The Great Exception

The 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” speech offers us an opportunity to reflect not just on the speech itself but also on the half century of consequences that have followed in the wake of the grand project it announced.

As William Voegeli notes in his Liberty Forum essay, he commencement address Johnson delivered to the University of Michigan’s graduating class on May 22, 1964 was something of a mess. Gauzy and unfocused, marked by both astonishing ambition and an almost total lack of specificity, it was a very peculiar way for an American president to talk (albeit a way we have become reacquainted with in the last six years). Read at half a century’s distance, the speech seems pervaded by a stunning confidence about the permanence of the post-war economic boom, and so by the peculiar notions that what remained for government to do was to tend to the souls and spirits of its citizens and that it was competent to do so.

“I intend to establish working groups to prepare a series of White House conferences and meetings on the cities, on natural beauty, on the quality of education, and on other emerging challenges,” the president told his audience. “And from these meetings and from this inspiration and from these studies, we will begin to set our course towards the Great Society.” It is hard to imagine that even in that moment anyone could have taken such words seriously.

But of course, what President Johnson laid out in that address is not quite what we mean by the Great Society agenda. What we have in mind more often is the intense barrage of massive legislation that began not long after Johnson ascended to the presidency under tragic circumstances and really kicked into gear in the aftermath of the Democrats’ landslide presidential and congressional victories in November 1964.

Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about that gush of legislation was its sheer volume and scope, with massive and significant new laws enacted at a pace never equaled outside of eras utterly consumed by war or by the grave crisis of the Great Depression. Coming at a moment of relative peace and prosperity, the Great Society project constituted an exception to America’s usual approach to government, and this has made its consequences very difficult to deal with.

Such a pace of legislation has been anomalous in American life because our political system was designed to prevent it. The American constitution is structured to restrain swift, momentous change and, as Alexander Hamilton put it in Federalist 73, “to increase the chances in favor of the community against the passing of bad laws through haste, inadvertence, or design.” Our institutions are set up to oppose each other in ways that make sudden major steps unlikely, and that force significant and lasting actions of the government to take the form of painful plodding.

Progressive critics of our constitutional system have long regretted this inherent intransigence and have yearned for a cleaner, smoother lawmaking process more amendable to technocratic control. And ever since the Great Society period of legislative intensity of the mid-1960s, such critics have looked back to those years with great affection and nostalgia. In his book The Audacity of Hope, President Obama describes those years as the high-water mark of American government, and calls that era “a time before the fall, a golden age in Washington.”

But in fact, that period marked a temporary but very costly breakdown of the adversarial controls essential to the American system. That breakdown had its roots in an unusual postwar elite consensus on some key social and economic policy questions and in the catastrophic failure of the Republican Party to offer a plausible alternative to that consensus in the 1964 election. The result was a brief but significant explosion of policies that yielded the careless creation of a massive artifice of entitlement and discretionary programs.

The peculiar combination of factors that enabled that surge of activism did not last all that long, and our politics soon returned to a more balanced state in which our governing institutions and parties staunchly resist one another’s advances and change is relatively slow and measured. But precisely that return to normality has meant that the products of the Great Society have been very difficult to undo or reform. Our system of government was never supposed to allow such hyperactivity, and so is not well equipped to reverse its excesses.

Those excesses lie at the core of an enormous number of the public-policy challenges America confronts. Not every Great Society program falls into that category, of course. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 have both been perverted beyond their original intentions in a variety of ways over the decades but both were very important, valuable, and largely successful measures, for instance. But in education (from pre-K through college), in immigration, in housing, in welfare, in transportation, in labor, in “cultural policy,” and perhaps especially in health care, the legislative barrage of the mid-1960s involved an astonishing degree of recklessness, and has left us with a legacy of plainly failing yet intractable governing institutions across a huge swath of the federal policy landscape.

Medicare and Medicaid, created in 1965, are paradigmatic examples. Both embody the overconfident technocratic mindset of the Great Society project. Both have badly distorted the economics of American health care, contributing to the immense inefficiency at the heart of our health-care dilemmas yet making meaningful reforms that consist of anything but doubling down on failure (as Obamacare did) extremely difficult politically. Both have managed to become equated in the minds of many Americans with their stated purposes rather than their actual performance, so that any effort to fundamentally reform them is understood to be a rejection of the goals of enabling the elderly or the poor to get insurance coverage.

It has been clear for decades that those two programs will drive our government to fiscal ruin if they are not substantially reformed, but politicians of both parties have tried to ignore and deny the necessity of reforms. The general outline of such reforms (especially of Medicare, which poses the bigger fiscal challenge of the two) has long been clear. But undertaking them would require a tremendous political exertion, and our system of government is designed (with good reason) to make such exertions uncommon and unlikely. In the last few years, congressional Republicans have finally coalesced behind the kind of reform the Medicare system needs, but it will of course take more political power than they alone can muster to enact such changes.

Witnessing the failure of our political system to undertake essential reforms could easily lead us to conclude that our political system is broken. And of course, many people on all sides of our politics have assumed just that, and argued that we need constitutional changes, whether to give more power to administrators, to judges, or to the public. But this is a misdiagnosis. The problem we have is not partisan bickering or the slow pace of change. It is not that our system of government is not pliable enough to allow for expert technocratic administration. The problem is that the technocrats were able to take the reins briefly in the middle of the last century, and we are now having a terrible time trying to fix the mess they created and setting the country back on a sustainable course of prosperity and freedom.

Portions of the bill for all the damage done by that burst of Great Society activism have of course been coming due for decades. Our economy, our schools, our families (especially lower-income families), our health-care system, our cities, and our immigration system, among others, have all paid their shares. And the public has become accustomed to the federal government consistently failing on a massive scale without being forced to change course, which has corroded our political culture and distorted our sense of just what America’s government is for.

But the fiscal consequences, which have long been building up, look to become genuinely untenable in the coming decades, largely due to Medicare and Medicaid. Over the last 40 years, those two programs have been responsible for the entirety of the growth of federal spending as a percentage of the economy (and then some, as all non-health federal spending combined has actually declined a fair bit as a share of the economy over that period) and their growth trajectories over the coming decades are simply not sustainable.

Our domestic politics in the years ahead will be focused intently on stemming the damage and undoing the harm unleashed by many of the Great Society programs. Conservatives will need to offer the public an appealing policy agenda aimed at replacing these programs with targeted, focused, market-oriented means of addressing key public problems from the bottom up. But they will not have the kind of political coalition backing such reforms that the Great Society’s architects had behind theirs. This is in part a good thing, to be sure: Our political system is not designed to yield unstoppable coalitions that can pursue transformative reforms in great haste. But it is of course also a serious challenge, and will require from conservatives unprecedented levels of policy creativity and political savvy—neither of which has exactly been our forte of late.

The exceptional circumstances that made possible an explosion of legislative activity in the mid-1960s were short-lived, but the consequences of that profusion of lawmaking have been with us for half a century. Although the speech in which Lyndon Johnson announced his ambitions could hardly have been more vague, its mix of ambition, overconfidence, naiveté, and gross short-sightedness was a warning of things to come—and a warning, as well, of the consequences of ideological ambition untethered to any sense of the proper goals and bounds of America’s government.