Close Enough to Socialism: Amity Schlaes on The Great Society

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“Zadek’s Law” holds that whenever the government declares war on something, the problem gets worse.

Most liberals can see this clearly when it comes to the “War on Terror” or “War on Drugs,” but try including the “War on Poverty” in the same category and you will get blank stares, or worse.

Case in point: In a New York Times review of Great Society: A New History, Binyamin Applebaum clearly struggles with Amity Schlaes’ central finding that LBJ’s War on Poverty hurt the very people it was intended to help. He calls the book “deeply flawed” for focusing on the failures of the Great Society while ignoring the successes.

What successes, you ask? Applebaum mentions the ever-popular Medicare and Medicaid – two enduring programs from the 1960s that are currently bankrupting the country.

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If that’s what successes look like, I don’t want to know about the failures – or at least I wouldn’t if Schlaes hadn’t made it a sheer pleasure to read about them in such vivid historical detail.

Great Society is the latest in Schlaes’ saga of “new histories,” that began with The Forgotten Man (on the failures of the New Deal) and Coolidge, which rehabilitated the reputation of a “do-nothing” President.

LBJ, it turns out, was the anti-Coolidge – using his political skill to build a coalition of civil rights activists, technocratic know-it-alls, labor leaders, and legislators who ushered in the most sweeping social change since FDR’s New Deal. While Johnson is the star of the show, the story’s supporting cast includes Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan (before he became a politician), labor leader Walter Reuther, and socialist activist Michael Harrington.

The 1960s, we are reminded, was a period of affluence, when optimists assumed that business could always be further squeezed to support a growing public sector. But as Schlaes shows (and the stagflation of the 70s confirms), the laws of economics and of unintended consequences always have the last word.

With progressives like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren once again proposing sweeping overhauls of the U.S. economy, Schlaes’ book serves as an important warning.

⚠️ Planners take note: The free market cannot provide an inexhaustible supply of free stuff. Test its limits at your peril ⚠️

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Amity Schlaes discusses her revisionist history of the Great Society, and the devastating long-term impact of America’s closest flirtation with democratic socialism. Don’t miss it.

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