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Great Society: A New History


Great Society: A New History

By the time we reach the end of the 2020 election cycle, you can be certain the word “socialism” will have permeated the conversation. Even if they’re not denouncing an idea as bold as Medicare for All, expect to hear Donald Trump and his surrogates attaching that pejorative label to every Democratic policy proposal that even hints at expanding the role of government in Americans’ lives.

Not that they’re looking for it, but if Republicans are interested in historical fodder for those attacks, they need look no further than Amity Shlaes’ GREAT SOCIETY: A New History, a conservative critique of domestic policies spanning the period from the inauguration of John F. Kennedy to the end of Richard Nixon’s first term. In it, Shlaes, a former member of the Wall Street Journal editorial board and author of books that include THE GREEDY HAND: How Taxes Drive Americans Crazy and What to Do About It, lays out an indictment of a decade plus when “social democratic expansion moved America closer to socialism than it had ever been in a period of prosperity.” That “compromise,” she argues, “comes close enough to socialism to cause economic tragedy.”

"[F]or all its scholarly trappings, one’s reaction to this book is likely to turn on the political orientation the reader brings to it."

While Shlaes stops short of attaching the “socialist” label to Lyndon Johnson, she doesn’t hesitate to root the Democratic Party’s desire to tackle the problem of poverty in the United States so aggressively in the 1960s in that ethos. As she acknowledges, Johnson, who had entered public life during the New Deal and was an acolyte of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was more interested in building upon the legacy of his idol than in realizing some kind of socialist utopia.

Among her bogeymen are socialist intellectual Michael Harrington, author of THE OTHER AMERICA, and Yale Law School professor Charles Reich, best known for his book about the radical consciousness of a new generation, THE GREENING OF AMERICA, but also the author of an influential law review article arguing that government benefits are the property of those who receive them.

Shlaes does a capable job excavating the archaeological record of LBJ’s Great Society program, including the anti-poverty community action initiatives of the Office of Economic Opportunity (under the leadership of Kennedy in-law Sargent Shriver), the expansion of public housing, and the growth of legal services to advocate on behalf of the poor. She takes a decidedly jaded view of these activities, portraying them mostly as the malign efforts of arrogant federal bureaucrats to triumph over the beneficent forces of the free market. Shlaes also spends considerable energy unsympathetically tracing the decline of the American labor movement during this period through the story of Walter Reuther, the powerful head of the United Auto Workers.

Looming over all these events, of course, was the Vietnam War. Its escalating demands competed with Johnson’s domestic programs for public resources, ultimately fueling a spiral of inflation that, along with the energy crisis of the 1970s, gave rise to the twin evils of stagflation --- sluggish economic growth combined with high inflation. If the next Democratic president is named Sanders or Warren, it will be enlightening to see how their progressive domestic policy agendas --- more ambitiously interventionist than almost anything championed by Johnson --- will fare in a time of relative peace.

Though Shlaes trains most of her fire on Democrats and their intellectual allies like Harrington and Reich, she doesn’t spare Richard Nixon in the years before his administration was engulfed by the Watergate tsunami. She devotes lengthy chapters to a detailed analysis of Democrat and White House aide Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s failed effort at welfare reform and to Nixon’s dramatic decision to impose wage and price controls, along with a package of other economic remedies in August 1971, to stem rising inflation and assaults on the value of the US dollar.

Concluding what she calls her “cautionary tale of lovable people who, despite themselves, hurt those they loved,” it’s no surprise that Shlaes renders a decidedly negative verdict on the reformist impulses of the Great Society:

“The story of the 1960s was public reform upon reform: first community action, then housing, then the random tinkering with the currency system, then guaranteed income and the assault of the lawyers. Like the Vietnam record, the record of the ‘Best and the Brightest’ at home suggested that planning was far tougher than authorities pretended.”

In the four decades since the election of Ronald Reagan, the orthodoxy of Shlaes and her fellow conservatives has focused single-mindedly on tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy, along with deregulation, as the universal remedies for all that ails American society. Part of the case for justifying those policies involves discrediting the alternative. That seems to be the project of GREAT SOCIETY, and for all its scholarly trappings, one’s reaction to this book is likely to turn on the political orientation the reader brings to it.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on November 27, 2019

Great Society: A New History
by Amity Shlaes

  • Publication Date: November 24, 2020
  • Genres: History, Nonfiction, Politics
  • Paperback: 528 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial
  • ISBN-10: 0061706434
  • ISBN-13: 9780061706431