The Democrat Party’s left wing promises government money for every voting constituency: free college tuition, free medical care, infrastructure spending between $1 trillion and $2 trillion, $50 billion for historically black colleges, a Green New Deal, and so on. But progressives’ campaign speeches are long on promises and short on detail. 

More than 50 years after the 1966 Freedom Budget and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs, the Democrats still largely praise the sixties’ social-engineering experiments, even as American inner cities stand in disrepair. Black education, income, and wealth gaps remain, despite estimates that the government has already spent $20 trillion in inflation-adjusted dollars on antipoverty programs since 1964.

Both parties appear to have reached a hushed consensus on the principle that budget integrity is of little concern because a combination of higher taxes and the Federal Reserve’s printing press will pay for any government spending. Government expenditures are considered moral issues, not subject to sound fiscal analysis or historical experience. The process, as Bernie Sanders recently reminded New York Times readers, started in earnest with Franklin Roosevelt’s 1944 State of the Union address, in which FDR enumerated a “Second Bill of Rights” for material well-being, including “a useful and remunerative job,” “a decent home,” “adequate medical care,” “a good education,” and “protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment.” Security would become politically synonymous with liberty, the casualty being individual responsibility. 

In 1964, demands for action on social conditions began in earnest when Whitney Young, Jr., executive director of the National Urban League, called for massive state intervention. “Disadvantaged for three centuries,” Young wrote, “American Negroes require compensatory benefits . . . a domestic Marshall Plan.” The real Marshall Plan, however, was used to restore the economic systems of countries that had once enjoyed functioning economies. The plans envisioned by Young and other black leaders purported to create functioning economies in inner-city neighborhoods where the economies had long been dormant.

But Young understood that government could only do so much, and that black people would have to rise to the challenge of full citizenship. “They must march not only to the picket lines but to the libraries,” he wrote, “and prepare themselves for the stiffening competition of a no-holds-barred marketplace.” In 1965, Martin Luther King adopted Young’s Marshall Plan metaphor, with a similar $50 billion demand. Like Young, King would attach a condition: “[O]ne of [the black person’s] chief responsibilities is to prepare himself . . . We must face up honestly to our shortcomings . . . We seek integration based on mutual respect.”

Within a year, though, King had doubled his 1965 request, dropped individual responsibility, and included the white poor. But King offered no detailed outline of expenditures or accountability, aside from assuming that funds would be taken from the defense budget. Both King and Roy Wilkins of the NAACP realized that a program encompassing all poor people, rather than one targeting blacks specifically, would gain more political support. Money, according to King, would bring “a spectacular decline in school dropouts, family breakups, crime rates, illegitimacy, swollen relief rolls, rioting and other social evils.” Along with A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin, King promoted the first full-blown request for such a redistributive effort, a “Freedom Budget for all Americans.” Randolph and Rustin were soft-shell Marxists. According to his biographer, David Garrow, King, too, adhered to democratic socialism.

The Freedom Budget called for an expenditure of $185 billion ($1.5 trillion in 2019 dollars) over ten years. The “proposal” ran only eight and a half pages, including charts and illustrations and several pages of introductions by King and Randolph; questions and responses made up two and a half pages. Randolph declared the Freedom Budget “concrete,” “specific,” “quantitative,” and “not visionary or utopian.” Productivity gains would supposedly pay for the program’s $185 billion cost, and then some. Proponents forecast no tax increases, even with a 30 percent increase in national defense spending over ten years. Infrastructure improvement and environmental remediation would provide climate justice avant la lettre: “Critical shortages of water and power persist. . . . Air and water remain polluted. Recreation facilities are unavailable to those who need them.” The miracle plan would eliminate most of the “poverty problem” via “full employment at decent wages . . . without a single make-work job.”

Though the Freedom Budget was never enacted, expenditures for poverty programs skyrocketed under the Great Society in the same categories—education, housing, and health—that King and Randolph had specified. 

Half a century later, the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates seem to be reviving the Freedom Budget and brushing over the fallacies of Great Society logic in their rush to impose a Green New Deal on Americans. Thorny questions about the tax revenues needed to fund such outlays are dismissed as partisan abstractions. Though cost-prohibitive, trillion-dollar campaign promises make great politics. 

Policy justification has moved from stimulating self-help to victimhood. Gone are the notions of individual responsibility advocated by Young and King. Instead, left-wing Democrats have substituted dependency—inducing government largesse, an expanded central government, a reduced private sector, ignorance of past program failures, and disregard for the adaptability and entrepreneurship inherent in American capitalism. They show no inclination to eliminate failed programs or fix broken ones.

Labor economist Hyman Bookbinder, one of the godfathers of the Great Society, eventually conceded its ineffective grandiosity. “I can’t think of a single idea or policy recommendation,” he noted, “that was of any lasting consequence.” A straight line runs from FDR’s Second Bill of Rights through the Marshall Plan as a model for domestic economic development to the Freedom Budget’s freewheeling spending—and on to the current Democratic enthusiasm for increased taxes and government control at the expense of the private sector. The current enthusiasm is exemplified by the Green New Deal, which includes a new spin on identity politics. Creeping socialism eventually gallops. 

Gene Dattel is a financial and cultural historian and the author of books including Cotton and Race in the Making of America and Reckoning with Race: America’s Failure. Fred Siegel is a City Journal contributing editor and the author of The Revolt Against the Masses: How Liberalism Has Undermined the Middle Class.

Photo by Keystone/Getty Images


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