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Remarks at a Fund-raising Dinner Honoring Former Representative John M. Ashbrook in Ashland, Ohio

May 09, 1983

Thank you, Fred. Dr. Schultz, Jean Ashbrook, distinguished guests:

We are here this evening to honor a man who, though he died at a tragically young age, garnered for himself a remarkable record of public service as a State assemblyman, a distinguished Congressman, a candidate for the United States Senate, and, for a brief time, a candidate for the Presidency of the United States.

There is sadness and surprise in recounting these titles of office either held or sought by John Ashbrook. Sadness, of course, because a man who made such an enormous contribution to American political life is now gone. Surprise, because all of us who followed closely the career of John Ashbrook remember him for his youthful and vigorous advocacy of traditional American principles. When he entered the State legislature, he was 28, the second youngest member at that time of that body. When he went to Congress, he was 32, the second youngest member of that body. And when he died, a candidate for the United States Senate, he was only 53.

It was never quite possible to say of John Ashbrook that he was typical—even though he was very much one of a breed of Midwestern Congressmen, those who over the course of several decades fought a long, hard, and frequently losing battle against the encroachments and intrusions of big government. As early as 1960, John Ashbrook warned against "unbridled national power with a resultant loss of individual freedom and local autonomy." He warned against "the state planners, the economy wreckers, the spenders and the destroyers of local government." He was a founder and chairman of distinguished conservative organizations including the American Conservative Union. In standing up for these views, he was remarkably consistent-his lifetime voting record garnered him a 97 out of a possible 100 percent on the conservative voting scale.

Yes, John Ashbrook was one of those honored few, those officeholders in the fifties and sixties who warned against the current trends and fashions, who predicted that someday the massive spending schemes and higher and higher taxes of the Federal Government would stall and depress the American economy, immobilize State and local government, and endanger personal freedom.

But if John Ashbrook was a rock-solid conservative, he was also a conservative who broke the mold. He hardly fit the image of the stuffy or parochial reactionary some tried to attach to him. A graduate of Harvard, an adept and effective public speaker, the concise eloquence he brought to his views made the liberal establishment take notice. And, most important, he was willing to take the kind of chances that few older and more traditional members of his party would ever have dared. He even challenged an incumbent President of his own party when he felt that President needed to be reminded of his original mandate.

In John Ashbrook's youth, his erudition and his willingness to challenge long-established political precedents, we saw a new kind of Republican, a new kind of conservative. It was in this sense that he was ahead of his time, a forerunner of many conservative officeholders to come. And the voters of Ohio, even those who didn't agree with him on every point, saw in him a man to be trusted, a leader who had clearly charted out the future and knew the direction he wanted it to go.

Even those who view the world from a different political perspective can honor this man's utter devotion to principle and his understanding of the essence of political leadership. John Ashbrook knew that the first duty of public life is to responsibly speak the truth—even if the moment's fashion is against that truth—for it's through such consistency and coherence, such constant attention to principle, that the public trust is eventually won and a political consensus mobilized.

In many ways, John Ashbrook symbolized the beginnings of a new conservative movement in America. As he grew in prominence, so did the movement he helped to lead. In the fifties and sixties it was labeled a lost cause. In the seventies it was thought of as another pressure group. And in the eighties many could argue it was the dominant force in American political and intellectual life.

We mourn John Ashbrook's loss to this movement and to his country. But as his longtime friend and fellow activist in that movement, William Rusher, reminded us: Surely our highest consolation is knowing that John Ashbrook did live to see his political principles victorious and his public career vindicated.

Yet we do his memory and ourselves a disservice if we too exclusively identify John Ashbrook's political principles with one man, one party, or one political movement. Through all of his writings and speeches, it was John Ashbrook's insistent claim that opposition to the cult of state power—the cult that has so badly infected our century—was deeply and irrevocably part of America's past, and that the principle of limited government was America's greatest contribution to constitutional and political history.

He spoke movingly of America's traditional values and how too often in recent years we as a nation had drifted from those values. At the beginning of his second term in 1963, John was one of the senior members of a special five-man committee investigating the Ku Klux Klan and its involvement in the murder of civil rights workers in the South.

"The minute I walk into those hearings," he said, "it is like entering another world where all of the values which are meaningful to me, law and order, respect for your fellow human being, justice go out the window—where traditional values are scoffed at."

It was a long-standing American consensus based on these traditional values that John Ashbrook struggled to reinstitute in this country, a struggle we continue today.

And in searching for the solution of our social or economic problems today, we can speak of a matrix, a formula that unlocks the solutions to many different problems. And I believe it is in the political wisdom and the social consensus that began this country, the consensus that still abides here in the heartland of America and was so evident in the career of a John Ashbrook, it is this consensus that holds the key to our modern dilemmas.

From their own harsh experience with intrusive, overbearing government, the Founding Fathers made a great breakthrough in political understanding: They understood that it is the excesses of government, the will to power of one man over another, that has been a principle source of injustice and human suffering through the ages. The Founding Fathers understood that only by making government the servant, not the master, only by positing sovereignty in the people and not the state can we hope to protect freedom and see the political commonwealth prosper.

In 1776 the source of government excess was the crown's abuse of power and its attempt to suffocate the colonists with its overbearing demands. In our own day, the danger of too much state power has taken a subtler but no less dangerous form. Out of the best of intentions, government has intervened in areas where it is neither competent nor needed nor wanted by the mass of Americans.

There is no better example of the wisdom of limited government and the price paid by societies that forgot that wisdom than the economic problems we've encountered in recent years. The notion that government planners could fine-tune the economy from Washington led to a vicious cycle of boom and bust, periods of high inflation followed by periods of high unemployment.

Ohio has suffered from the practice of Washington-based meddling more than almost any other State. Today, because of this vicious cycle and following decades of growth in government, there are 13 percent unemployed in your State. And in States [cities] like Canton, the rate is as high as 17.5 and in Youngstown, 20.1 percent.

These are not just statistics. They represent human hardship and suffering, they stand for unhappy families with lifetime savings eaten up and dreams for the future destroyed.

Now, all of us hope, of course, that the unemployment situation will case much more quickly than current predictions suggest. But if past recessions were the rule, unemployment will remain a lagging indicator in an otherwise brightening economy so the unemployed will be among the last to feel the benefits of the recovery. But those who have for so long preached the benefits of bigger government should be asked to acknowledge that the economic conditions that led to recession and unemployment were created by years of growth in government and the climate of government expansion and interference.

When this administration took office, Federal spending had tripled in the preceding 10 years and taxes had doubled in the preceding 5 years. The national debt was hitting a trillion dollars—social spending had quadrupled in one decade. The budget for the Department of Health and Human Services became the third largest entity in the world, just behind the national budgets of the United States and the Soviet Union. One social program, food stamps, had grown from a $70 million experimental program in 1965 to an $11 1/4 billion program in 1981—an incredible 16,000-percent increase.

The government was draining off America's productivity and placing an enormous drag on the economy. Higher and higher taxes and inflation were discouraging work, risk, and the willingness of business and labor to invest time or money in economic expansion.

Now this tremendous slowdown in the economy was more than a statistical event. It hurt those who could least afford to be hurt. Particularly hard hit were those traditionally lower income groups that make up such a high percentage of the unemployed. Minimum wage laws—with no allocation made or allowance made for young people doing marginal work—kept many young people from gaining the entry-level positions that mean invaluable job training and eventually full-time careers.

Or take the slowdown in economic progress made by those with low incomes. As pointed out in a recent article by Charles Murray in the Public Interest magazine, the great expansion of government programs that took place under the aegis of the Great Society coincided with an end to economic progress for America's poor people. From 1949 until just before the Great Society got underway in 1964, the percentage of American families in poverty fell dramatically-from nearly 33 percent to only 18 percent. But by 1980, with the full impact of the Great Society's programs being felt, the trend had reversed itself, and there was an even higher proportion of people living in poverty than in 1969.

The simple truth is that low inflation and economic expansion in the years prior to the Great Society meant enormous social and economic progress for the poor of America. But after the gigantic increases in government spending and taxation, that economic progress slowed dramatically. If we had maintained the economic progress made from 1950 through 1965, black family income in 1980 would have been nearly $3,000 higher than it was.

The great social spending schemes failed for the vast majority of poor Americans. They remain trapped in economic conditions no better than those of a decade-and-a-half ago. The poverty programs failed precisely because they grew without regard for the burden they and other social programs were imposing on the overall economy. As social spending multiplied, economic growth slowed, and the economy became less and less able to generate the jobs and incomes needed to lift the poor out of poverty, not to mention the fact that inflation stimulated by government growth hit the poor the hardest, especially by devaluating the payments of those on welfare.

The growth of government programs did little for the poor; they were sometimes even counterproductive. From 1965 to '74, for example, the Federal Urban Renewal program spent more than $7 billion and ended a total failure, destroying more housing units than it replaced. The Federal regulations and grants of the Model Cities program in the late 1960's spent more than $2 1/2 billion and didn't halt urban decay. But all of these programs—while they did fund jobs for an army of Federal bureaucrats and consultants—put a huge burden on the productive sector of the American society. It was the working people who had to pay the taxes, carry the burden of inflation, and get thrown out of work when the inevitable economic slowdown occurred.

Today, because of our attempts to restrict and cut back on government expansion and to retarget aid toward those most in need, and away from those who can manage without Federal help, the working people of America are directly benefiting. We have brought inflation down from duggle-douba—I can't get that out—double-digit- [laughter] —I stumble over inflation all the time. [Laughter] But it was double-digit levels. And now for the last 6 months, it has been less than one-half of i percent. I have less trouble saying that. [Laughter]

For a family on a fixed income of $20,000, the improvement in inflation has meant about $1,700 more in purchasing power. And because of our tax program, a median-income family of four in 1983 will pay $700 less in Federal income taxes. And if they try to do anything about that third tax cut, I sleep with a veto pen under my pillow.

But beyond all this, however, cutting back on government intrusions into the marketplace and its drain on the economy has meant the beginning of a solid recovery.

Auto production is up 40 percent in the first quarter over the same time a year ago. And in March, new home sales were up over 50 percent, building permits were up more than 70 percent, and building starts were up by 75 percent over the same time last year. Consumer confidence has had its best monthly gain in 9 years, all the way to 77 percent as measured by the Conference Board. We now have the lowest prime interest rate in 4 1/2 years; inflation is better than the double-digit figures of a few years ago; and the stock market is healthy again.

And this need not be a temporary recovery. If we can continue to cut the growth in spending, if we can continue to hold the line on taxes, consumer and business confidence will remain high, and the recovery will be sustained over a long period of time. Once again, America's working people will know that hard work, saving, and sound investment will pay off for them and their children in the future. And this will mean far more to the lower income groups that have been so badly hit by unemployment and inflation than all the government programs of the past. It'll mean economic growth and expanding opportunity over a long period of time. Instead of having government trying to redistribute a shrinking economic pie, that pie will be expanding, and everyone will have a chance at a larger share.

But if we're to continue this progress, we must resist that well-intentioned statism of those who urge even more spending and higher taxes. The British political philosopher, Michael Oakeshott, has warned us about the dangers of government that tries to do too much: "To some people, government appears as a vast reservoir of power which inspires them to dream of what use might be made of it. They have favorite projects of various dimensions which they sincerely believe are for the benefit of mankind. They are thus disposed to recognize government—an instrument of passion, the art of politics to enflame and direct desire."

Well, here, I would submit, is the central political error of our time. Instead of seeing the people and their free institutions as the principal means of social and economic progress, our political opposition has looked at government and bureaucracy as the primary vehicle of social change. And this marked the onslaught of special interest politics, the notion that every noble social goal is the business of government, that every pressure group has its claim on the tax dollars of working people, that national legislation means brokering and bartering with the largest share going to the most powerful of the noisiest political constituency.

This is the antithesis of fair government, of democratic rule, and orderly government. As Mr. Oakeshott has observed, it is the conjunction of utopian dreaming and government power that degenerates into tyranny. Even beyond the raids on the national treasury, the huge deficits, the high inflation and taxation—the very abuses that brought down so many empires and nations in the past—this trend toward well-intentioned but overwhelming government also diminishes personal freedom and the autonomy of those branches of government closest to the people.

Even two centuries ago, the Founding Fathers understood this. They anticipated the danger. John Adams wrote that government tends to run every contingency into an excuse for enhancing power in government. And Thomas Jefferson put it more directly when he predicted happiness for America but only "if we can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people, under the pretense of taking care of them .... "

Now, some, of course, mistake this to mean the negation of government. Far to the contrary, it is by clearly restricting the duties of government that we make government efficient and responsive. By preventing government from overextending itself we stop it from disturbing that intricate but orderly pattern of private transactions among various institutions and individuals who have different social and economic goals. In short, like the Founding Fathers, we recognize the people as sovereign and the source of our social progress. We recognize government's role in that progress, but only under sharply defined and limited conditions. We remain aware of government's urge to seek more power, to disturb the social ecology and disrupt the bonds of cooperation and interchange among private individuals and institutions through unnecessary intrusion or expansion.

When new management takes over a failing business or a coach tries to revitalize a sports team, both will frequently find that the key to success is cutting out the extraneous or extravagant, while returning to basics and emphasizing those resources that have been traditionally successful. Well, this is precisely what we're trying to do to the bloated Federal Government today: remove it from interfering in areas where it doesn't belong, but at the same time strengthen its ability to perform its constitutional and legitimate functions.

In the area of public order and law enforcement, for example, we're reversing a dangerous trend of the last decade. While crime was steadily increasing, the Federal commitment in terms of personnel was steadily shrinking. This administration has reversed this trend by adding more than 1,000 new investigators and prosecutors to law enforcement rolls, and we have redirected our resources for a frontal assault on drugs and organized crime. Or take our federalism proposals: We want to cut back on Federal intrusions to local and State governments, and so those local and State governments can be more responsive to the people.

Or take the national security area, where we're trying to make up for years of neglect when spending declined from 40 percent of the budget in 1970 to less than 24 percent in 1980. And let me take a moment here for an important aside.

During the past 10 years, the Soviet Union has improved, developed, and deployed more than a dozen large, new ICBM systems while the United States has been thinking about developing one, much smaller intercontinental ballistic missile. The debate over a new ICBM and our entire strategic triad has cost the country millions of man-hours and billions of dollars, and it still hasn't been decided.

I wanted to get some answers, once and for all. So, I created a blue-ribbon, bipartisan commission this past January to study the strategic forces of the United States. The commission conferred with over 200 experts and consulted closely with the Congress and produced a thorough report that made three basic recommendations: first, that we continue with our strategic modernization program; second, that we build and deploy the MX missile and develop a simple, single-warhead missile; and, third, that we continue ambitious arms control negotiations that promote nuclear arms stability and reduction of nuclear arms.

Eighteen senior officials from the three previous administrations, including six former Secretaries of State and Defense, agree that all three parts of this commission's recommendations are essential to the future security of our country. The National Security Council agrees. The Joint Chiefs of Staff agree. And I agree.

But I more than agree. I believe with every fiber of my being that these steps are essential to ensuring arms control progress and our nation's future safety and security. Only when the Soviets are convinced that we mean business will arms control agreements become a reality. We're not building missiles to fight a war; we're building missiles to preserve the peace.

And that's why the Congress must act soon on these recommendations, especially the MX. If the Congress rejects these proposals it will have dealt a blow to our national security that no foreign power would ever have been able to accomplish. I call on the Congress to support this bipartisan program, a program that combines vigorous arms control with the modernization of our strategic forces.

Now, discussion of Justice Department personnel or economic statistics may seem a long way from the insights of Michael Oakeshott or the lofty thoughts of the Founding Fathers. But I would argue that John Ashbrook would never have found it so. For him, conservatism was not so much a political pressure group as it was a modern reflection of the insights and wisdom that began the American Republic.

His career as a public servant is testimony to this kind of enlightened conservatism. John Ashbrook believed in study and thought. He was close to Ashland College. He did all in his power to encourage the growth of conservative think tanks and policy groups.

But he was a practical man as well. In the face of redistricting and an unfavorable political climate for conservative candidates, he won 11 consecutive terms in the House of Representatives. He believed in political action—he was among those select few who began the draft Goldwater movement in 1963 and stunned the political world by succeeding a year later.

I first came to John's district at a dinner here with Bill Buckley the spring after that election. He was not discouraged. John looked at the Goldwater campaign as a first step toward the eventual triumph of his political principles. Those principles are in the ascendency today in large part due to his efforts.

We owe it to him, to ourselves, to our children to stand by those principles, to persevere until—as it was said that night in 1964 in San Francisco by the Presidential candidate John Ashbrook had worked so hard to nominate—"until our cause has won the day, inspired the world, and shown the way to a tomorrow worthy of all our yesterdays."

Thank you all, and God bless you.

Note: The President spoke at 8:35 p.m. in the dining room at the John C. Myers Convocation Center at Ashland College. He was introduced by Fred Lennon, cochairman of the John M. Ashbrook Memorial program. Dr. Joseph Schultz, president of Ashland College, and Mrs. John M. Ashbrook also spoke.

Prior to his remarks, the President attended receptions for major donors of the memorial program and Ohio Republican leaders at the Convocation Center.

Following his appearance at the dinner, the President returned to Washington, D.C.

Ronald Reagan, Remarks at a Fund-raising Dinner Honoring Former Representative John M. Ashbrook in Ashland, Ohio Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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