Alberto Mingardi  

The Great Society at 50

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Fifty years ago, Lyndon Johnson gave his famous "Great Society" address at the University of Michigan. In an interesting essay on "The Great Society at 50", AEI's Nicholas Eberstadt presents a very balanced and nuanced account of the "Great Society", that he ultimately deems as a "project that ended up at war with itself".

Eberstadt maintains a "the limited-government, Constitution-minded alternative to the Great Society template" was offered "by political leaders like Republican Senator Barry Goldwater". Writes Goldwater in "Conscience of a Conservative":

I believe that the problem of race relations, like all social and cultural problems, is best handled by the people directly concerned. Social and cultural change, however desirable, should not be effected by the engines of national power. Let us, through persuasion and education, seek to improve institutions we deem defective.
This is, according to Eberstadt, "an entirely principled and intellectually coherent counterargument. Yet, read from today's vantage point, there is also something quite awful about it".

Eberstadt maintains that it would have been very improbable at best to do away with "all the ugly infringements on constitutional rights that were part of daily life in the real America of the early 1960s". It is difficult to argue with that. Eberstadt acknowledges that "progress towards the ideals of a colorblind and integrated society has not only been recorded in the law books" but is the result of cultural changes that have much to do with, among other factors, immigration.

Racial integration is the main reason why Eberstadt believes we shall say "two cheers for the Great Society". On the other hand, the unintended consequences of welfare programs are the main reasons why the Great Society could be seen as "a project at war with itself".

Eberstadt in particular points out three: welfare dependence, flight from work (the decline in labor force participation for adult men), and the break-down of the family.

I highly recommend this essay, particularly for non-Americans who seldom understand how profound an influence Johnson did exercise ("What began under Johnson continued - or more often, expanded - under all successive presidents to date"). It raises interesting questions both for libertarians and for liberals (American style). As far as the first are concerned, the bargain between a more uniform application of the rule of law to anybody, regardless of race, and the growth of government power necessary to enforce it, is a hard one. As far as the latter are concerned, the counterproductive effects of many welfare policies is something they should definitely pay more attention to.


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COMMENTS (5 to date)
Bostonian writes:

"As far as the first are concerned, the bargain between a more uniform application of the rule of law to anybody, regardless of race, and the growth of government power necessary to enforce it, is a hard one."

Striking down Jim Crow laws requiring segregation reduces government power. Having the government not discriminate in hiring or schooling does not entail a growth in government power. Enforcing laws against discrimination by private businesses does increase government power.

Philo writes:

You say that "a more uniform application of the rule of law to anybody, regardless of race" required a "growth of government power necessary to enforce it." But if the government, in 1965 or thereabouts, *as a whole* wanted to apply the law without regard to race, why would it need more power than it already had (power which, presumably, it had previously been using to enforce the law in a racially biased fashion)? You must have in mind that *the federal government* wanted racially evenhanded enforcement but many of *the state and local governments* were resistant, so the federal government needed more power vis-à-vis these other governmental units.

Of course, greater racial evenhandedness was not the only consequence of the growth of federal power; in general, some of the values of decentralization were sacrificed.

ThomasH writes:

Who can be against paying more attention to the counterproductive effects of welfare or any other any policy, but I'm pretty skeptical that the policies of the "War on Poverty" are primarily responsible for "welfare dependence [whatever that means], flight from work (the decline in labor force participation for adult men), and the break-down of the family." What are the pillars of the "War on Poverty? Medicaid, Medicare, and EITC and CTC, SNAP and WIC. If we want to blame a war, I think the "War on Drugs" is a more likely suspect.

Mark V Anderson writes:
I believe that the problem of race relations, like all social and cultural problems, is best handled by the people directly concerned. Social and cultural change, however desirable, should not be effected by the engines of national power. Let us, through persuasion and education, seek to improve institutions we deem defective.

Kind of funny that Eberstadt says this reads awful from today's perspective. My first reaction was that Goldwater had great foresight. Our race relations would be much better these days if big government had butted out in the first place. Yes, Jim Crow was pretty nasty, and it is government too, but if we had instead not done the big government coercive thing and let race relations evolve on a one-to-one basis, I think we'd be pretty close to a color blind society by now. As it is, we are very far.

Ruy Diaz writes:

Well, have you worked in an inner city, ethnically mixed school? I have. One of the things you notice after a while is that the kids segregate themselves, against the wishes of the adults. Black with black, Haitian blacks with other Haitian blacks, Spanish-speaking teens with other Spanish-speaking teens, and those sometimes break down by nationality. (That one is kind of puzzling.) There are enormous forces against racial/ethnic harmony.

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