Reparations for slavery, you say? Well, we tried that experiment, in the $20-plus trillion spent on welfare, Medicaid, housing, and food stamps for the mostly minority poor since Lyndon Johnson declared his War on Poverty in 1964. As Amity Shlaes shows in her cautionary Great Society: A New History, those trillions only made matters worse. As the clamor swells to compound LBJ’s mistake, Shlaes provides a sobering postmortem, dissecting how and why, when government presumes to reshape society, the result is likely to be gory.
It took LBJ a lifetime to learn that lesson, and he learned it the hard way. He began his government career as an ardent New Dealer, first as a tireless functionary charged with pressing Texas farmers to limit their crops, on Franklin Roosevelt’s cockeyed theory that overproduction caused the Great Depression, and then as one of FDR’s most energetic congressional lieutenants, ramming through New Deal programs—many of doubtful constitutionality. He firmly believed that the New Deal had heroically wielded the power of the federal government to defeat the slump, though as Shlaes showed in her earlier best-selling book, The Forgotten Man (2007), it only prolonged it.
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When vice president Johnson assumed the presidency upon John F. Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963, his sunny faith in the boundless power of government to do good shone undimmed. In his State of the Union Address at the start of the new year, he declared his aim to unleash that power in an “unconditional war on poverty” that would “cure” that scourge once and for all. In the spring, his vision expanded further still. With unemployment low and national prosperity high, he said, America could now afford to create a “Great Society,” abolishing the country’s remaining pockets of poverty and also stamping out racial injustice across the land. Those who mistakenly feared big government would see that “far from crushing the individual, government at its best liberates him from the enslaving forces of his environment.”
Overseeing this grandiose project would be the slain president’s brother-in-law, Sargent Shriver, who, as head of Kennedy’s Peace Corps, had sent young Americans to improve the lot of the downtrodden in foreign climes. Now he would do the same for America’s own poor, teaching them how to organize their communities for political activism, bringing intensive pre-kindergarten education to their children, providing them job training, and showering them with social and legal services.
Into the mix from the start, Shlaes argues, went a stiff shot of socialism. Michael Harrington, an early Shriver advisor famous for his bestselling The Other America (1962), which had highlighted the persistence of poverty in the world’s richest country, especially in Appalachia, professed an unabashed socialism that sought wholesale income redistribution by government to remedy inequality. And one of the anti-poverty project’s earliest and most powerful supporters, United Auto Workers chief Walter Reuther, saw his lifelong effort to improve the wages, pensions, and health benefits of his union workers as a gradual realization of the mid-century Scandinavian-style socialist equality he dreamed of. In 1962, New Deal acolyte Reuther had hosted and sponsored the first convention of Students for a Democratic Society at the union-owned FDR Four Freedoms Camp in Port Huron, Michigan, which Harrington attended and which adopted a Tom Hayden-framed statement condemning American racial and income inequality, and calling for an anti-poverty program and a sort of community activism the statement termed “participatory democracy.” It is a coincidence linking socialism, the War on Poverty, and ’60s student radicalism that understandably tickles Shlaes.
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Recalling the unstoppable momentum of FDR’s First Hundred Days, Johnson moved fast. In July 1964, he signed the Civil Rights Act, aiming finally to realize the promise of the 14th and 15th Amendments, as the 1870s civil rights acts had failed to do. But the section of the law that outlawed racial discrimination in public accommodation—restaurants and hotels, for example—came with a cost that government efforts to remake society often entail. The Constitution, objected one Florida senator at the time, guarantees “the right for every free American to do that which he wishes with his own property”—a single small restaurant, say, as opposed to a railroad in interstate commerce. As Shlaes observes, “A law that defined new rights at the national level was taking away from individuals the authority of their own conscience, and substituting a federal, national conscience to overrule them. And who knew whether the federal government’s conscience would always be better?”
But LBJ had no such misgivings as he sped ahead. After all, observed Labor Department bureaucrat Daniel Patrick Moynihan, modern central planners, unlike the ideological reformers of the past, were professionals, social scientists armed with statistics, using “quantitative analysis to point the way” as they shaped social and economic policy. The president trusted them implicitly. He had assembled a team of advisers who were the best and the brightest—his “Harvards,” as he called them. How could they fail?
In August, Johnson officially launched Shriver’s anti-poverty agency, the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO). Its Job Corps enrolled thousands in training programs, though OEO’s chief function turned out to be funneling vast amounts of money to local groups to organize the poor for community action—in effect, Port Huron’s “participatory democracy.” If this sounds like gobbledy-gook, it was. What happened in practice is that taxpayer money went to such radical activist outfits as Chicago’s Woodlawn Organization, inspired by far-left puppet master Saul Alinsky, and the Blackstone Rangers, a criminal gang, to carry out voter registration drives and create “opportunities for the poor to participate in protest actions” (such as rent strikes) or to teach them how to “combat police violence.” Farcically, the federal government was paying radicals to protest against local government, to the disgust of urban mayors. “The War on Poverty,” chortled one activist, “became a government for those of us in opposition.”
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It was hardly surprising that the nation’s mayors bristled over federal interference in their cities, the more so as OEO money was going to wild-eyed outsiders rather than to their own social-service and job-training agencies. City officials also looked askance at Head Start, the Great Society’s pre-kindergarten education program. Wasn’t education a local responsibility?, they fretted. Yet OEO was hiring outside civil-rights activists as teachers. Southerners didn’t like their Afro-centric focus or their treatment of the Civil War, and they feared Head Start augured the nationalization of the entire public school curriculum. Moreover, because Head Start kept the kids all day instead of two or three hours, and provided them with medical care and social workers, local citizens feared it was a vast indoctrination machine, the start of Antonio Gramsci’s long march through the institutions.
Job training, early childhood enrichment, organizing communities to protest systemic racism—was any of this helping? Was it even addressing the real problem? Observers like Harrington and Moynihan had misgivings. Formerly, black and white unemployment rose and fell in tandem. Now, however, blacks stayed unemployed while white employment rose. Could it be that many young blacks had so few basic life skills that they had given up and were unemployable? Were they a “new lost generation?” Harrington wondered.
Yes, Moynihan replied in his famous 1965 report to the president, which argued that the black family was fracturing, increasingly unable to provide children with the nurture required to develop the focus needed to get an education or hold a job. That, he suggested, was the core problem government had to solve.
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Other observers saw the same problem, but offered a more direct solution. Thomas Sowell, then a Howard University professor, acknowledged the “social and economic problems” of his fellow blacks but called for “our own self-development as a people.” Some black preachers sounded the same theme. “It’s far more important that things be done by Negroes rather than that they be done for them—even if, for a while, they’re not done as well,” said one. Another declared that education was “the Negro’s debt to himself.” The growing black middle class shared that optimistic self-help view. The 900,000 monthly buyers of Ebony magazine, celebrating its 20th anniversary in 1965, agreed with publisher John Johnson, a proudly self-made millionaire, that what defined success was raising a family, sending kids to college, and “earning an MBA or making an outstanding professional contribution.” In other words, it’s not just a matter of having Dad married to Mom but of having families capable of transmitting the virtues that enable success. That cultural reality—the shared beliefs, values, and obligations that make a family—is something social scientists, with their measures and statistics, seem unable to see.
Certainly Lyndon Johnson couldn’t see it. The more meager the result of the War on Poverty, the firmer grew his conviction that government was the answer. In June 1965, he gave one of the most wrong-headed presidential speeches in history. “You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, ‘You are free to compete with all the others’”—as if the history of black Americans had permanently crippled them and made them inferior. No longer did Johnson see the government’s job as providing equal opportunity. Now, he said, it would provide “equality as a fact and equality as a result.” The author of Federalist No. 10, who saw redistributionism as the ultimate tyranny of the majority, would spin in his grave.
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Having sown the wind, however, the Great Society now began to reap the whirlwind. Fanning protest, empowering gang bangers and radicals, belittling local authorities: all this was playing with fire. And fire broke out. Over six days in mid-August, some 34,000 rioters destroyed Los Angeles’s Watts ghetto, leaving 34 dead, over 1,000 injured, and 1,000 destroyed and looted buildings worth $40 million. “When you keep telling people they are unfairly treated and teach them disrespect for the law,” said L.A.’s police chief, “you must expect this kind of thing sooner or later.” Nor was it just the community organizers who were telling this to the minority poor. So was all of elite culture at the time, while the elites also celebrated sexual promiscuity, recreational drugs, dropping out, and questioning all authority. It was this cultural shift, more than anything else, that accounts for the skyrocketing rates of underclass social pathology—out-of-wedlock pregnancy, drug abuse, crime, school dropout, non-work—that began in 1964.
LBJ doubled down on redistributionism, the War on Poverty’s new elixir. Just before the riots, he had signed Medicaid, medical insurance for the poor, into law. The next year, he decided to supersize the urban renewal program begun in 1949. From its brutalist, Marcel Breuer-designed concrete bunker in Washington, the new Department of Housing and Urban Development would spend $7.5 billion on slum clearance, Johnson vowed, razing functioning communities and replacing them with anti-human Le Corbusier-inspired subsidized-housing towers. Like giant filing cabinets for anonymous, interchangeable items of mortality, these soon turned into graffitied, garbage-strewn, urine-reeking, gang-terrorized dystopias, though the real failure was more social than architectural.
The cost of all this ran out of control. Medicaid, for example, budgeted at $400 million for 1967, instead cost $1.1 billion. OEO’s legal services component blossomed into the new field of public-service law, whose class-action suits, argued before an all-too-willing Warren Court, remade whole swaths of society, with no need to consider the cost. At the same time, Johnson was fighting a war in Vietnam, costly in treasure as well as in blood. The nation’s economy strained at the seams, as taxes and borrowing rose, the dollar fell, and inflation began to erode living standards.
It became clear, moreover, that LBJ was losing both wars. Early in February 1968, as the Tet Offensive raged in Vietnam, Robert Kennedy declared that “a total military victory is not within sight or around the corner.” Later that month, the Kerner Commission Report on the riots, as Shlaes sums it up, “effectively damned Johnson’s civil rights laws and War on Poverty as failures.”
On March 31, Johnson’s daughter, Lynda, dropped by the White House, having just seen her husband off to fight in Vietnam. Her parents were shocked at how worn and thin she looked. “Why do we have to go to Vietnam?” she asked her father. Johnson only stared at her with a look his wife hadn’t seen on his face since his beloved mother’s death. That evening he went on television and announced he would not seek another term.
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There’s one short coda to this sad tale. Richard Nixon won the 1968 presidential contest—elected, says Shlaes, to “kill the Great Society.” But he didn’t. Instead, Moynihan, enticed back to Washington from a comfortable berth at Harvard, convinced him to replace welfare with a whole new system, the Family Assistance Plan, that would incentivize work with income supplements. But as a wise ex-senator once explained to me when I suggested an improved replacement for an existing federal program that would cost no more than the old, I would in fact end up doubling the cost, since Washington never kills old programs but leaves them to run alongside new ones. So Moynihan and Nixon found. No one was willing to abolish Medicaid, housing subsidies, and the like. The new program would just be a hugely costly add-on. In 1970, Moynihan fled back to Cambridge, his plan dead.
Now that we are again “telling people they are unfairly treated and teach[ing] them disrespect for the law,” while socialism and anti-Americanism grow louder every day, Amity Shlaes’s powerful warning is more crucial than ever.