Did Ronald Reagan Say “Government is the Problem”?
Reagan didn’t just say “Government is the problem,” he said, “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”
In other words, although Ronald Reagan was illustrating his small government pro-individual ideology, he was making a specific point in the context of his speech.
That specific point wasn’t that “all government is bad,” it was (to sum up his intent, not to quote him exactly) “in this situation, in terms of economics, more government isn’t the answer, it is the problem, we should cut taxes and deregulate businesses.”
This is a subtle but important difference that is often taken out of context by those who seek deregulation.
If we look at Reagan’s actual record and policy positions, he hardly shied away from using Government, he mainly just deregulated specific businesses and cut specific taxes… which is in line with general Conservative strategy since the 1920’s and Reaganomics.
TIP: The quote is from January 20, 1981 from Reagan’s first inaugural address. 8 years later Reagan was somewhat of a changed man with more nuanced views. People tend to politicize this Reagan quote in a way that differs from the context it was said in. Reagan was a small government Republican, clearly favoring Reaganomics over regulations and taxes, but he also spent decades in politics trying to ensure government worked for the people. Reagan may have been for a limited government, but he was not “anti-government.”
TIP: See also: Ronald Reagan Second Inaugural Address Monday, January 21, 1985. The point here is that while Reagan was a great small-government conservative, not everyone who quotes him as saying “Government is the problem – Period” is doing justice to his full message or full record.
Ronald Reagan .. “Government is the problem.” Listen to what Reagan actually says. He isn’t anti-government, he is pro-people. Short clip.
C-SPAN: President Reagan 1981 Inaugural Address. C-SPAN ARCHIVES 01/20/1981. Longer clip. President Reagan delivered his first inaugural address on January 20, 1981.
What is the Point to Reagan’s “Government is the Problem” Quote from his 1981 Inaugural Address?
The idea here is that Reagan was an individualist who believed in liberty, democracy, free enterprise, and small government.
Reagan believed in government, but he didn’t believe in a government run by cronies and elites.
The way the Reagan quote is used today often implies that “government doesn’t work – Period”, and that isn’t exactly what Reagan said nor is it what Reagan’s record shows (consider his heavy borrowing, tariffs, the North American accord that became NAFTA, etc).
For Reagan, Government was meant to “cook the fish gently”, it was not meant to fully dismantle the FDA and let people discover what qualifies as sushi grade for themselves.
Although Reagan did call for smaller government and trickle down in 1981, by 1988 Reagan was tearing down walls in the name of liberalism by leveraging state power.
It makes sense as to why a modern Tea Party conservative of a group like the Freedom Caucus might draw inspiration from Reagan (after-all they share the same general background), but it is a little disingenuous to sum up Reagan’s full philosophy as “government doesn’t work” or “government is the problem”.
Ronald Reagan – Message to Washington. Listen to what Reagan actually says. He isn’t anti-government, he is pro-people.
Excerpt From Ronald Reagan’s Inaugural Address January 20, 1981
“But great as our tax burden is, it has not kept pace with public spending. For decades we have piled deficit upon deficit, mortgaging our future and our children’s future for the temporary convenience of the present. To continue this long trend is to guarantee tremendous social, cultural, political, and economic upheavals.
You and I, as individuals, can, by borrowing, live beyond our means, but for only a limited period of time. Why, then, should we think that collectively, as a nation, we’re not bound by that same limitation? We must act today in order to preserve tomorrow. And let there be no misunderstanding: We are going to begin to act, beginning today.
The economic ills we suffer have come upon us over several decades. They will not go away in days, weeks, or months, but they will go away. They will go away because we as Americans have the capacity now, as we’ve had in the past, to do whatever needs to be done to preserve this last and greatest bastion of freedom.
In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem. From time to time we’ve been tempted to believe that society has become too complex to be managed by self-rule, that government by an elite group is superior to government for, by, and of the people. Well, if no one among us is capable of governing himself, then who among us has the capacity to govern someone else? All of us together, in and out of government, must bear the burden. The solutions we seek must be equitable, with no one group singled out to pay a higher price.
We hear much of special interest groups. Well, our concern must be for a special interest group that has been too long neglected. It knows no sectional boundaries or ethnic and racial divisions, and it crosses political party lines. It is made up of men and women who raise our food, patrol our streets, man our mines and factories, teach our children, keep our homes, and heal us when we’re sick—professionals, industrialists, shopkeepers, clerks, cabbies, and truck drivers. They are, in short, “We the people,” this breed called Americans.”
Reagan stated his point clearly in context. See full speech transcript.