What is in a name? As far as programs go, Lyndon Baines Johnson’s Great Society sounds great. It is simple and straightforward. It promises everything. What is there not to love?
We have a society. There is no getting around that. Now we must decide what sort of society we want. Of course, we want a great one. Easy. Check that box.
There is just one little problem. How does one go about making a society great?
Abolish poverty. Declare war on it, even. A “War On Poverty” sounds like a noble cause. People love noble causes.
Educate everyone. Provide for widows and orphans. Provide for fatherless children and single mothers. Give those who are poor a decent place to live. Provide them with a minimum basic income. That will lift them out of poverty.
At some point we will say we should leave no child behind. You would never leave a man behind in a war. And this is a war, right?
But first, people must have homes. They must have food. Give them welfare. But not everyone needs government assistance. Only the poor.
Oh, did we not mention that before? This is a government effort. The government is the people, in a manner of speaking. And people should be charitable. Therefore, the government must be charitable with your money on your behalf because you cannot be trusted to be charitable on your own, of your own free will and volition.
What could possibly go wrong?
Good Intentions v. Great Society
‘The road to hell is paved with good intentions.’
And LBJ’s Great Society was chock full of good intentions.
America was a back-to-back world war champion. We played a decisive role in both World War I and II. Now we were in the thick of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. And many Americans were wondering what it was all for.
What was the good in having saved the world if our own country was in disarray?
What did it profit a country to save the whole world and yet forfeit its soul?
Socialism had been here for a long time before LBJ appealed to certain segments of the American people. Many immigrants and working-class folks observed dramatic income inequality. They felt they had been shafted. They deserved more. Socialism would right the wrong.
Wealthy captains of industry who had become fantastically rich had enriched themselves on the backs of the poor. And all their charity was insufficient. The have-nots we would have with us always if we kept up like that.
Presidents Wilson and Roosevelt, meanwhile, had accomplished much by harnessing private industry to win wars against aggressive foreign powers bent on world domination. And both of those progressive Democrats had assembled teams of the brightest minds to reorganize society to achieve victory.
Why could not a similar effort be launched against another foe: poverty? If it could be, many Americans thought it should be, in the name of compassion.
Right, Left, and Center
A theme that comes through loud and clear in both Amity Shlaes’ works I have read – Great Society as well as her earlier work, The Forgotten Man – is that the radical expansion of American government which occurred in the 20th century was not a feature only of the Left, but of the Right also.
Not only did the size of government increase. So also, and arguably even more-so, the scope of what the government considered to be its purview ballooned under Republicans as well as Democrats.
The role of the U.S. government was no longer confined to national defense and the apprehension and prosecution of violent criminals. Instead, the government had a duty to build and maintain infrastructure. The economy needed not only protected from foreign intervention and sabotage. It needed tinkered with, tweaked, and centrally planned.
Reasonable legal protections for workers quickly morphed into increasingly intrusive regulations and mandates to private businesses and industries.
And a war on poverty quickly turned into not only higher taxes and expenditures, but far-reaching efforts to re-engineer families and communities according to the opinions of persons seen to represent science and the consensus of organized bodies of working-class persons and students numbering in the millions.
LBJ’s Great Society was not a construct of President Johnson alone. Rather, it was a naked admission that the U.S. government no longer felt constrained by questions of what the government could do, according to the United States Constitution. Slowly but surely, the question instead had become this: Was there anything our government could not do?
Was there any aspect of American life the government could not rightly intrude in and direct?
If Johnson’s administration could take on the role of savior and protector, then it had to also take on the role of director.
Tragically, in an effort to abolish poverty in America, Great Society expansion and intrusion in the economy and the family ended up impoverishing the country by picking winners and losers, constraining the creative energies of the nation, and encouraging a sense of entitlement among the discontented rabble.
As Amity Shlaes’ book lays out, the Great Society was very much not only inspired by rabble-rousers. It was shepherded, steered, and guided by the same.
Johnson, meanwhile, was a shameless bully, and arguably the coarsest and most uncouth president America has ever had. He was no hero. He was a coldly calculating politician who saw in championing civil rights for black Americans and ramming through welfare programs an opportunity to score political points. And that was not great. In fact, it was rather terrible. And Johnson was a terrible president, whatever good he may have accidentally done as he worked to promote himself and his party.
Unfortunately, the legacy of the Great Society is one of hubris, and of more destructive creativity than creative destruction.
Welfare programs designed to provide for those who were poor dis-incentivized hard work.
Tax rates meant to redistribute wealth starved investment in starting and expanding businesses that would have employed more people at higher rates of pay.
Indiscriminate programs to provide for single mothers and their children discouraged marriage and the propagation and maintenance of nuclear families, and rewarded promiscuity and the rearing of children born out of wedlock.
All of these together damned generations of poor Americans to a vicious cycle of higher crime, substance-abuse, poor education, and low economic opportunity.