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Why Reagan Still Matters to Europe

Monday, July 11, 2011

He helped Europeans understand how a free society fosters more opportunity.

ROME, Italy — This past Fourth of July, the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation unveiled a statue of President Reagan in London’s Grosvenor Square, on the occasion of his centennial. Thousands of people attended, and social media was abuzz with sharply divided polemics about Reagan, as if it were 1981 and not 2011. The debate was especially vigorous among Americans, but also among Europeans, as Reagan remains an important influence among us too.

Politics is about policies, but it is also about symbols. Americans debate Reagan’s legacy and accomplishments, whether he really shrank government, and the indictment of Keynesian economics during his presidency, but for the rest of the world, Reagan is largely a symbol. His persona and rhetoric remain, reminding us what the American Dream is all about. He helped Europeans understand how a free society fosters more opportunity than the government planning that still enjoys good press in our continent.

Reagan was optimism embodied. He entered politics to encourage people that our better days were still ahead. Few Western politicians offer such a positive message.

People may at first have been skeptical of an actor turned politician, the sort of combination that can provoke contemptuous humor (“Is there really a difference?”), but Reagan overcame their doubts. He was optimism embodied. He entered politics to encourage people that our better days were still ahead. Few Western politicians offer such a positive message.

As he fought communism, he returned the public conversation to first principles and made room for a more critical reading of institutions in the West. By stating in a plain, commonsensical way what struck many as incendiary thoughts—such as “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem” or “the nine most frightening words in the English language are ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help’”—Reagan instilled in the minds of many a skepticism towards establishment Keynesian economic thinking.

Reagan instilled in the minds of many a skepticism towards establishment Keynesian economic thinking.

For Europeans, here was the most powerful man in the world, the president of the United States, of the most almighty states of them all, preaching caution against confidence in the almighty powers.

Those in Europe who dared to question the pervasive state intervention typical of continental economies found in Reagan the words they lacked. He supplied them with the needed vocabulary, imagery, and confidence. Those who defended European social democracies perhaps despised Reagan but were forced to check their principles.

His persona and rhetoric remain, reminding us what the American Dream is all about.

Political parties, think tanks, and organizations that openly embrace the free market are still rare in most of continental Europe. However, those who brought them about got from Reagan’s years an unbreakable confidence: the United States was indeed the bright light to look to as they searched for freedom-generating economic policies. That confidence is shaken today, for the legacy of both President Obama and President Bush cannot foster a sense of allegiance to the venerable principles of free markets and limited government.

Winston Churchill famously said that America will always do the right thing, but only after exhausting all other options. After the bankruptcy of Keynesianism in the 1970s, Reagan’s emphasis on the principles of limited government seemed to be precisely the right choice, after all the others were tried. Lessons are learnt the hard way in politics, in Europe as well as the United States. Let us hope this centennial celebration could at least remind us that the right choices may still be embraced, at least after others have failed.

Alberto Mingardi is the director general of Istituto Bruno Leoni, Italy’s free market think tank.

FURTHER READING: American Enterprise Institute scholar Steven Hayward has written several related publications including “The Berlin Wall, 20 Years Later” and a two-volume biography of Ronald Reagan The Age of Reagan, 1964-1980 and The Age of Reagan, 1980-1989.

Image by Darren Wamboldt/Bergman Group.

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