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The PJ Tatler

Robert Wargas


June 12, 2012 - 9:19 am

Has anyone else noticed the irksome tendency among progressives to invoke the memory of Ronald Reagan as a last-ditch argument for their policy prescriptions? Usually this involves the pseudo-clever, contrarian Chomsky tactic of taking a piece of accepted knowledge and, as Marx did to Hegel, turning it on its head. (“You think water is made of hydrogen and oxygen? Ha ha, it’s actually made of sulfur!”)

This usually takes the form of the phrase “even Ronald Reagan” followed by a left-wing policy. For example: “Even Ronald Reagan raised the debt ceiling!” Do you remember hearing that one?

I’ve also heard: “We should leave Afghanistan! Even Ronald Reagan left Lebanon!”

Now we’re told that Reagan was a Keynesian. Paul Krugman, the dirigiste-in-residence at the New York Times, writes:

“Reagan, not Obama, was the big spender. While there was a brief burst of government spending early in the Obama administration — mainly for emergency aid programs like unemployment insurance and food stamps — that burst is long past. Indeed, at this point, government spending is falling fast, with real per capita spending falling over the past year at a rate not seen since the demobilization that followed the Korean War.

Why was government spending much stronger under Reagan than in the current slump? ‘Weaponized Keynesianism’ — Reagan’s big military buildup — played some role. But the big difference was real per capita spending at the state and local level, which continued to rise under Reagan but has fallen significantly this time around.”

I suppose Krugman will now have to go back and revise all of his old columns in which he derisively mentions “trickle down economics,” a synonym for the Reagan administration among the Left. Hasn’t he spent the last decade whining about how the Reagan years were a time of mass austerity and inequality?

Progressives invoke Reagan for several reasons:

(1) They have no intellectual or political legacy of their own to invoke. (Jimmy Carter? George McGovern? Walter Mondale?)

(2) Progressives know that a whole lot of Americans loved and still love Reagan; this is an implicit admission that their own ideology is not popular outside of editorial offices and Ivy League lecture halls. Thus they must cite a figure that people actually liked as opposed to failed social engineers.

(3) Progressivism is not based on an actual coherent philosophy. You might disagree with conservatives and libertarians, but they at least have an intellectual and philosophical lineage with which you can grapple and debate. Conservatives cite Burke, Hayek, and Milton Friedman. Whom do liberals cite? When was the last time you heard a John Dewey reference in a syndicated column? Absent this respectable pedigree, progressives must, like parasites, graft their ideas onto conservative figures in order to appear valid.

Robert Wargas is a contributor to PJ Media. A native of Long Island, he was educated at the City University of New York and Yale University, and has also written for The Daily Telegraph of London and The Weekly Standard. Outside of opinion writing, he has worked as a professional historian for a major research laboratory and university, documenting the history of biotechnology since the 1970s. He has also reported for both weekly and daily newspapers, including Newsday. He maintains a personal blog/website at Follow him on Twitter @RobertWargas
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