Ronald Reagan's Path for American Renewal

Column: How to build a 'Creative Society' today

June 9, 2023

On January 5, 1967, Ronald Reagan delivered his first inaugural message as governor of California. To read his speech is to be reminded that some problems recur throughout history. And that lessons of a previous era often apply to our own.

The first topic Reagan mentioned was crime. Then he discussed welfare reform and education. He brought up radicalism on campus. He called for lower taxes and fiscal discipline.

What strikes the contemporary reader is Reagan's rhetorical framework. All these individual issues, he said, were aspects of a general relationship between government and the people. As today's Republicans and conservatives grapple with inflation, crime, illegal immigration, and a culture of repudiation, they might take note of how the most popular and successful GOP president of the last century thought about the social contract.

For Reagan, the American government was not omnipotent. The Founders did not mean for government to be fickle or arbitrary. They did not intend for it to lord over subjects. They wanted the law to reflect the consensus of self-governed citizens. Rather than build a "Great Society" engineered by politicians and bureaucrats in Sacramento or Washington, D.C., Reagan evoked a "Creative Society" where "government will lead but not rule, listen but not lecture."

Reagan seems to have dropped the "Creative Society" tagline not long after taking office, but the principles behind the slogan continued to inform his rhetoric and politics. Reagan saw public officials as intermediaries between voters and government. Their job is to keep government in check. They represent taxpayers and must ensure that "no permanent structure of government ever encroaches on freedom." The tasks of office include fulfilling the basic duties of government—rule of law, administration of justice, and national defense—as well as removing obstacles to human flourishing.

Reagan restated these themes in his first presidential Inaugural Address. He tried to quell voter anxiety by distancing himself from extreme libertarianism. "It's not my intention to do away with government," he said on January 20, 1981. "It is rather to make it work—work with us, not over us; to stand by our side, not ride on our back. Government can and must provide opportunity, not smother it; foster productivity, not stifle it." The Creative Society lived on, though not by that name.

When Reagan became president, the country was in the middle of an economic crisis. Stagflation—the combination of recession and inflation—was lowering the standard of living. Rising prices and nominal wages pushed voters into higher tax brackets, draining their discretionary income.

During the Republican primary, Reagan had adopted the program of supply-side economics. Following the lead of New York congressman Jack Kemp, he called for price stability, deregulation, tighter social spending, free trade, energy production, and a massive, across-the-board tax cut that included inflation indexing.

The supply-side agenda fit comfortably within the structure of the Creative Society. Its goal was to remove barriers to work, savings, and investment and generate economic growth through innovation. It was compatible with Reagan's mystical belief in the power of technology to improve the material conditions of life and advance the cause of civilization.

Such progress was connected, in Reagan's mind, to a public commitment to human freedom. Government's purpose was not found in remaking human nature or in divvying up resources and honors among groups. It was found in acts of self-restraint that gave space to individuals to better their condition.

"Democracy is less a system of government than it is a system to keep government limited, unintrusive," Reagan told the students at Moscow State University in 1988, "a system of constraints on power to keep politics and government secondary to the important things in life, the true sources of value found only in family and faith."

An advocate of the Creative Society in the year 2023 would agree with this hierarchy. Family and faith are seedbeds of virtue where government ought not to intrude. Meddling with the home and church is destructive and corrosive. Government should work with the people, not against them, to unlock latent potential in the earth, in schools, in labs, in factories, in cities. And the way to do this is a new supply-side economics aimed at increased productivity and abundance.

The Progressive Left is not the place for a supply-side revival. Liberal intellectuals don't understand the economics. Democratic interest groups won't like the politics. It's the Conservative Right that must map out the topography of the Creative Society in the 21st century. That picture won't look exactly like Reagan's, but it will incorporate his insights.

Spending restraint and monetary sanity would end inflation and restore price stability. Deregulation would take precedence over further tax cuts. The permitting process would be streamlined. The federal government would open more properties to oil and gas exploration and development. An all-of-government effort would promote nuclear power and enhancements to the electric grid. Research and development on hard sciences and applied engineering would increase, and the grant-making process would be made easier.

The federal government would search for ways to copy or to promote state-level workforce initiatives that abolish occupational licensing or incentivize new home construction. Immigration levels must be regularized, by finishing construction of the border wall, normalizing asylum law, privileging high-skilled workers, and creating systems to match low-skilled workers with employers before migrants attempt illegal crossings. Protectionist measures that contribute to inflation and harm our relationships with strategic allies would be repealed. (Trade with adversaries such as China would be handled differently.)

A winning Republican or conservative doesn't need to get lost in the weeds of policy detail. What's more important is his ability to situate these particulars in a larger concept of the American future. That concept would put hardware over software and national pride over group loyalty. And it would drive home the idea that traditional social practices are the bedrock of prosperity and peace.

Look for the candidate who refines Reagan's vision to meet this moment. Nostalgia or necromancy has nothing to do with it. Gratitude toward the achievements of the past, and a willingness to build upon them, is the essence of conservatism. "The Creative Society is not a retreat into the past," Reagan said back in 1967. "It is taking the dream that gave birth to this nation, and updating it, and making it practical for the 20th century. It is a good dream. It is a dream that is worthy of your generation." And ours.