How the Great Society Democratized Our Economy

The media buzz surrounding the 50th anniversary of Lyndon Johnson’s May 1964 speech announcing his Great Society has focused on the question, did it “work?” In other words, did the 200-odd pieces of legislation passed over the following two years succeed in their goals of reducing poverty, improving education, providing health care for the elderly, etc. Judgments as to how the programs worked are supposed to answer the bigger question, should government intervene in the economy to make life better for its people?

It is a safe bet that the components of the Great Society—especially those dealing with the War on Poverty—are the most studied in the history of social science. For half a century, a vast army of economists, sociologists, political scientists, lawyers, and policy analysts have poured over the data. There is little doubt that almost all of the programs had benefits. The debate between conservatives and liberals is whether the benefits were worth the “costs.” But if by this time the research has not reached convincing definitive conclusions, it is unlikely that it ever will.

Part of the problem is that such efforts to quantify cost and benefits, while useful, are inherently flawed by their reliance on market prices to establish the human value of, for example, living longer, educating a poor child, or breathing cleaner air.

They also miss the point. The Great Society was much more than the sum of its parts. Like the New Deal before it, the Great Society changed the way Americans thought about the relationship of the government to the economy.

Despite the claims of conservatives, government intervention in the economy did not start with the New Deal. It started with the founding of the republic. But by and large, it was intervention at the service of the rich and powerful—from business subsidies to legal protections for corporate theft and the use of police and the army to oppress unions.

The New Deal brought balance. Social insurance, worker protections, and aid to small farmers, small businesses, and electricity cooperatives, helped spread the benefits of economic growth beyond the financial elite. The Great Society in part dealt with the unfinished business of the New Deal—giving aid to minorities, the poor, the elderly, and the sick.

But it also broke new ground in the use of government as an instrument for making the economy more efficient, fairer, and more accountable.

First, the Civil Rights Act established that government protection of citizens’ rights could actually change deeply held prejudices. Bigotry has not been eliminated from the American psyche, but no one who remembers the relationship between the races before the Great Society can deny the dramatic shifts that have occurred. Forcing integration in classrooms, workplaces, and lunch counters allowed succeeding generations of white people to look beyond the prejudices of their parents and grandparents to see African Americans not as stereotypes, but as individual human beings. The precedent has since been spread to the cause of equal treatment for women, gays, the disabled, and other historically disadvantaged groups.

Second, the principle that the federal government has a major role to play in the provision of health care, primary and secondary education, environmental protection, even culture and the arts, is now accepted by the vast majority of Americans. The Tea Party’s experience demonstrates once again that killing programs like Medicare is a losing political agenda. Despite their obstructionism, when it comes to specifics, most Republican leaders do not argue that government should have no role in the economy; the only argument is over what kind of role it should have.

Third, the requirement of “maximum feasible participation of the poor” in the Great Society’s anti-poverty programs introduced an idea of the public’s right to have a say, not just in deciding who will run the government, but in the design and implementation of their programs, which in most places was not part of normal political life. The sight of poor people questioning the decisions of government officials inspired more activism in middle-class neighborhoods. Over time this translated into laws requiring open hearings, advanced notice of intended changes in regulations, and much more transparent and open government behavior. One can argue that this made government less efficient, but it surely made it more democratic.

Unfortunately, war-making—the one area of government most removed from public accountability—cut off the further refinement and development of the Great Society. The economic boom and national unity of World War II had validated the New Deal. Republican Dwight Eisenhower, who succeeded Roosevelt and Truman, actually enlarged the economic responsibilities of government.

But the divisive Vietnam War and its inflationary consequences pushed American politics to the right. A decade later, the election of Ronald Reagan began the process of slicing away at the Great Society, which the Democrats who succeeded him did not reverse.

The result is that government is now sometimes managed to fail.

No one knows what it will take to restore confidence and dispel this crisis of democracy. But a better understanding of the immense positive contribution of the Great Society in our lives would be a step forward.