Fifty years ago, Lyndon Johnson gave his famous “Great Society” address at the University of Michigan. In an interesting essay on “The Great Society at 50“, AEI’s Nicholas Eberstadt presents a very balanced and nuanced account of the “Great Society”, that he ultimately deems as a “project that ended up at war with itself”.

Eberstadt maintains a “the limited-government, Constitution-minded alternative to the Great Society template” was offered “by political leaders like Republican Senator Barry Goldwater”. Writes Goldwater in “Conscience of a Conservative”:

I believe that the problem of race relations, like all social and cultural problems, is best handled by the people directly concerned. Social and cultural change, however desirable, should not be effected by the engines of national power. Let us, through persuasion and education, seek to improve institutions we deem defective.

This is, according to Eberstadt, “an entirely principled and intellectually coherent counterargument. Yet, read from today’s vantage point, there is also something quite awful about it”.

Eberstadt maintains that it would have been very improbable at best to do away with “all the ugly infringements on constitutional rights that were part of daily life in the real America of the early 1960s”. It is difficult to argue with that. Eberstadt acknowledges that “progress towards the ideals of a colorblind and integrated society has not only been recorded in the law books” but is the result of cultural changes that have much to do with, among other factors, immigration.

Racial integration is the main reason why Eberstadt believes we shall say “two cheers for the Great Society”. On the other hand, the unintended consequences of welfare programs are the main reasons why the Great Society could be seen as “a project at war with itself”.

Eberstadt in particular points out three: welfare dependence, flight from work (the decline in labor force participation for adult men), and the break-down of the family.

I highly recommend this essay, particularly for non-Americans who seldom understand how profound an influence Johnson did exercise (“What began under Johnson continued – or more often, expanded – under all successive presidents to date”). It raises interesting questions both for libertarians and for liberals (American style). As far as the first are concerned, the bargain between a more uniform application of the rule of law to anybody, regardless of race, and the growth of government power necessary to enforce it, is a hard one. As far as the latter are concerned, the counterproductive effects of many welfare policies is something they should definitely pay more attention to.