Ronald Reagan on Small Government

Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Deng Xiaoping were there three of the most influential advocates of neoliberalism in the last quarter of the 20th century. Ronald Reagan (1911–2004) was President of the United States from 1981 to 1988. Like Margaret Thatcher, he had a great suspicion of government. Although he in fact increased the overall size of government through growth in military spending during the years of his presidency, he decreased government spending on welfare and other public services. Here, at his last speech to the nation as president, he reflects on his years in office.

Ours was the first revolution in the history of mankind that truly reversed the course of government, and with three little words: ‘We the people.’ ‘We the people’ tell the government what to do, it doesn’t tell us. ‘We the people’ are the driver, the government is the car. And we decide where it should go, and by what route, and how fast. Almost all the world’s constitutions are documents in which governments tell the people what their privileges are. Our Constitution is a document in which ‘We the people’ tell the government what it is allowed to do. ‘We the people’ are free. This belief has been the underlying basis for everything I’ve tried to do these past eight years.

But back in the 1960s, when I began, it seemed to me that we’d begun reversing the order of things—that through more and more rules and regulations and confiscatory taxes, the government was taking more of our money, more of our options, and more of our freedom. I went into politics in part to put up my hand and say, ‘Stop.’ I was a citizen politician, and it seemed the right thing for a citizen to do.

I think we have stopped a lot of what needed stopping. And I hope we have once again reminded people that man is not free unless government is limited. There’s a clear cause and effect here that is as neat and predictable as a law of physics: As government expands, liberty contracts.

Reagan, Ronald. 1989. ‘Ronald Reagan’s Farewell Address to the Nation.’ in Reagan Presidential Library. Simi Valley CA.