Reagan said “Government is the problem”.

Did Ronald Reagan Say “Government is the Problem”?

Reagan never said “Government is the problem,” he said, “in this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problems, it is the problem.[1]

In other words, although Reagan was illustrating his small government pro-individual ideology, Ronald Reagan was making a specific point in the context of his speech. That specific point wasn’t “all government is bad,” it was “in this situation, more government isn’t the answer.”

This is a subtle but important difference that is often taken out of context by those who seek deregulation.

TIP: The quote is from 1981 from his 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, but he also spent decades in politics trying to ensure government worked for the people. He was not “anti-government.”

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.

He was the model liberal in this respect, but he wasn’t “a Tea Party guy” in the modern sense. He didn’t think “government didn’t work,” and although he 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.

Reagan believed in government. He thought it worked, 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.” That isn’t what Reagan said. It isn’t what Reagan’s record says; it isn’t what his character believed; it isn’t how he acted, and he never actually said it.

The government is for the people, by the people, “we are the driver of the car.” Government is meant to “cook the fish gently” not dismantle the FDA and let people discover sushi grade by themselves.

Reagan’s message was very different than the current new-guard Tea Party message of “it doesn’t work, lets break it.” Reagan Republicans are very different than Tea Party Republicans, although they share roots.

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.


Reagan said, “…Government… is the problem…”, but it was part of a longer sentence, with more words in it, in which he makes his point more clear.

Reagan cherished the people, such is a good liberal position in the vein of Jefferson, Jackson, or even a 1920’s Republican, and it isn’t shared by those who favor state power like the Roosevelts, but he never implied that the answer was to literally dismantle the government.

Reagan thought that Government worked, that is why he worked in government much of his life, but he also thought that big government solutions weren’t always the answer. For example, “in this present crisis [of 1981, before his 8 years of experince], government is not the solution to our problems, it is the problem [implying that the people, not government was the solution to the country’s then economic woes].”

One can respect a great President like Reagan historically. It is easy to get people excited today, much harder to go down in history and earn respect over the eons.


  1. Ronald Reagan Inaugural Address January 20, 1981

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Bob McCormick on

Did he say it, or didn’t he? Talk about nuance….?

Thomas DeMichele
Thomas DeMichele on

He did not say it verbatim, but he is often quoted it as saying it verbatim. So, in one phrase “he did not say it”.

This page is aiming to clarify what was said exactly and what was meant. Seems too easy to twist the quote into the idea that Reagan believed that Government didn’t work in general. I have in my life heard “government doesn’t work” often and just as often I hear it attributed to Reagan… but that isn’t what Reagan meant for me… and not sure that is what history shows us from that era. Just consider the S&L crisis.

Jim on

See first video. The problem is Republicans took this as fact and when combined with the Laffer Curve went about destroying the American social contract. The current result is President Trump. A nation can only create so many losers in a Democracy before they overwhelm the political system. Be careful what you wish for.