America’s 20th Century Vision: Well Intentioned, Doomed to Fail
July 31, 2011
Mrs. Reagan, thank you for this opportunity. And in a moment I’ll talk a little about what this opportunity means to me in general, but let me just say it is one of the highest privileges and honors I’ve ever had to be able to come here and speak in this place.
And earlier today I was able to walk through here, and not just to see the exhibits, but to meet the people, some from all over the world, that were touched by the extraordinary life of an extraordinary man. The contributions that he made to this country were tremendous, but the contributions he made to the world were even greater. And in just an hour and a half of walking through here and meeting people who had been touched by those contributions, it reminded me what a privilege it is that I would get to stand here today and speak to all of you from a place like this and I am honored beyond any words that I could use to describe it and I thank you for this invitation. Thank you.
In fact I have a distinct honor because, not many people can say, that the only two people I have ever walked down the aisle with are here today. One is my wife Jeanette and the other is Mrs. Reagan that we just walked down here, so.
I tell people all the time that I was born and raised in Ronald Reagan’s America. I was raised in Ronald Reagan’s America. He was elected when I was in fourth grade and he left—he left office when I was in high school. Those are very important years, fourth grade through high school they were the years that formed so much of what today what I believe and know to be true about the world and about our nation.
Ronald Reagan’s era can be defined, number one in most people’s mind, by the Cold War and by the end of it. And by the strong principles he stood for. Ronald Reagan didn’t just believe that the Soviet Union and communism could fail, he believed it was inevitably destined to fail. And that it was our obligation to accelerate that process. That all we had to do was be America and that that would happen.
And that defined his Presidency. And that defined Ronald Reagan’s America in the time that I lived. The time that I grew up during that era.
There was something else though that defined the Reagan Presidency and that was defining the proper role of government. He did that better than any American has done ever before. And I stand before you, it has always been important for Americans and America to do that, but I stand here before you today all of us gathered here today at a time when defining the proper role of government is as important as it has ever been.
The answer to what the proper role of government is really lies in what kind of country we want to have. And I think the vast majority of Americans share a common vision for what they want our nation to be. They want our nation to be two things at the same time.
Number one: they want it to be free and prosperous, a place where your economic hopes and dreams can be accomplished and brought up to fruition. That through hard work and sacrifice you can be who God meant you to be. No matter who your parents were, no matter where you were born, no matter how much misfortune you may have met in your life, if you have a good idea, you can be anything if you work hard and play by the rules. Most, if not all, Americans share that vision of a free and prosperous America.
But they also want us to be a compassionate America, a place where people are not left behind. We are a nation that is not going to tolerate those who cannot take care of themselves being left to fend for themselves. We’re not going to tolerate our children being punished for the errors of their parents and society.
So, we are a nation that aspires to two things—prosperity and compassion. And Ronald Reagan understood that. Perhaps better, again, than any voice I’ve ever heard speak on it.
Now America’s leaders during the last century set out to accomplish that, but they reached a conclusion that has placed us on this path, except for the Reagan Administration to be quite frank. Both Republicans and Democrats established a role for government in America that said, yes, we’ll have a free economy, but we will also have a strong government, who through regulations and taxes will control the free economy and through a series of government programs, will take care of those in our society who are falling behind.
That was a vision crafted in the twentieth century by our leaders and though it was well intentioned, it was doomed to fail from the start. It was doomed to fail from the start first and foremost because it forgot that the strength of our nation begins with its people and that these programs actually weakened us as a people. You see, almost in forever, it was institutions and society that assumed the role of taking care of one another. If someone was sick in your family, you took care of them. If a neighbor met misfortune, you took care of them. You saved for your retirement and your future because you had to.
We took these things upon ourselves and our communities and our families and our homes and our churches and our synagogues. But all that changed when the government began to assume those responsibilities. All of the sudden, for an increasing number of people in our nation, it was no longer necessary to worry about saving for security because that was the government’s job. For those who met misfortune, that wasn’t our obligation to take care of them, that was the government’s job. And as government crowded out the institutions in our society that did these things traditionally, it weakened our people in a way that undermined our ability to maintain our prosperity.
The other thing is that we built a government and its programs without any account whatsoever for how we were going to pay for it. There was not thought given into how this was going to be sustained. When Social Security first started, there was sixteen workers for every retiree. Today there are only three for every retiree and soon there will only be two for every retiree.
Program after program was crafted without any thought as to how they will be funded in future years or the impact it would have on future Americans. They were done with the best of intentions, but because it weakened our people and didn’t take account the simple math of not being able to spend more money than you have, it was destined to fail and brought us to the point at which we are at today.
It is a startling place to be because the twentieth century was not a time of decline for America, it was the American century. Americans in the twentieth century built here—we built here—the richest, most prosperous nation in the history of the world. And yet today we have built for ourselves a government that not even the richest and most prosperous nation in the face of the Earth can fund or afford to pay for. An extraordinary tragic accomplishment, if you can call it that.
And that is where we stand today.
And so, if defining the proper role of government was one of the central issues of the Reagan era, it remains that now. The truth is that people are going around saying that, well, we’re worried about—let me just add something to this because I think this is an important forum for candor.
I know that it is popular in my party to blame the President, the current President. But the truth is the only thing this President has done is accelerate policies that were already in place and were doomed to fail. All he is doing through his policies is making the day of reckoning come faster, but it was coming nonetheless.
What we have now is not sustainable. The role of government and the role that government plays now in America cannot be sustained the way it is. Now some are worried about how it has to change, we have to change it. The good news is it is going to change. It has to change. That’s not the issue. The issue is not whether the role that government now plays in America will change. The question is how will it change. Will it change because we make the changes necessary? Or will it change because our creditors force us to make these changes?
And over the next few moments I hope to advocate to you—I don’t think that I have to given the make up the crowd—but I hope to advocate to you that in fact what we have before us is a golden opportunity afforded to few Americans.
We have the opportunity—within our lifetime—to actually craft a proper role for government in our nation that will allow us to come closer than any Americans have ever come to our collective vision of a nation where both prosperity and compassion exist side-by-side.
To do that, we must begin by embracing certain principles that are absolutely true. Number one—the free enterprise system does not create poverty. The free enterprise system does not leave people behind. People are poor and people are left behind because they do not have access to the free enterprise system because something in their lives or in their community has denied them access to the free enterprise system. All over the world this truism is expressing itself every single day. Every nation on the Earth that embraces market economics and the free enterprise system is pulling millions of its people out of poverty. The free enterprise system creates prosperity, not denies it.
The second truism that we must understand is that poverty does not create our social problems, our social problems create our poverty. Let me give you an example. All across this country, at this very moment, there are children who are born into and are living with five strikes against them, already, through no fault of their own. They’re born into substandard housing in dangerous neighborhoods, to broken families, being raised by their grandmothers because they never knew their father and their mom is either working two jobs to make ends meet or just not home. These kids are going to struggle to succeed unless something dramatic happens in their life.
These truisms are important because they lead the public policies that define the proper role of government. On the prosperity side, the number one objective of our economic policy, in fact the singular objective of our economic policy from a government perspective is simple—it’s growth. It’s not distribution of wealth, it’s not picking winners and losers. The goal of our public policy should be growth. Growth in our economy, the creation of jobs, and of opportunity, of equality of opportunity through our governmental policies.
Now often when I give these speeches, members of the media and others get frustrated because there is nothing new or novel in it. We don’t have to reinvent this. It’s worked before and it will work again and they are simple things. Like a tax code that’s fair, predictable, easy to comply with. Like a regulatory framework that doesn’t exist to justify the existence of the regulators, that doesn’t exist to accomplish through regulation and rulemaking what they couldn’t accomplish through the Congress.
And it is the proper role of government to invest in infrastructure. Yes, government should build roads and bridges, but it should do so as part of economic development as part of infrastructure. Not as a jobs program.
And government should invest in our people at the state level. Education is important, critically important. We must educate and train our children to compete and succeed in the 21st century. Our kids are not going to grow up to compete with children in Alabama or Mississippi. They’re going to grow up to compete with kids in India, and China, all over the world; children who are learning to compete and succeed in the 21st century themselves.
These are proper roles of government within the framework of creating an environment where economic security and prosperity is possible.
And on the compassion side of the ledger, which is also important to Americans. And it’s important that we remind ourselves of that. I don’t really like labels in politics, but I will gladly accept the label of conservatism. Conservatism is not about leaving people behind.
Conservatism is about empowering people to catch up, to give them the tools at their disposable that make it possible for them to access all the hope, all the promise, all the opportunity that America offers. And our programs to help them should reflect that.
Now, yes, there are people that cannot help themselves. And those folks we will always help. We are too rich and prosperous a nation to leave them to fend for themselves. But all the others that can work should be given the means of empowering themselves to enter the marketplace and the workforce. And our programs and our policies should reflect that. We do need a safety net, but it cannot be a way of life. It must be there to help those who have fallen, to stand up and try again.
And by the way, I believe in America’s retirement programs. But I recognize that these programs as they are currently structured are not sustainable for future generations. And so we must embrace public policy changes to these programs.
Now, I personally believe that you cannot make changes to these programs for the people that are currently in them right now. My mother just—well she gets mad when I say this. She is in her eighth decade of life and she is on both of these programs. I can’t ask my mom to go out and get another job. She paid into the system. But the truth is that Social Security and Medicare, as important as they are, cannot look for me how they look for her.
My generation must fully accept, the sooner the better, that if we want there to be a Social Security and a Medicare when we retire, and if we want America as we know it to continue when we retire, then we must accept and begin to make changes to those programs now, for us.
These changes will not be easy. Speeches are easy. Actually going out and doing them will be difficult. It’s never easy to go to people and say what you’ve always known we have to change. It isn’t. It will be hard. It will actually really call upon a specific generation of Americans, those of us, like myself, decades away from retirement, to assume certain realities—that we will continue to pay into and fund for a system that we will never fully access—that we are prepared to do whatever it takes in our lives and in our generation so that our parents and grandparents can enjoy the fruits of their labor and so that our children and our grandchildren can inherit the fullness of America’s promise.
But you see, every generation of Americans has been called to do their part to ensure that the American promise continues. We’re not alone, we’re not unique, we’re not the only ones. In fact, I would argue to you that we have it pretty good. And yet I think it’s fully appropriate that those of us raised in Ronald Reagan’s America are actually the ones who are being asked to stand up and respond to the issues of the day. For we, perhaps better than any other people who have ever lived in this nation, should understand how special and unique America truly is.
When I was a boy, the world looked very different than it does now. I remember vividly how many assumed and believed that Soviet style communism was destined to at least rule half the world, and they urged our public policy leaders to accept that and to understand that America would have to share this planet with a godless, oppressive form of government that perhaps was destined to overtake us one day as well. There were many who discouraged our leaders from talking about the inevitability of decline for communism and how it was destined to fail. There were many who encouraged us to simply accept this as the way it has to be, and who told us that America could no longer continue to be what America had been—the world was just too complicated and too difficult, it had changed too much. Sounds familiar, but that’s what they told us.
But one person at least didn’t believe them, and he happened to be the President of the United States. He actually believed that all we had to do is be America, that our example alone would one day lead to the decline and fall of a system that was unsustainable because he understood that the desire to be free, prosperous and compassionate, although shared by all Americans, was universal. The desire to leave your children better off than yourself is something we hold as Americans, but so do people all over the world.
Because he understood that the principles that this nation was founded upon was not that we are all people in North America are endowed by their creator with inalienable rights, but that all people are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights. That transcribed in our hearts is the desire to live in freedom and in liberty, that it is our natural right, and that government’s job is to protect those rights, not to grant them to us. This is the natural state of man, and anything that prevents it is unnatural and doomed to fail and that all we had to do was be America. That all we had to do was be prosperous and be free. All we had to do was live our republic. All we had to do was be a voice for these principles anywhere in the world where these principles were challenged and oppressed, and eventually time was on our side. And how right he was.
When I was in fourth grade, the Soviet Union was a co-equal power to the United States. Before I finished college, the Soviet Union didn’t even exist. And so many people born since then have no idea what it even was.
To me, this is extremely special, and I’ll tell you why. During the eighties, politically especially, there were two people that deeply influenced me. One clearly was Ronald Reagan, the other was my grandfather, who lived with us most of the time in our home.
We lived part of our life, especially the key years, 80-84, in Las Vegas, Nevada. And my grandfather loved to sit on the porch of our home and smoke cigars. He was Cuban.
Three cigars a day, he lived to be 84. This is not an advertisement for cigar smoking, I’m just saying to you that.
He loved to talk about politics. My grandfather was born in 1899. He was born to an agricultural family in Cuba. He was stricken with polio when he was a very young man, he couldn’t work the fields, so they sent him to school. He was the only member of his family that could read. And because he could read. He got a job at the local cigar rolling factory.
They didn’t have radio or television, so they would hire someone to sit at the front of the cigar factory and read to the workers while they worked. So, the first thing he would read every day, of course, was the daily newspaper. Then he would read some novel to entertain them. And then, when he was done reading things he actually went out and rolled the cigars because he needed the extra money. But through all of those years of reading, he became extremely knowledgeable about history, not to mention all the classics.
He loved to talk about history. My grandfather loved being Cuban. He loved being from Cuba. He never would have left Cuba if he didn’t have to. But he knew America was special. He knew that without America Cuba would still be a Spanish colony. He knew that without America the Nazis and Imperial Japan would have won World War II. When he was born in 1899 there weren’t even airplanes. By the time I was born, an American had walked on the surface of the moon.
And he knew something else. He knew that he had lost his country. And that the only thing preventing other people in the world from losing theirs to communism was this country—this nation.
It is easy for us who are born here—like me—and so many of you, to take for granted how special and unique this place is. But when you come from somewhere else, when what you always knew and loved, you lost, you don’t have that luxury.
My Grandfather didn’t know America was exceptional because he read about it in a book. He knew about it because he lived it and saw it with his eyes. That powerful lesson is the story of Ronald Reagan’s Presidency. It’s our legacy as a people. And it’s who we have a chance to be again. And I think that’s important for all of us because being an American is not just a blessing, it’s a responsibility.
As we were commanded to do long ago, “Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.”
Well, as we gather here today in this place, that pays homage and tribute to the greatest American of the twentieth century, we are reminded that for him and for our nation, being a light to the world, that’s not just our common history, it remains our common destiny. Thank you.