Election 2020

The Failure of LBJ's Great Society and What It Means for the 21st Century

Historian Amity Shlaes talks about the last time a president massively expanded the federal government to help people.


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In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson announced his plans for what he called "the Great Society," a sweeping set of programs that marked the most ambitious expansion of the federal government since Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal.

Johnson declared war on poverty, jacked up federal spending on education, and pushed massive new entitlement programs, including Medicare and Medicaid, which promised to deliver high-quality, low-cost health care to the nation's elderly and poor. When Republican Richard Nixon succeeded Johnson, a Democrat, as president after the 1968 election, he continued and even expanded many of the Great Society programs despite being from a different political party.

But did the Great Society achieve its goals of eradicating poverty, sheltering the homeless, and helping all citizens participate more fully in the American Dream? In Great Society: A New History, Amity Shlaes argues that Lyndon Johnson's bold makeover of the government was a massive failure despite the good intentions of its architects and implementers.

Shlaes, who is the author of The Forgotten Man, a best-selling history of The Great Depression (read Reason's 2008 interview with her), and the chair of the Calvin Coolidge Presidential Foundation, says remembering the failure of the Great Society is especially relevant in an election year when presidential candidates are promising to spend huge amounts of money on all sorts of new government programs.

Nick Gillespie sat down to talk with her about the origins of the Great Society, its failure, and what it all means for 21st century America.

Interview by Nick Gillespie. Intro by Lex Villena. Edited by Ian Keyser. Cameras by Jim Epstein and Kevin Alexander.

Music Credit: 'Late Truth' by Audio Hertz


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33 responses to “The Failure of LBJ's Great Society and What It Means for the 21st Century

  1. Johnson declared war on poverty

    Poverty? How many divisions does he have?

    1. According to Jesus, an infinite number. “For ye have the poor always with you…”

    2. Well, FWIW, period poverty wasn’t a thing yet.

  2. Nevertheless, the government has a duty to help people no matter the cost. It’s right there in the Constitution, somewhere near the back. Feed the hungry, heal the sick, clothe the naked, house the homeless, raise the dead, make the blind to see, the lame to walk, the deaf to hear, the ugly to get dates for Friday night, all good things shall the government provide.

  3. LBJ took the IRT down to 4th Street USA.

    When he got there what did he see? The youth of America on LSD.

  4. According to the Census Supplemental Poverty Measure Report for 2018, federal programs moved about 47 million Americans out of poverty in that year. This includes Social Security, which was not, of course, introduced by LBJ, but was significantly expanded to include more low-income people. In addition, the measure does NOT include either Medicare or Medicaid, which obviously do benefit millions.

    Furthermore, the “shocking” fact is that measures like the Earned Income Tax Credit ought to be substantially EXPANDED to redistribute (yeah, you heard me right) some of the wealth that the free market lets coagulate in the top 20%, who draw all the benefit from a global expanding economy without doing anything to, you know, make it expand.

    And, just for the record, Amity Shlaes is a right-wing hack.

    1. You misspelled your name again you Marxist shit stain on the underbritches of humanity. Also kill yourself.

    2. The top 20% make better use of their capital than you ever could, pal.

    3. Being in the top 20%, let me tell you: there is nothing to “redistribute”. The more you tax us, the more we reduce our output. The logical end point is fully socialist states, in which nobody bothers putting in more than the absolute minimum amount of work necessary, and in which anybody with skills leaves for greener pastures.

      “To each according to need, from each according to the absolute minimum they can get away with without being sent to the gulags.”

    4. Yeah, you
      1. Define poverty by income instead of wealth
      2. give SS Income to a retiree living off assets with no income, and
      3. Declare poverty averted

      Ok, boomer.

      1. you must be one of the he last surviving member of the Silent Gen. Having obvious difficulty in putting your thoughts in writing in a coherent manner. Better remain silent. . .

    5. Did the report specify how many millions were moved closer to poverty by federal programs? If the “helpful” federal programs gave out $1 to each of the 47 million people it “helped” out of poverty, then the number of people it forced closer to poverty is equal to that number.

      But we all know that these programs did not simply pay $1 per recipient, don’t we…government palms need to be greased.

  5. Why is this presenting the great society as anything but disingenuous and a cover for extending government power?

  6. Kinda hilarious that your publication supports literally every single program introduced by the Great Society. You do realize that people can go back and the read the radical Marxist bullshit you’ve been pushing for the last 15 years right?

    1. “You do realize that people can go back and the read the radical Marxist bullshit you’ve been pushing for the last 15 years right?”

      Apes can read philosophy, Otto, they just don’t understand it.

  7. Look here clingers, your betters know how to take care of the people not you. The state knows things that you will never know. Accept your fate in the new order.

    1. What’s sad is that really is the true underlying emotion of lefty supporters. I’ve drilled down many of them and the very last leg they always stand on is, “I know better what’s good for those people than they do.”

      This undeniable need to feel authoritarian echoes clearly in how they try to speak for everyone using the [WE] pronoun.

  8. “to help people”

    God, you’re gullible. Politicians don’t expand government “to help people”. They claim to be helping people to justify seizing more power.

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  10. The long running decline in the poverty rate ended with LBJ’s war on poverty. It accomplished it’s goal of a permanent underclass to vote for democrats in exchange for their meager existence of dependency.

    1. Actually, it ended around 1973. Since then, the poverty rate has fluctuated between a low of 11.1% (in 1973) and a high of 15.2% (in 1983). In 2018, it was 11.8%, which is pretty good historically. (The only other it’s been below 12% since 1973 were 1999-2001 and 1976-1979.)

    2. Interestingly enough politicians like HR Clinton are proud of this accomplishment…and politicians like HR Clinton are genuinely baffled when it doesn’t produce the expected outcome.

      Strange thought processes these Marxists have…

      1. HR Clinton has a Marxist thought process?

  11. It’s ok.

    The new breed of illiberal Democrats are gonna balance it off by declaring a war on wealth.


    1. LOL…you should be comforted by the fact that they are (or will be) equally armed intellectually to fight their “war on wealth” as they are (or were) in their “war on poverty”. The target is the same and just as elusive as ever.

      The Left has lost a lot of arguments and have proven themselves quite incompetent at supporting their adoration for the idea of Socialist Justice. They seem unable or unwilling to admit defeat…even when it stares them right in the face. San Francisco, hell, all of California is a perfect example.

      1. How often do you attend Left and Socialist Justice rallies or read their stuff? To know what they unable or unwilling to admit defeat?

  12. ”Historian Amity Shlaes talks about the last time a president massively expanded the federal government to help people.“
    This opening statement is so wrong as to make every thing that comes after seriously suspect. Has everyone forgotten the “Unaffordable Care Act”?
    What about the never ending massive stimuluses? The FED’s interest rate manipulations and QE forever? “No Child Left Behind”?
    There’s some massive amnesia going on her.

    1. Yeah, however the impact on all of what you list are still creating their chaos and have yet to be examined with the objectivity made possible with hindsight.

      I agree that since the beginning its expansion has continued, but the Great Society eclipsed the New Deal in terms of size and scope. 60 years into its life it continues to grow and feed off of the productive half of the population, like a parasite feeding off of a body. The body is now becoming sick, and demographic trends point to its inevitable death.

      What comes after the welfare state collapses? Hopefully those who are there to clean up the mess and rebuild are more principled in their approach to government, and have a better understanding of the economics of Liberty and respect for human rights.

      1. Yes, Yes–I cant wait for the clean up process by the principled and liberated Americans. I have already washed and ironed all my hubby’s Brown Shirts.

  13. LBJ was a stealth member of the KKK. His “Great Society” was actually intended to destroy the black family by paying black women to kick the man out of the house. It worked.

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