Ronald Reagan: How An Ordinary Man Became an Extraordinary Leader. By Dinesh D'Souza. Free Press, $25, 292 pp.
Ronald Reagan left office in BY 1989 with a 70 percent public approval rating-higher than that of either Eisenhower or Kennedy. Yet, despite overwhelming popular approval, the intellectual elites despise him. Why?
Dinesh D'Souza's fine biography confronts head-on the "Revised Standard Version" of the Reagan Presidency. Thanks to leftists in the soi-disant mainstream media and academia, everyone knows that Reagan was a dim-witted, lazy man with an actor's gift for fooling the public. He supposedly slept through Cabinet meetings; ignored his advisors; was "detached" from the details of governing.
And this is not too surprising since, after all, Reagan was the son of the town drunk and graduated with a "C" average from the undistinguished Eureka College. Left-liberals were apoplectic. The Atlantic Monthly accused him of "sleepwalking through history." Harper's opined that it was "humiliating to think of this unlettered, self-assured bumpkin being our President." The New Republic called him "virtually brain dead."
D'Souza notes that Reagan "lacked the two characteristics of the liberally educated person: self-consciousness and open-mindedness." Even conservative intellectuals were embarrassed by him.
After laying out all these criticisms, D'Souza launches a fascinating exploration of how this flawed "ordinary" man was able to achieve so much, arguing that Reagan was a visionary "who was able to see the world differently from the way it was."
While others obsessed over the problems of the present, Reagan focused on the future. He did not get bogged down in the little details of administration and politics that managed to stunt or destroy the presidencies of much smarter men like Nixon, Carter, Bush, or Clinton. D'Souza further argues that Reagan possessed "what Edmund Burke terms 'moral imagination.' He saw the world through the clear lens of right and wrong... land] firmly believed that, however prolonged the struggle, good would eventually prevail over evil."
Reagan's outlook and character came from lived experience. He learned first hand of the perniciousness of Communism as the head of the Actors' Guild in Hollywood. Reagan distilled the hopes and dreams of ordinary hardworking Americans he talked with during his years as a traveling spokesman for GE. He learned from corporate executives the consequences of excessive government regulation and high taxes. Finally, unlike most politicians, Reagan didn't care for personal glory. "There is no limit to what a man can do or where he can go if he doesn't mind who gets the credit," read a sign on his White House desk.
However outwardly friendly, Reagan was self-contained. D'Souza claims he had no close friends and was distant with his children. "People would work for him for a decade, then leave, and he would not associate with them... he wasn't their pawn, they were his," writes D'Souza. Incapable of genuine intimacy, Reagan did not lust for public approval. By contrast, Bill Clinton responds like one of Pavlov's dogs to every opinion-poll blip.
Despite these criticisms, was Reagan really an "extraordinary" leader? Yes.
"Ronald Reagan won the Cold War without firing a shot," former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher has commented. When Reagan took office, the Soviet Union was on the march and the smartest American policy wonks thought that the best we could hope for was "mutual co-existence." Reagan saw the conflict in moral terms, denouncing the Soviet Union as an "evil empire." He began an immediate military buildup, confident the Soviets could not match it.
Only Reagan had the vision to argue for strategic missile defenses, which his advisors opposed vehemently. Eventually, Reagan achieved what his fiercest critics thought impossible---instead of merely "freezing" nuclear weapons, he negotiated the first-ever reduction.
When Gorbachev responded to U.S. dynamism by trying to open up the Soviet Union, the oppressed people overthrew the Communist tyranny. "No weapon in the arsenals of the world is so formidable as the will and moral courage of free men and women," said Reagan in his first inaugural speech. The last two decades proved him right.
Reagan also got America back on the road to prosperity. When he took office, the U.S. was suffering double-digit inflation, high unemployment, and sky-high interest rates. Harvard's Robert Reich and MIT's Lester Thurow were advocating massive government programs in the form of "industrial policy" as a panacea for our economic ills. Instead of flinching at the pain that the Federal Reserve was inflicting as it wrung inflation out of the economy, Reagan urged the American people to "stay the course." Reagan cut the income tax twice. Staying the course and the tax cuts resulted in a seven-year boom.
Despite these achievements, the Reagan administration didn't usher in heaven on earth. He failed to cut the size of the federal government, and his tax cuts, combined with the military buildup, increased the federal deficit. Nevertheless, Reagan left the country in much better shape than when he started.
Finally, D'Souza reminds us of the importance of Reagan's optimism as the foundation for his policies: "Reagan was confident that if Americans were given greater political and economic freedom, they would use it productively and decently. Freedom, in Reagan's view, promotes not just the good life but also a life that is good. He insisted that when we place confidence in people, we bring out the best in them."
This is a point that today's dour conservatives would do well to heed.
Ronald Bailey is a Washington, DC-based writer who has written for The Wall Street Journal, National Review, and Reason.
HEALING THE PLANET: STRATEGIES FOR RESOLVING THE ENVIRONMENTAL CRISIS By Paul R. Erlich and Anne H. Erlich, Addison-Wesley, 366 pp., $22.95.
FREE MARKET ENVIRONMENTALISM By Terry L. Anderson and Donald R. Leal, Westview Press, 192 pp., S33.50.
Paul Ehrlich has been forecasting doom for nearly a quarter of a century-yet the end never gets any nearer. In his 1968 bestseller The Population Bomb, he predicted: "The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s the world will undergo famines-hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now." At the same time he painted lurid scenarios of future doom, predicting that by 1980 the oceans would die and
Furthermore, he predicted that hundreds of thousands of Americans would choke to death during "smoke disasters" in
Of course, none of these gloomy predictions came true. Yet, with each year, Ehrlich garners ever more respect from policy makers, intellectuals, and the press. It is as if astrologer Jeanne Dixon were to be elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences on the basis of her horoscopes. The conventional wisdom of doom never goes out of style, and its peddlers are handsomely rewarded by an ever more fearful society.
Now comes Ehrlich's most recent addition to his already lengthy corpus of apocalyptic environmentalism (coauthored with his wife), Healing the Planet. Connoisseurs will immediately recognize the familiar Ehrlich style, complete with new predictions of impending doom based on the thinnest of scientific data. The predictions, of course, are followed by massive global programs for social and economic reform. Ehrlich never tires of menacing the world with famine. In Healing, he sings the old familiar refrain again-"a billion more people could starve in the first few decades of the next century." The apocalypse has been delayed, without acknowledgement, from the 1970s to, say, the 2020s. But notice that past predictive failures have caused Ehrlich to become more cautious: He no longer forthrightly declares that billions will starve, but instead shifts to the conditional tense, billions could starve.
Always on the cutting edge, Ehrlich incorporates the doom du jour into his latest prognostications. But not even Ehrlich is totally impervious to evidence. He now churlishly admits that "there are no serious limitations on fossil-fuel supplies now or in the immediate future" and that he was wrong about pesticides killing the oceans. In Healing, he still worries about "overpopulation," but also embraces the latest fads, including acid rain, ozone depletion, freshwater shortages, topsoil erosion, deforestation, and the granddaddy of all environmental dooms, global warming.
Is he right this time? Probably not. As birth rates slow around the world, food production continues easily to outstrip population growth, says Hudson Institute agriculture expert Dennis Avery. World population should top out at 10-11 billion in the next century.
Moreover, in 1990, the National Acid Precipitation Assessment Program completed a 10-year $600 million scientific study that concluded acid rain has caused no discernible damage to forests, crops, and lakes.
Global ozone has apparently declined to levels similar to those found in the 1960s, which harmed no one. Paradoxically, harmful ultraviolet radiation, which ozone screens out, has declined by as much as 10 percent over the past century. The Antarctic ozone "hole" has not significantly harmed the ecosystem there, nor will it grow to engulf the planet.
"The beginning of the end" is the way Ehrlich styles "global warming." Computer models predict the globe's average temperature will increase by 2ï¿½ F to 9ï¿½ F due to heat trapped by higher levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide liberated by burning fossil fuels. Even global warming propagandist Stephen Schneider admits there is no evidence yet for enhanced "greenhouse warming." Distinguished MIT meteorologist Richard Lindzen dismisses predictions of catastrophic warming and says the world may experience "a virtually undetectable rise of a few tenths of a degree" over the next century. Ehrlich offers a number of draconian solutions to the "human predicament," such as confiscatory carbon taxes, subsidies for alternative energy programs, massive wealth and technology transfers to the developing world, and reduction of living standards in industrialized countries. He asks everyone to "tithe" by devoting 10 percent of their time to environmentalism.
But perhaps an environmental counterrevolution is in the offing. Think tanks like the Political Economy Research Center (PERC) and the Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment (FREE) are beginning to lay the intellectual and policy foundations of a new free-market environmentalism. PERC economist Terry Anderson and statistician Donald Leal explain how free markets protect the environment in their superb book Free Market Environmentalism. (This new free-market approach should not to be confused with the ponderings of free-market opponents like the infamous ecological economist Herman Daly.)
"At the heart of free market environmentalism is a system of well-specified property rights to natural resources," write the authors. Much of their analysis is built on the powerful insight that people take care of the things they own. They reject the conventional argument that environmental degradation results from "market failure," which only government can solve through regulation. Political resource managers-like market managers-impose externalities on others. According to
For example, the U.S. Forest Service loses up to 98 cents for every dollar it spends on timber auctions in
Political managers and the interest groups they serve simply cannot take into account all of the information needed to manage resources properly. Markets are superb at cheaply marshaling relevant information for managing all categories of resources.
Property rights are not static; they evolve over time. For example, the invention of barbed wire enabled ranchers to prevent overgrazing because they could stake out enforceable property rights out on the range. So too, will new environmental entrepreneurs delineate new property rights. Among the most important may be those involving clean air, the lumber industry, and ocean fishing grounds, the value of which can be established by market, instead of political, transactions.
The authors provide examples of how strong property rights and markets have protected everything from British rivers and Western range land to
Will free-market environmentalism be given a chance? Sadly, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency seems likely to become the largest central planning bureaucracy in the world, now that the Pentagon (never renowned for its efficiency) is winding down and communism has been chucked into the dustbin of history. For the Earth's wellbeing, let's hope environmental activists will soon scorn Ehrlich and his ilk and heed Anderson and Leal's free-market message.
Ronald Bailey, currently at the Cato Institute, is writing a book on apocalyptic environmentalism for St. Martin's Press.