In his first Inaugural Address on January 20, 1981, Ronald Reagan stated “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” For decades that quote has fueled a Republican Party that has morphed beyond Reagan’s belief in limited, decentralized government. By 2012, the Republican Party had taken Reagan’s principles to extremes way beyond the place the conservative but pragmatic Reagan had advocated. Mitt Romney, a former moderate Republican Governor of Massachusetts and the son of the great Liberal Republican George Romney, only won the Republican nomination for President in 2012 by abandoning many of the policies for which he and his father had stood. At around the same time, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush pointed out that Ronald Reagan and his Dad, President George H.W. Bush, would have had a difficult time securing the nomination of the Republican Party in 2012.
Reagan’s famous quote about government is taken out of context by the all-government-is-bad crowd. What Reagan said was “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” The present crisis to which he referred was the state of the economy and the high inflation that existed in 1980.
Reagan’s quote is used today as if the words “In this present crisis” were not part of what he said, as if it were a blanket statement about all government, all the time.
In fact, as described by Geoffrey Kabaservice in his outstanding book Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, From Eisenhower to the Tea Party:
“Reagan’s inaugural address revealed his skill at rousing conservatives while retaining moderates. The address is best known for his pronouncement that ‘government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem.’ But Reagan quickly reassured the nation that he was no right-wing anarchist: ‘[I]t’s not my intention to do away with government. It is rather to make it work–work with us, not over us; to stand by our side, not ride on our back. Government can and must provide opportunity, not smother it; foster productivity, not stifle it.’
It is rational to believe in the small, decentralized government that Ronald Reagan embraced. It is a wholly other matter to believe that all government is inherently bad.
Some on the political right who are viscerally against government could help address our dysfunctional, gridlocked government by advocating for efficiency, along with smaller government, rather than complaining that all government is problematic. And, some on the political left who advocate for a larger government role in society could convince people who are skeptical about government to support a broader role for it if they combined their advocacy for large government with an expectation that it function like a well-run business.
Saying that all government is bad limits the tools our nation can use to succeed. It is a bit like arbitrarily saying that only football players whose last names start with the letters A through K can play for our team. Such a team will be weaker than one that uses all the players available.
To illustrate how weakening such an arbitrarily restrictive approach can be,take a look at how the University of Alabama football team performed before and after it integrated racially. In 1970, the University of Southern California’s football team, a fully-integrated team, traveled to play Alabama, a still segregated team. USC won the game 42 to 21. Sam Cunningham, a USC running back, had twelve carries for 135 yards and two touchdowns in the first quarter alone. This thrashing convinced Alabama of the need to integrate, and, in 1971 Alabama recruited its first Black player. The Crimson Tide’s wins, losses and ties in the years before integrating and after speak for themselves.
After the USC-Alabama game, it was said that USC’s Sam Cunningham did more to integrate the University of Alabama in sixty minutes than civil rights legislation had done in twenty years.”