The liberty movement today does not have many elected officials to look up to. Considering that a large percentage of it doesn’t believe in electing officials at all, this is not surprising. Two main theories exist in regards to why those in power often are corrupt. As philosopher John Acton puts it, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The American presidency, of course, is nearly absolute power, and thus, lends itself to a whole lot of corruption.
Scientist David Brin, on the other hand, offers a much different theory. He says, “It is said that power corrupts, but actually it’s more true that power attracts the corruptible. The sane are usually attracted by other things than power.” This idea, of course, recognizes that power does not change people much, but rather, only corrupt people seek it.
Both of these quotes, though, share a very similar critical concept. Regardless of the nature of power, and whether it is the cause of corruption, there is a strong correlation between power and corruption. Even though those in power may not have started corrupt, they quickly become that way when the opportunity presents itself.
The Actor-Turned-Corrupted Official
One of the greatest examples of this quick change is Ronald Reagan. The former actor served as both California’s governor and POTUS, in the 1960s and 1980s, respectively. Both times, he campaigned on promises of limited government leading to a thriving economy. But both times, he failed to live up to this promise.
As the governor of California, Reagan actually signed off on the largest tax increase in the state’s history. This, of course, is highly antithetical to everything that he ran on. Despite this, Americans still elected him president in 1980 with a huge margin of victory.
However, Reagan, as president, once more abandoned his alleged virtues of limited government. Though he did cut the income tax considerably, he was, in other ways, not true to his word. Admittedly, some of this was due to resistance in a Democratic Congress. But still, much of the blame falls solely on the former president. From 1981 to 1989, the national debt increased by 186%. Deficit spending increased, and the budget increased. In fact, he even raised military spending by an alarming 35% in only eight years.
For these reasons, it is impossible to view Reagan as a supporter of small government without some pretty strong rose colored glasses. Upon entering positions of power, both times, he betrayed his alleged principles. This trait is not unique to Reagan though. In fact, due to the similarity of his campaign to Barry Goldwater, it is highly likely that Goldwater would have done the same, if elected.
Barry Goldwater: The Unproven Failure
In 1964, Lyndon B. Johnson handed Barry Goldwater one of the most crippling defeats in political history. After Kennedy’s assassination, there was little to no chance that the man would have been able to win. But what if he did?
Much like Reagan, Goldwater campaigned on promises of limited government intervention in the economy. He opposed FDR’s New Deal as a form of strong government overreach into the private sector, and is famous for also opposing a government strong enough to supply the citizens’ every need. Despite this strong personal position, his message would simply not have survived well in the tense political climate.
Differing from Reagan a bit, Barry Goldwater did have a track record of living up to his ideals. In his two terms as an Arizona senator, he retained most of his principles. But this is much more difficult to do as a president, especially when your ideas do not have a lot of support in the legislative body.
In 1965, Congress was heavily Democratic, with a majority in both the House and the Senate. These legislators overwhelmingly supported LBJ’s Great Society, and thus, would have fervently opposed the deregulation that Goldwater promised. So, even if he did adhere to his economic principles, it is highly unlikely that very many of them would have passed. Of course, Goldwater could have always passed some via executive order. But in doing so, he would have immediately violated his firmly held belief that a government should have very limited executive power. Thus, none of his economic ideas would come to fruition without abandoning the underlying principle behind them.
A Hypocritical Foreign Policy
Throughout the 1964 campaign, Barry Goldwater attacked LBJ relentlessly for his actions in Vietnam. Of course, it is true that Johnson lied to the American people about Vietnam, as well as needlessly brought the United States into the war. Goldwater was quick to point both of these things out, as well as call the war itself “Johnson’s war”. This all came after Johnson promised that he sought “no wider war” in Vietnam. Of course, this was not to be the case, as Johnson escalated the war and caused countless losses of American and foreign lives.
Conversely, Goldwater himself also had a very firm stance on opposing communism. Though Johnson’s allegations in the popular campaign ad “Daisy”, among others, that Goldwater would drop nuclear bombs on the North Vietnamese people were untrue, it is true that the conservative senator strongly supported action against communist regimes.
In July of 1964, Goldwater gave a speech in which he called for increased action to oppose communism. In fact, he called it “the principal disturber of peace in the world today”. He even went so far as to say that communist regimes were “enemies of every man on earth who is or wants to be free”, before referencing that America should become a beacon of freedom.
Without a doubt, these anti-communist sentiments imply a desire to spend considerable money opposing communist countries. Though Barry Goldwater may not have furthered the war as much as LBJ, his hawkish rhetoric suggests that any notion of small government would be crippled by increased military spending and presence throughout the world.
A Popular Loser
So, whether indirectly or directly, it appears Barry Goldwater would not have entirely lived up to his principles as president. Much like Reagan, corruption and bureaucracy would have crippled his ability to carry out limited government principles. American government, in a position of ultimate power, does not generally limit itself, hence the near-perpetual growth since its dawn.
Goldwater, a reasonably consistent voice for smaller government, would not have been an exception. His lack of success in 1964 ensured he could never go back on his own word, though, preserving his integrity and allowing him to become a role model for limited government advocates of today.
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