Dream, observed:

C. William Verity, the chairman of the committee…. told the press, “It is unrealistic to expect us to fill what is not just a gap but a chasm.” The New York Times reported: “Leaders of private charities say they will not be able to meet President Reagan’s challenge to raise enough money for the needy and provide enough volunteers to offset cuts in federal social programs.” Brian O’Connell, president of the Independent Sector, said on cue, “It would be a disservice to the president and the public to exaggerate what voluntary organizations can do.” When the dust had settled it appeared that when the president had called on the independent sector to help roll back the welfare state, it responded that it could not and would not, and moreover begged him to stop threatening to reduce the rate of increase of the federal grants on which it had come to rely.

It is difficult to sustain a movement based on Reagan’s vision if the movement does not want to move. The private sector, the army in which Reagan had placed such great faith, had blinked; mortally wounding the conservatism that he believed was the vaccine to stop the spread of the welfare state virus. As a movement to change America, conservatism was finished.

Woefully ignorant of the private sector and how to transition government responsibilities, conservatives moved on to government led programs like “Thousand Points of Light” and “Compassionate Conservatism.” But these programs had the opposite of the desired effect, becoming new outlets of government expansion into the private sector. Like liberals, conservatives have become government activists, endlessly looking for smaller government solutions from “inside the beltway.” They are on a fool’s errand.

Instead of reducing the ranks of citizens who rely on the safety net of government welfare as a last resort, they assumed that the transfer of government programs to the private sector was a dollar for dollar match and would be sustained or increased.

They failed to understand and utilize powerful levers and keystone habits, faith’s power of persuasion to convince people and communities to do right regardless of what the law allows, or a family’s power to build a strong foundation under the next generation, or the power of the economy to expand and create more jobs because people are living successful lives not mired in dysfunction and dependence.

Somehow the Great Communicator’s message got lost in translation. It’s about time conservatives and libertarians got reacquainted with it:

The institutions of the private sector, not government, are the engines that will fuel the rebuilding or our faltering nation.

Cornuelle eventually left the libertarian movement and devoted the rest of his life, until his death in 2011, promoting a “renaissance of independent action” that “starves government of its responsibility.”

It is a fascinating choice of words. Starving government of its responsibilities. This would be the most dramatic shift in American political thought since the New Deal, and it must happen or the United States will slide into the pit inhabited by much of the West.


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