by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
William Voegeli reviews for the New Criterion a book correcting the historical record about Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. It’s authored by Amity Shlaes, who’s following up her documentation of the New Deal’s unintended consequences.
The principal contention of Shlaes’s two books is that the New Deal and Great Society, progressives’ biggest political triumphs, were dismal policy failures according to progressivism’s own standards. “Better the occasional faults of a government that lives in the spirit of charity,” Roosevelt said in 1936, “than the consistent omissions of a government frozen in the ice of its own indifference.” For Shlaes, however, the faults of activist government are not occasional but pervasive. Incalculable government expenditures and innumerable government edicts, all designed to help the nation’s Xs, ultimately did little to banish or mitigate the various social ills from which they suffered. Perversely, many programs left many Xs worse off than they would have been if the government, whether frozen in the ice of its own indifference or merely respectful of constitutional and practical limitations, had refrained from indulging the spirit of charity in the first place.
In Forgotten Man, Shlaes argued that the New Deal made the Depression longer and more severe than it needed to be. Government intervention was so chaotic and destabilizing that the sort of vigorous correction that propelled the economy after a sharp but brief recession in the early 1920s became impossible. …
… Great Society shows how the next swarm of government initiatives unleashed in the 1960s was equally confident, idealistic, energetic . . . and harmful. “The government lost [lbj’s] War on Poverty,” Shlaes writes. Indeed, the new programs and benefits neither cured nor prevented poverty, but “established a new kind of poverty, a permanent sense of downtroddenness.” She shows how government was frantically doing things for poor people, but frequently ended up doing things—bad things—to them.