Joe Gillis: “You’re Norma Desmond. You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big.”
Norma Desmond: “I *am* big. It’s the *pictures* that got small.”–Sunset Boulevard, 1950
Ronald Reagan was big.
It’s our politics that’s gotten small. Which is why government is so big, and led by the smallest of men.
Mark Steyn reprints a masterful column on Reagan, as it touches on British elections:
“We are a nation that has a government – not the other way around.” Of all the marvellous Ronald Reagan lines retailed over the weekend, that’s my favourite. He said it in his inaugural address in 1981, and it encapsulates his legacy at home and abroad.
I like it because too often we “small government” conservatives can sound small ourselves – pinched and crabbed and reductive. Reagan made small government a big idea. I always think of him in those broad-shouldered suits, arms outstretched, an inch of cuff: he was awfully expansive about shrinking government.
In the speech, he meant it domestically: it was an age when every government cure for inflation only doubled it.
Just as today, when every government cure for debt only quadruples it, whether it’s Socialized Mortgages, Socialized Energy, Socialized Cars, Socialized Medicine…
He slew that double-digit dragon so comprehensively that today the word “inflation” is all but obsolescent, at least as a political issue.
But, in the broader sense, Reagan’s line about nations that have governments is a good way to weigh up the world. Across central and eastern Europe, from Slovenia to Lithuania to Bulgaria, governments that had nations have been replaced by nations that have governments – serving at the people’s pleasure.
The intelligentsia persist in believing this had nothing to do with Reagan or Thatcher: they maintain that the Soviet empire would have collapsed anyway, their belated belief in the inevitable failure of communism being in no way inconsistent with their previous long-held belief in the inevitable triumph of communism.
… Many of my New Hampshire neighbours wander round with the constitution in their pocket so they can whip it out and chastise over-reaching congressmen and state representatives at a moment’s notice. Try going around with the European Constitution in your pocket and you’ll be walking with a limp after 48 hours. It’s full of stuff about European space policy, water resources, free expression for children, the right to housing assistance, preventive action on the environment, etc.
They may well be worthy planks in a political platform, but they’re not constitutional matters. Yet what else is there? The European Constitution attempts to supplant genuine national identities with an ersatz bureaucratic identity – a government identity, from which a new national identity will follow. For Ronald Reagan, America was the “shining city on a hill”. For M Giscard and his fellow founding fathers, the European Union is affordable housing on an environmentally protected hill. I can’t see it working myself.
The Tories have an established modus operandi on Europe: first, they tell us they’re going to stand firm; then they sign on to it anyway; finally, they assure us it doesn’t mean anything. The biggest question facing the country today is this: is the United Kingdom to be a nation state or merely a westerly region of a highly centralised European entity?
That’s like rushing to the White Star Lines ticket office to insist they sell you the last seat on Titanic. And that’s if they don’t become a westerly region of a highly centralised Muslim Caliphate first. Read it all.
Meanwhile, Lee Harris asks “Why Isn’t Socialism Dead?”
It may well be that socialism isn’t dead because socialism cannot die. As Sorel argued, the revolutionary myth may, like religion, continue to thrive in “the profounder regions of our mental life,” in those realms unreachable by mere reason and argument, where even a hundred proofs of failure are insufficient to wean us from those primordial illusions that we so badly wish to be true. Who doesn’t want to see the wicked and the arrogant put in their place? Who among the downtrodden and the dispossessed can fail to be stirred by the promise of a world in which all men are equal, and each has what he needs? …
Thus, in the coming century, those who are advocates of capitalism may well find themselves confronted with “a myth gap.” Those who, like Chavez, Morales, and Castro, are preaching the old time religion of socialism may well be able to tap into something deeper and more primordial than mere reason and argument, while those who advocate the more rational path of capitalism may find that they have few listeners among those they most need to reach — namely, the People. Worse, in a populist democracy, the People have historically demonstrated a knack of picking as their leaders those know the best and most efficient way to by-pass their reason — demagogues who can reach deep down to their primordial and, alas, often utterly irrational instincts. This, after all, has been the genius of every great populist leader of the past, as it is proving to be the genius of those populist leaders who are now springing up around the world, from Bolivia to Iran.
This is why socialism isn’t dead, and why in our own century it may well spring back into life with a force and vigor shocking to those who have, with good reason, declared socialism to be no longer viable. … Men need myths — and until capitalism can come up with a transformative myth of its own, it may well be that many men will prefer to find their myths in the same place they found them in the first part of the twentieth century — the myth of revolutionary socialism.
The Myth Lives On in the presidential palaces of Caracas, Havana and Harare. And the White House. And the Speaker’s Office.
Socialism IS a Myth. That’s why it can only be enforced at gunpoint. It’s the Free Lunch. Something for Nothing. The Perpetual Motion Machine. The Self-Leaning Shovel by the Self-Digging Hole. Other Peoples’ Money.
On the other hand, free markets and free people have produced higher living standards for more people than any other system ever devised in the history of the world. Yet we need a better myth?
“There is a deep-seated and frighteningly strong human need to make believe things are different than they are – that salamanders live forever, we all secretly have three legs and there’s an enormous conspiracy somewhere which controls our every thought and deed, etc. And it’s not just ignorant heathen, trying to brighten their squalid days, who think up such things. Figments of the imagination can be equally persuasive right here in clean, reasonable, education-chocked middle America. People are greedy. Life is never so full it shouldn’t be fuller. What more can Shirley MacLaine, for instance, want from existence? She’s already been rewarded far beyond her abilities or worth. But nothing will do until she’s also been King Tut and Marie of Romania. It was this kind of hoggish appetite for epistemiological romance that sent my spoiled and petulant generation on a journey to Oz, a journey from which some of us are only now straggling back, in intellectual tatters.
Many people think fantastical ideas are limited to the likes of harmonic convergences, quartz crystals that ward off cancer or, at worst, harebrained theories about who killed JFK. Unfortunately, this is not the case, especially not in this century. Two of the most fecund areas for cheap fiction are politics and economics. Which brings me to Marxism.
Marxism is a perfect example of the chimeras that fueled the sixties. And it was probably the most potent one. Albeit, much of this Marxism would have been unrecognizable to Marx. It was Marxism watered down, Marxism spiked with LSD and Marxism adulterated with mystical food coloring. But it was Marxism nonetheless because the wildest hippie and the sternest member of the Politburo shared the same daydream, the daydream that underlies all Marxism: that a thing might be somehow worth other than what people will give for it. This just is not true. And any system that bases itself on such a will-o’-the-wisp is bound to fail. Communes don’t work. Cuba doesn’t either.”
“Free Lunch–It’s What’s Preventing Dinner.”
“I won a nickname, “The Great Communicator.” But I never thought it was my style or the words I used that made a difference: It was the content. I wasn’t a great communicator, but I communicated great things, and they didn’t spring full bloom from my brow, they came from the heart of a great nation — from our experience, our wisdom, and our belief in principles that have guided us for two centuries. They called it the Reagan Revolution. Well, I’ll accept that, but for me it always seemed more like the great rediscovery, a rediscovery of our values and our common sense.”
All right, Mr. DeMille; I’m ready for my close-up.