Great Society: A New History, by Amity Shlaes (HarperCollins, 511 pp., $32.50)

In Great Society: A New History, Amity Shlaes revisits the welfare programs of the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations to show not only how misguided they were but also what a warning they present to those who wish to resurrect and extend such programs. “The contest between capitalism and socialism is on again,” the author writes in her introduction. Despite the Trump administration’s thriving economy, or perhaps because of it, Democratic Party progressives are calling for new welfare programs even more radical than those advocated in the 1960s by the socialist architect of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, Michael Harrington. In the new schemes for wealth redistribution, student debt relief, socialized medicine, and universal guaranteed income that make up the Democrats’ political platform in 2020, Shlaes rightly sees a recycling of Great Society hobby horses—and she worries that a good portion of the electorate may be taken in by them. “Once again many Americans rate socialism as the generous philosophy,” she observes, and she has written her admirable, sobering study to make sure that readers realize that the “results of our socialism were not generous.”

Reviewing how ungenerous makes for salutary reading. After all, socialism of any stripe, whether in Russia, South America, Europe, or America, has always been an inherently deceitful enterprise. Shales captures the essence of this imposture when she describes one of its manifestations as “Prettifying a political grab by dressing it up as an economic rescue.” In totting up these receipts for deceit, Shlaes has done a genuine public service. An example:

Black unemployment, which had been the same as that of whites in the 1950s, from the early 1960s rose above white unemployment. The gap between black and white unemployment widened. Welfare programs funded by presidents Johnson and Nixon expanded rolls to an appalling extent—appalling because welfare fostered a new sense of hopelessness and disenfranchisement among those who received it. “Boy, were we wrong about a guaranteed income!” wrote that most honest of policy makers, Daniel Patrick Moynihan in 1978, looking back on a pilot program that had prolonged unemployment rather than met its goal, curtailing joblessness. The “worker versus employer” culture promoted by the unions and tolerated by the automakers suppressed creativity on the plant floor and in executive officers. Detroit built shoddy autos—the whistleblower Ralph Nader was correct when he charged that American cars were not safe. Detroit failed to come up with an automobile to compete with those made by other foreign automakers. Whereas in the 1930s American automakers’ productivity amounted to triple that of their German competitors, by the late 1960s and 1970s, German and Japanese automakers were catching up to it or pulling ahead. In the end the worker benefits that union leaders in their social democratic aspirations extracted from companies rendered the same companies so uncompetitive that employers in our industrial centers lost not merely benefits but jobs themselves. Vibrant centers of industry became “the rust belt,” something to abandon. . . . What the 1960s experiment and its 1970s results suggest is that social democratic compromise comes close enough to socialism to cause economic tragedy.

On display here are all of Shlaes’s strengths as an author: her clear and unpretentious prose, sound critical judgment, readiness to enter into the thinking of her subjects with sympathy (even when she regards it as mistaken), and, perhaps most impressively, understanding how history can help us fathom what might otherwise be obscure in our own more immediate history.

Accordingly, she describes the influence that Roosevelt’s New Deal had on Johnson, who saw it as a model for maintaining and consolidating his Democratic majorities, as well as focusing his Cabinet’s talents. “The men around Johnson,” Shlaes points out, including Robert McNamara, McGeorge Bundy, Richard Goodwin, and Sargent Shriver, “felt the weight of his faith on them, and strove hard. Vietnam would be sorted out. There would be a Great Society. Poverty would be cured. Blacks of the South would win full citizenship. The Great Society would succeed.” Yet the president’s men could not help asking “by what measures” it would succeed.

Moynihan’s answer to this question is one that still mesmerizes social-engineering elites. The Great Society would be achieved by social science. “Progress begins on social problems when it becomes possible to measure them,” Moynihan declared. Improved quantitative analysis would give the centralized power of planners a new credibility.

Whether Johnson himself ever truly believed in such claims is questionable. When aides asked the exuberant Texan what he thought of the risks of going forward with his wildly ambitious program, his reply epitomized the hubris at the heart of his Great Society: “Well, what the hell’s the presidency for?”

A man as astute as Moynihan might have been expected to assess such matters with more circumspection; but his trust at the time in new and improved government planning was sanguine. “The nation had begun the War on Poverty,” he declared, with his usual rhetorical zest. “Why not win it?” Shlaes’s treatment of the role Moynihan played in these proceedings is unfailingly fair, though she does remind readers of the safety net reserved for public intellectuals who dabble in public life when she describes his exodus from the Nixon administration in 1970. “In May, Moynihan let the president know he would be leaving,” she writes. “The door to Harvard still stood open. While it would have him, Moynihan was returning to the Life of the Mind.”

Much could be said about the dubious contributions made to the Great Society by the Life of the Mind, as even liberal historian Joshua Zeitz concedes. “It was remarkable that Johnson’s Great Society endured into the 1970s, 1980s, and beyond, even as the economic theory that underpinned it fell into doubt,” he writes in Building the Great Society, published in 2018. “LBJ’s domestic policy was born of prevailing liberal conviction that experts could grow the economy in perpetuity while sustaining low unemployment and inflation. After 1973, this belief no longer seemed tenable.”

Still, of all the “experts,” Moynihan proved the most insightful. At least he read the welfare statistics critically enough to see that the Great Society’s programs were not reversing but hastening the disintegration of black families. The conclusion to his famous study, “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action” (1965) is as compelling today as it was 55 years ago, and not just with respect to black families but to all families trapped by welfare dependency:

In a word, a national effort towards the problems of Negro Americans must be directed towards the question of family structure. The object should be to strengthen the Negro family so as to enable it to raise and support its members as do other families. After that, how this group of Americans chooses to run its affairs, take advantage of its opportunities, or fail to do so, is none of the nation’s business.

While Moynihan was right to insist, as he did in his report, that “The family is the basic social unit of American life,” and that single-parent households run by beleaguered mothers would not redound to the well-being of the poor, black or white, his Family Assistance plan never took off, largely because of the escalating Vietnam War and party politics. In the competing demands made on the public purse between guns and butter in the 1960s, guns always won out.

Perhaps Shlaes’s most eloquent indictment of the Great Society can be found in what she says about Johnson’s decision not to run for reelection in 1968. “There had been many factors driving Johnson’s announcement, Vietnam prominent amongst them,” she writes, but

just as important was the narrowing for the federal government’s mighty domestic undertaking. Johnson, a lifelong politician, thought in the government framework. Government had to be great to make the Great Society great. What if, in the long run, government could not be great? The president would let the others sort out the details. When it came to his own participation, Johnson had made his decision. If not great, then not at all. 

Great Society: A History is a brilliant book; anyone interested in the history of progressivism in America or the history of America in the 1960s should read it. One quibble, and that is with the adage that serves as Shlaes’s epigraph: “Nothing is new, it is just forgotten.” She may be right that many Americans have forgotten the history of the Great Society. Yet surely this is not the case in the academy, which remains committed to the principles that created the program. Despite all evidence undercutting their position, liberal intellectuals continue to tout the program’s purported benefits. To coin a phrase, they have learned nothing and forgotten nothing. Shlaes’s book might have included a chapter detailing how today’s left-wing intellectuals continue to promulgate the Great Society’s socialist fantasies. As the nineteenth-century French critic Ernest Renan was fond of saying, getting its history wrong is an essential element in any nation’s history. This is certainly true of the history of America’s flirtation with socialism.

Defenders of the Great Society try to have it both ways: they defend the programs vis-a-vis free-market capitalism by pointing out that it fell short of redistributionist socialism, while at the same time arguing that it failed because it wasn’t socialist enough. Shlaes sees this disingenuous ploy in the work of Tom Hayden, the political activist, who led protests against the Vietnam War for Students for a Democratic Society.  “Socialism was a goal, Hayden saw, that attracted many people, even—especially—when they knew little about it,” she writes. “These people would sometimes continue to be inspired even after confronting evidence of socialism’s failure. It did not matter if villages in socialist lands were poor, and appearing to get poorer. The villages, or those who studied them, could always tell themselves that true socialism had yet to be tried.” 

In the conclusion to his well-researched but unconvincing study, Zeitz defends the Great Society, excuses the growing extremism of many progressives, and pours scorn on what he regards as the heartlessness of President Donald Trump’s policies. “The Trump administration and its congressional allies may eliminate access to health care for tens of millions of poor people and senior citizens, strip away food security for impoverished children and their parents, erode civil rights for people of color, and make it possible once again to despoil America’s water and air,” he writes. “But when the pendulum swings back, it may swing hard.”

The 2020 elections will render a verdict on that prediction. In the meantime, Great Society can remind us of where we have been and where some wish to return.

Photo by Keystone/Getty Images


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