National concern about income inequalities. Race relations at a boiling point. Riots in the streets. Cries on the left for massive allocations of federal money for housing and poverty reduction programs. Social scientists and professional activists touting theories and pet proposals for projects that will supposedly eradicate poverty if only enough money is thrown at them. Tensions between local and state officials and the White House and between bureaucrats and the poor people they claim to be helping. Factionalism roiling the left as new players challenge the Democratic Party establishment. Concerns about the independence of the Federal Reserve. Economic uncertainty and balance of trade issues leading to tensions with our supposed allies. The once iconic General Electric facing public image problems. Big industrial unions like the United Automobile Workers losing clout to unions representing white-collar government workers. The perennial debate about what we now call the universal basic income (UBI). The rise of the expert class—and the backlash against it. St. Louis as the poster child of racial and class tensions. Acrimony between presidential appointees and the president himself. A naïve, self-serving belief among progressives that all we need to do to solve every problem is to hearken back to the New Deal and outdo it by going big, big, big on social spending. Outright cries for socialism in America. Debates on the right and within the GOP about which political path to follow—surrendering to the administrative state or remaining committed to the free market and personal liberty.
Sound familiar? But wait—this isn’t 2020. It is the period of roughly 1964-1972 that journalist and historian Amity Shlaes
chronicles in her 2019 book, Great Society: A New History
Given the unprecedented, gargantuan levels of federal spending we are seeing these days designed to deal with the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic and the ongoing debate revolving around the Black Lives Matter movement, Shlaes’ book is exquisitely well-timed. Now is the time to revisit the Great Society era and consider what worked and what ended up destroying poor neighborhoods and the lives of those in them.
Shlaes also introduces us to many of the now standard public policy types whose latter-day incarnations we all live with today. There is the influential gadfly author who alerts Americans to this or that social problem (Michael Harrington). The charismatic super-bureaucrat who oversells his federal programs and rides roughshod over those at the local level (Sargent Shriver). The memo-producing social scientist for-hire who loves government more than life itself (Daniel Patrick Moynihan). The young activist who rides the wave of social upheaval only to be sidelined by those more ruthless, effective and radical than he (Tom Hayden). The union leader who revels in conferring with American presidents and cultivating allies on the left even as his industry is being gutted by foreign competitors (Walter Reuther of the United Automobile Workers). We know these types by now and Shlaes reminds us how we got used to such figures.
Never was a better time to look back at a key period in the history of big government and to consider how we can avoid replicating the counterproductive policies that helped create the very conditions that are generating the current outcry about income disparities and racial injustice.
Give a listen.
Hope J. Leman is a grants researcher.