The biggest debates in American politics today—about how to end poverty, improve living standards for the middle class, protect the environment, and provide access to health care and education—are nothing new under the sun. These same issues divided the country in the 1960s. Then, as now, Americans debated socialism versus capitalism and publicsector versus private-sector reform. Time and again, whether under John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, or Richard Nixon, the country chose the public sector. The result was the Great Society—a wave of massive reforms, implemented from the top-down by experts and bureaucrats.
Yet, as renowned historian Amity Shlaes details in her book, Great Society: A New History, the results of the great society era were far from great; they were devastating. Johnson’s programs, as well as Nixon’s expansions of them, shackled millions of families into government dependence rather than lifting them up. What’s more, the costs of entitlement commitments made a half century ago preclude the very reforms that will be necessary in coming decades.
Shlaes reveals the arrogance of the planners, whether in corporate corner offices or the Old Executive Office Building next to the White House, who dictated policy without knowledge of the conditions on the ground or foresight of unintended consequences. Yet Shlaes also highlights the successes of the era, wrought by those who worked with communities to make small, incremental improvements towards greatness. At once history and biography, Great Society sketches moving portraits of a priest named John Shocklee, who lived by a failing St. Louis Housing project; a journalist named Jane Jacobs who wanted to stop a highway; and a black civil rights leader who came to believe that the study of algebra, not further civil rights laws, would help minorities.
At once surprising and informative, Great Society upends the traditional narrative about the era, providing a damning indictment of thoughtless idealism—with striking relevance for today.
Amity Shlaes is the author of four New York Times bestsellers: The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression, The Forgotten Man Graphic Edition, Coolidge, and The Greedy Hand. A veteran columnist and one of the most insightful historians of our time, Shlaes devoted years of research to Great Society. She also chairs the board of the Calvin Coolidge Presidential Foundation and the jury for the Manhattan Institute’s Hayek Book Prize.