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A must-read book for this seminal election recalls the ‘Great Society’

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Most historians agree that the American presidential elections of 1932, when the country was floundering amidst a worldwide depression, and of 1968, when the country was torn apart by racial strife at home and a disastrous war abroad, top the list of “turning point” elections within the past hundred years. Today almost all observers would concur that the election toward which we are careening this November will be of similar magnitude.

What is most striking is the absolutely yawning chasm between the two visions of America’s future being offered by the Democratic and Republican parties. Republicans essentially defend the status quo, declaring it to be “great” economically and otherwise, while Democrats, with near unanimity, propose a dramatic transformation of the country led by an activist federal government. 

Among the broadly supported proposals offered by Democrats are “Medicare for All,” wealth redistribution via more taxation, the Green New Deal, and student loan debt relief.  What is particularly interesting is that Democrats are not shying away from the terms “socialism” or “democratic socialism” — and with good reason, since recent polls show large segments of the American people, particularly the young, are open to these ideas. A recent Harris Poll found that 50 percent of adults under age 38 would “prefer living in a socialist country.” Further polling shows that many people perceive socialism as a more “generous” basis for government and conversely associate capitalism with “greed” and “selfishness.”

It is against this background that I strongly recommend a recent book by journalist and historian Amity Shlaes, “Great Society: A New History.”

A longtime writer for the Wall Street Journal, Financial Times and Bloomberg, Shlaes is a resident scholar at the King’s College in Manhattan and author of several historical accounts, including one of the Great Depression, “The Forgotten Man.”

The new volume examines what Shlaes calls the “Great Society era,” encompassing the sweeping reforms enacted by Presidents John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon that dramatically expanded and transformed the social, legal and financial role of the federal government in American life.

Because socialism was considered a too-risky term politically in the 1960s, these reforms generally advanced under the rubric “liberal” or “progressive,” but clearly were modeled after Britain’s Labour Party and the social democracies of northern Europe.

Shlaes provides vivid portraits of the reformers — theoreticians, politicians, administrators — who gave life to the Great Society, men such as socialist Michael Harrington, whose book “The Other America” captured the imagination of JFK, Sargent Shriver, the Kennedy brother-in-law who became LBJ’s “poverty czar,” Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Nixon’s resident sociologist who promoted the failed guaranteed annual income, and labor leader Walter Reuther. Also memorably on stage were powerful mayors such as Los Angeles’s Sam Yorty and Chicago’s Richard Daley, who liked the cascading dollars of the Great Society but then began a vigorous revolt against what they saw as the arrogant overreach of empire-builders in Washington.

Shlaes’s central thesis is that the problems addressed by the Great Society were mitigated but never solved, and the effort itself has burdened society with a metastasizing “entitlement state,” the unaffordability of which is crippling our attempts to deal with myriad challenges today. 

A further legacy was the creation of a permanent underclass for which well-intentioned government programs disincentivize work and undermine families. In that vein, she describes her book as a cautionary tale of “lovable people who, despite themselves, hurt those they loved.”

Very germane to all of this is the fading historical memory of Americans. Many mistakes of the Great Society happened because reformers forgot the shortcomings of the New Deal, and perhaps today’s reformers have forgotten the reasons that the Great Society ended badly and ruined America’s economy in the 1970s.

In “The Tempest,” William Shakespeare tells us that “what is past is prologue.” Before embracing the promises and panaceas of another generation of well-intentioned reformers, American voters would do well to study their past and heed the warning of philosopher George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

In this momentous election year, Amity Shlaes’s superb book is an excellent place to start.

William Moloney, Ph.D., is a Fellow in Conservative Thought at Colorado Christian University’s Centennial Institute who studied at Oxford and the University of London. He is a former Colorado education commissioner.

Tags 2020 presidential election Amity Shlaes Democratic socialism Harris Lyndon Johnson progressives Socialist economics US economy

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