Twenty five years ago today, on June 12, 1987, Ronald Reagan uttered what may be his most famous and influential words:
General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! … Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!
It seems appropriate to pause on this anniversary to reflect over that speech and perhaps consider again what can be learned from it.
While President Reagan’s speech was given some time ago, it shows both a principled view of the world and clear statement of what Reagan’s presidency came to be about – freedom, the most yearned for of human conditions. Throughout the course of his time in office, President Reagan reminded us of our national greatness both with the words he delivered and the actions he took. Above all, he gave Americans hope – real hope – that America’s best days were still ahead.
Reagan was nothing, if not bold when he delivered his speech at the Brandenberg gate. Standing just feet from a wall that separated the free and prosperous West from communist East Berlin, he created a striking contrast between the ideals of a free people and free markets and a failed system run by a centralized government. He did not shrink from his responsiblity to stand for American values or apologize for them.
After reminding the Soviets of Khruschev’s promise to “bury” America, he pointed out that it was in fact the free West that had achieved a level of prosperity unprecedented in human history. While the Soviets could not even produce enough food to feed themselves, Germans in the West saw an economic rebirth when they lowered taxes, reduced tariffs, and expanded free trade. In another quote of equal insight but less notoriety in the same speech, Reagan said:
After these four decades, then, there stands before the entire world one great and inescapable conclusion: Freedom leads to prosperity. Freedom replaces the ancient hatreds among nations with comity and peace. Freedom is the victor.
The answer, then, is more freedom and less government.
The other striking part of Reagan’s speech was his openness about faith and love. This is an element of the American ethos that many seek to erase entirely from both the culture and the discussion. These efforts, however, fail to recognize the most fundamental element of this country’s founding. We are able to safely live in a free society with limited government because there are other cultural restraints on people’s actions. In other words, we don’t need government to run our lives because we have a code by which we live otherwise. This code has traditionally come from our religious beliefs. The Founders understood this and it is an implicit element of how our system of government is designed to work.
Reagan reminded us that when faith and love are removed from the equation, the void must be filled. Government is then inserted to fill that void. Whether this is the intended or unintended consequence of the actions of those on the left is of no matter. The danger is the same and clear regardless. Absent an established set of traditions, values, and laws, the people become subject to the whims of those who happen to run the government at the time. Such a relativistic approach leads to a downward spiral that, at best, creates an unpredictable world preventing people from flourishing; and, at worst, it results in outright despotism. This dangerous proposition makes the case for faith, family, and tradition as societal norms crucial to our national identity.
As proved in his speech at the Brandenberg Gate, Reagan had a unique ability to reduce and convey these important ideas in little stories or quips that made sense to everyone. He did not talk above or at people. That was among his greatest attributes.
One of my favorite quotes illustrates this point beautifully. In his 1986 State of the Union Address he said that government’s view of the economy could be summed up in a short explanation: “If it moves, tax it. If it keeps moving, regulate it. And if it stops moving, subsidize it.” A succinct, simple, and powerful statement of the problematic mindset of those in Washington.
There will never be another Ronald Reagan; and conservatives would be served well to stop looking for one. A more proper course of action is to remember what Reagan taught us and follow his example. Our best days are still in front of us, if we only believe that to be the case. Our traditions and founding principles are critical to our national survival. And above all else, America remains the “shining city on a hill” that is worth defending.