Remembering one of the nation’s great giants in the limited government movement

Before the Reagan Revolution upended the national political scene and introduced a revitalized conservative ethos into the Republican Party, there was a tax revolt and related ferment in California that ultimately expanded nationally.

One of the prime movers of the California effort, Lewis Uhler, died Saturday morning at 88. As top Reagan aide and former U.S. Attorney General Edwin Meese put it, “Lew Uhler was a great patriot who spent his entire career as a leader on public policy issues.” Congressman Tom McClintock (R-California) added, “Lew Uhler devoted his life, his heart, and his soul to the cause of Liberty. There is no higher calling than that.”

A little over a decade after college at Yale, a law degree from the University of California, service in Army counterintelligence and being an attorney, Mr. Uhler transitioned to becoming a key official in then-Governor Ronald Reagan’s administration, serving as Director of his Office of Economic Opportunity and as chair of the Governor’s Tax Reduction Task Force. As early as 1973, Mr. Uhler was working to put initiatives on the ballot (Proposition One) to restrain the size of government, supporting the famed successful 1978 Proposition 13 of Howard Jarvis and Paul Gann that started a national tax revolt culminating in then-President Reagan’s 1981 tax cut, which more than anything defined Republican public policy for decades (as the 2017 Trump tax cut demonstrates).  Mr. Uhler fought an increasingly liberal California legislature through voter initiative efforts, for example in 1990 with the successful passage of Proposition 140, leading to term limits being imposed on Golden State legislators. 

In 1975, geographically expanding his horizons, Mr. Uhler created the National Tax Limitation Committee (NTLC) with a blue-chip group of directors including famed economist Milton Friedman. NTLC for decades supported not only low taxes but other needed fiscal innovations, most notably a balanced budget amendment to the U.S.  Constitution. That ultimately unsuccessful effort came close to fruition, but its eventual failure to restrain government spending has contributed mightily to our nation’s current increasingly precarious financial situation.

More generally, Mr. Uhler increasingly called for the “optimal size” or “right-sizing” of government,” drawing on academic research of many scholars suggesting that, at the margin, the government in the U.S. and other industrial democracies is larger than desired to maximize the welfare of the citizenry. He even carried that effort internationally; I personally heard him call for constraining government on three continents. 

As the CEO of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) Lisa Nelson put it, “As one of the founders of ALEC, we lost a giant among tax freedom warriors.” In pain and dying, he told his son Kirk in his last hours, “I have some work to do!” To the very end, Lew Uhler was an indefatigable defender of the “optimal size of government,” a government that by today’s standard is one that is relatively small and maximizes human freedom and provides opportunities for innovation and entrepreneurship—a government that provides what Deidre McCloskey calls “the Great Enrichment.”  

  • Richard Vedder is Distinguished Professor of Economics Emeritus at Ohio University and a member of the American Legislative Exchange Council Board of Scholars.

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