by Ari Armstrong
The following article originally appeared at Boulder Weekly on June 24, 2004.
My grandfather loved Ronald Reagan. So when Reagan was elected President in 1980, when I was 9, I liked him, too. The two men were similar: athletic, ambitious, good-looking and plain-spoken. Both men loved to ride horses and tell a humorous anecdote. Both were family men of strong values. Both died while suffering from Alzheimer's. What do they teach us?
My grandfather, Theo Eversol, was a little younger than the Gipper. Grandpa was born in 1920 in St. Louis, and his father soon left the family. He moved to Palisade, the farming community near Grand Junction, in 1936. He worked one summer raising tomatoes and was paid less than a dollar, then later he worked in the mines. He went on to purchase his first five acres of peach land in 1949, and he eventually acquired around 26 acres.
When the peaches froze or the market bottomed out, Grandpa would take a second job, often sleeping a few short hours each night. He hired migrant workers to help in the orchards, and I remember eating with them in the cookhouse, where Uncle Joe cooked up great fare. The orchards where I planted trees and picked fruit continue to produce.
One time a sniveling white guy inquired about work and told my grandfather, "I can make more than that on welfare." Grandpa replied, "Then you go get on welfare, you SOB." Grandpa, also a member of the local volunteer fire department, never met a person in need he wouldn't help. But he would not abide laziness.
There's a reason why rural folk liked Reagan and continue to vote for Republicans. On the farm or the ranch, the value of productivity is self-evident. Those who worked the hardest and the smartest grow the most and the best fruit. People of the land tend to be independent, self-confident and skeptical of "authorities" across the mountains or in the District of Charlatans.
Reagan manifested the same self-confident optimism my grandfather showed. "Reagan meant a rebirth of hope," Governor Owens said. "It can be done," a placard on Reagan's desk read. Reagan "restored America's pride and confidence," said James Baker, the president's chief of staff. "For America, there is always a great dawn ahead," Dick Cheney summed up Reagan's message.
We don't have to agree about all of Reagan's politics to affirm his core values. What does it take to find and keep that optimistic spirit?
The first requirement is a firm commitment to the value and rights of the individual. Each individual is valuable and should be able to pursue his or her own goals, as Jefferson summed up eloquently in his Declaration. Individualism is not the theory that people are atomistic or cut off from each other or that they may abuse each other. Instead, individualism holds that people should be free to pursue their own ends, so long as they respect the equal rights of others to do likewise. Reagan spoke well of individual initiative, and he affirmed "there's purpose and worth to each and every life."
The economic manifestation of individualism is the free market. The free market is not to be confused with today's mixed economy, in which corporate welfare and economic protectionism often benefit the politically powerful. Instead, the free market bars the use of force in economic exchange and allows people to cooperate voluntarily in pursuit of their values. A free economy fosters a division of labor, an ever-increasing stock of capital, and constantly improving standards of living.
One cultural result of self-confident individualists pursuing their own ends in a free market is technological advancement. Reagan became famous through the wonders of the cinema, then he worked as a salesman for technology. My grandmother tells me with pride of purchasing the family's first new automobile and first television -- things we now take for granted.
Apollo 11 took flight in 1969, a couple years before I was born. Within my lifetime, computers changed the way we live. Unfortunately, we now seem to be entering another era of "malaise," which might help explain the continued popularity of Reagan. The federal state grows by leaps and bounds. Terrorism made us afraid, and then the government's ham-handed reaction to terrorism made us more afraid. What happened?
Yet medicine advances, and the next frontier of space is the diamond on the horizon. Burt Rutan with his SpaceShipOne (www.scaled.com) is launching the world's first privately funded space initiative. In the arts, Joss Whedon's inspirational Firefly science-fiction series is available on disk, and now it's becoming a movie.
Reagan did not always get it right. He oversaw high levels of deficit spending, a disastrous expansion of the drug war and a foreign-policy scandal. Often his policies fell short of his rhetoric. Yet, though imperfectly, he showed us the way to those values that can restore our spirit and propel us into a bright future: individualism, free markets and technological achievement.