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But there is no particular trick in making a buffoon of federal regulations. Things grow more problematical when one tries to extend such reasonable complaints to a general political philosophy, and talk—as Reagan does talk—of putting "the Federal Government back in the business of doing the things the Constitution says are its prime functions: to keep internal order, to protect us in our national security from outside aggression and to provide a stable currency for our commerce and trade." Very well. But such a definition omits the "general welfare" clause. And in practical terms, Reagan undoubtedly does not intend to dismantle the N.L.R.B., Social Security, unemployment insurance and other such encroachments on pure freedom that are here to stay. So, what does he mean?
However vague and simplified Reagan's idea of freedom may be, it touches a central chord in American thought, a chord that will sound when people start to fear that the future is over, as they did during the Carter Administration. The fact that Reagan speaks for the virtues of both the past and the future is reassuring, if safe, but the fact that his definition of freedom is essentially Western is more to the point. When Reagan speaks of freedom, he is speaking of freedom west of the Rockies. That is where he found his own best America; that is where he continues to find his personal and philosophical solace; that is what he wishes for the country at large—a California dream, an endless prospect of gold and greenery and don't fence me in.
That California has come to embody such a vision of boundlessness is a little strange, since the dream of California is as much the dream of disappointment as of hope—the dream of arriving at virgin territory, of messing it up, and having gone as far as one can go, of having nowhere to turn but back. As Kevin Starr pointed out in his Americans and the California Dream, California has always stood for something mystical in American life; it has not suffered the tragic historical burdens of the East and South, and it has seemed determined to make itself as much a folk tale as a habitat. But just as it has always insisted on its eternal newness and promise, it has also represented the dead end of the New World, the end of exploration, recalling all the mistakes of every past civilization. One reason that Balboa (Keats mistakenly wrote Cortes) might have stood "silent upon a peak in Darien" is that he realized there was no place else on earth to travel to. Or as a Walt Whitman character said in "Facing West from California's Shores": "Where is what I started for so long ago? And why is it yet unfound?"
Reagan does not ask that question, nor does he stand silent upon a peak in Pacific Palisades and brood about paradise lost. His California dream remains unsullied. America is still the land of perpetual opportunity, and every man gloriously for himself. Economics fits into this vision neatly, since California happened to provide a fine justification for capitalism by producing gold from the earth like a health food. If there were a California Ocean school of painting, it would consist of avocados in the foreground and a range of office buildings behind. Perhaps that is Reagan's