Sunday, December 17

Ronald Reagan's Biggest Error

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Ronald Reagan’s Legacy

Ronald Reagan is admired to the point of quasi-sainthood by many who call themselves conservatives. New faces on the political scene are often measured in terms of how they compare to “the Gipper.” Reagan has been lauded for causing the break-up of the Soviet Union, for advocating and implementing supply-side economic policies, and for bringing “values” to the forefront of political action.

None of these assertions are accurate, but there is at least a kernel of truth in all of them. The Soviet Union did fall apart, although not solely due to anything done or said by Reagan. As for the supply-side theory, a lot of self-styled fiscal conservatives have embraced it warmly, even though there is little evidence that it actually works the way they say it does. The statistics are murky at best. Most of the people who advocate applying supply-side economic theories do so not because it is right or effective but because they think it SHOULD be effective. They like the idea so never mind whether it reflects reality or not.

When it comes to values, we have heard a lot of noise, some of it heartfelt and some of it just bloviating, about following “traditional” values. Reagan was a divorced man who advocated traditional family structure, a former union leader who changed from a union supporter to an opponent when it was financially beneficial to him to do so, and a man who consistently demanded that laws be obeyed and offenders punished while he was engaged in breaking several laws passed by Congress (Iran-contra).

Let all of those issues move to another place and time for discussion. The most powerful legacy left by Ronald Reagan is the attitude that ideology and belief, “values” if you prefer that term, are more important than facts. He asserted often and in many slightly different forms throughout his presidency that starting with the right set of beliefs and acting on them would lead to a proper solution to any difficulty. He stated explicitly on at least one occasion, “Even complex problems have simple solutions.” That attitude is so far out of touch of reality that, as Wolfgang Pauli once remarked about some physics graduate student’s proposal, “It isn’t even wrong.”

Complex problems do not always have simple solutions. Many problems do not have a solution. If you have ever tried to work with partial differential equations, for example, you know that the only ones that work out without simplifying by accepting approximations are the ones that are cooked up for textbooks. Reagan embodied the idea that having the “correct” philosophy would solve all problems, even when you had the facts wrong. As someone stated (I don’t remember where I got this), “Everybody is entitled to his own opinion but not his own facts.” Some things are, in fact, difficult and complex and there is no easy way to handle them.

The world around us is what it is, regardless of what we believe it is or would like it to be. Reagan made a lot of Americans with a limited amount of knowledge about many subjects comfortable in their ignorance and in some cases even proud of how little they know about some specific topic. They appear to truly believe that if they only maintain the correct ideology the eventual outcome of any disagreement will be the one they favor. This attitude has resulted in widespread support for people like Rush Limbaugh and George W. Bush. Limbaugh says (often!), “Don’t even try to make up your mind about this. I will tell you how it is and what to think.”

As for Bush, he is not only lazy and ignorant and has been all his life, he is proud of his laziness and his ignorance. He does not just accept his limitations; he embraces them and presents them as virtues. When the evidence about Iraq’s possession of banned weapons ranged from ambiguous to misleading to patently invented, Bush warmly advocated the evidence that would lead to the conclusion he desired, regardless of the strength of that evidence. When his economic advisor stated that a war would cost as much as $150 billion or even $200 billion while the administration official line was a cost of $50 billion, tops, the advisor was fired.

The attitude that it is okay to reject the facts if they do not lead to the conclusion you desire is frightening. Scientists who attempt to manipulate experimental results in order to arrive at a desired outcome are usually soon found out and discredited. Their work is ignored because it cannot be trusted. Not so in public life, apparently. There is an attitude that it is okay to tell lies and continue to tell them long after they have been proven to be false.

Ronald Reagan was usually a hard-working man while he was President. He constantly struggled to stay abreast of events and keep himself currently and accurately informed. George W. Bush, on the other hand, adopted the conviction that right belief will attain the desired end and that it is acceptable to ignore and discredit information that inconveniently leads in another direction but he left out altogether the part about hard work and trying to know what is happening and understand it.  

One result of this attitude by some of our country’s leaders is that we now have a significant number of citizens who know very little of the events happening in the world and even less of their significance. They mostly do not encounter facts that might make them uncomfortable and when they do they just ignore them. Their source of news is primarily Fox, with an occasional session listening to talk radio. Opposing viewpoints are mentioned only with disparagement and contempt, and facts that might not fit well with the pre-ordained explanations are rarely brought up.

This is Ronald Reagan’s greatest and most lasting legacy. He helped a lot of people to believe that their lack of knowledge of the realities in the world around them is a virtue rather than a shortcoming.


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