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Acton Commentary

LBJ’s Great Society lives on

Forget Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton as well. And do the same regarding Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower. The most consequential American president since the end of World War II was Lyndon Baines Johnson. The man — who possessed a unique combination of savvy, lack of character and progressive faith — created the Great Society and helped to shape the modern-day United States. Whether you like him or not, we all live under the shadow cast by one of the most hated and misunderstood presidents of America.

We would have known little about Johnson had a young Robert Caro not developed a special interest for the former president after visiting him on his ranch in Texas. The result of Caro’s curiosity was a masterful piece about American history and this unique character that started his life as a school’s teacher and climbed all the way up to the White House.

Caro’s The Years of Lyndon Johnson shows a man who understood, from an early age, the meaning and the ways to power. The tallest of all George Washington’s successors and extremely ungainly, Johnson’s physical characteristics seemed to reflect the psyche of an outcast who never felt comfortable doing anything but politics. While we see someone who learned how to master machine politics, we also see the outlines of a profoundly seductive and often funny anti-hero.

Since Washington decided that its priority should be eradicating poverty, generations of Americans were pushed towards welfare dependency

In 10 years, from a powerful Democratic majority leader in the Senate — where he worked to kill civil rights laws — Johnson became president after JFK’s death, was re-elected in a landslide and was destroyed by the unpopularity of the Vietnam War. Along the way, Johnson backed the same civil rights he had fought fiercely against earlier; broke the power of the then influential Southern senators led by his erstwhile mentor, Sen. Richard “Uncle Dick” Russell of Georgia, and imploded the New Deal coalition that had ruled America since 1932. But much more than that, he created a monster launched 55 years ago that expanded government power over private life and property and condemned millions to poverty artificially created by the federal bureaucracy’s slowly grinding gears -- the Great Society.

Data on the achievements of Johnson’s so-called “War on Poverty” are merciless. Since Washington decided that its priority should be eradicating poverty, generations of Americans were pushed towards welfare dependency, and for minority groups, the disaster was even greater. Economists like Thomas Sowell and Walter Williams have shown the harmful effects of the expansion of the welfare state on black communities and — even more critical — black families pushed to the economic stagnation that they have been suffering since the late 1960s when the government decided that time to help them had arrived. While the overall out-of-wedlock birth rate skyrocketed from 8 percent in the mid-1960s to more than 40 percent today, it has gone from 25 percent to 73 percent among blacks.

The War on Poverty and the Vietnam War have more in common than you might imagine. Both were fought based on the same principles of a bureaucratic administration filled by radical ideas of social engineering rooted in the Progressive Era. Robert McNamara — Kennedy’s and Johnson’s secretary of Defense — applied to Vietnam the same principles of industrial management based on graphics, charts, estimations, and regressions that he had learned at Harvard Business School and successfully applied while CEO of Ford Motor Co.

Disregard for the human factor seems to be the most evident and significant consequence of policy driven by statistical issues. Just as the debate around the Great Society was vitiated by the idea that human behavior would respond mechanically once certain economic incentives were implemented, the Vietnam War was guided by the idea that expert application of military pressure would generate the proper expected outcome. Blinded by the typical arrogance of the ruling classes, bureaucrats in the Department of Defense and elsewhere in the Executive Branch believed that all of the variables would align precisely as the master plan had predicted. All that was needed was for the world to adapt to the statistical significance of estimations written by social scientists and not the other way around.

The eminently authoritarian character of both wars is undeniable. All issues that might cast doubt on the expected results were set aside, and the debate within the government was always a matter of ensuring that there would be no dissent, rather than a valuation of potential shortcomings.

The then French President Charles de Gaulle warned the American government that all diplomatic exits to the Vietnam crisis were being taken off the table too quickly and that soon the United States would be drawn into an unwinnable war. De Gaulle’s advice went unheeded, showing that there was no room for the wisdom of an experienced politician when bureaucrats believe they have found the mathematical equation that explains the universe. Anyone with the least common sense would have realized that the other war, the one against poverty, would lead to a similar outcome. When the government starts treating people like numbers, the social fabric will be subverted. In the world of mathematics, the nuances and contradictions inherent in human life are an anomaly, a bug, and nothing more.

Disregard for the human factor seems to be the most evident and significant consequence of policy driven by statistical issues

Both the Great Society and the disastrous Vietnam War represent two sides of the same process: The consolidation of imperialism exercised by the liberal corporatist state. On the inner front, not only were federal powers expanded, they were pursued according to clear objectives of social engineering. In foreign policy, the Vietnam War was prosecuted in part under “humane” policies (not bombing the dikes) and was preceded by a chaotic attempt to reform and modernize South Vietnam by bureaucrats in Washington.

America’s fate for the next 55 years was sealed by the Johnson administration. The twin wars meant the seizure of power by the bureaucrats who control the federal government, on the one hand, and by the scions of the military–industrial complex, on the other. The United States had unequivocally become a welfare-warfare state.

Unluckily, in the 1960s, the United States experienced a combination of a government imbued with bad ideas but led by a politically skilled man. Johnson was the perfect hammer to break all the resistances toward his two wars. And he did it in an imposing way. Seldom has an American politician shown such capacity in the exercise of his duties, although the result was the creation of a mighty bureaucracy backed by laws that allowed it to intervene in private citizens’ lives as never before.

Cornered by an almost shameful defeat in Iowa — when furious voters, many thinking they were voting on the late Republican Senator Joe McCarthy of Wisconsin, almost delivered the victory to neophyte and anti-war candidate Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota — Johnson gave up public life.

Modern-day America is still Great Society’s America but with a far more powerful federal bureaucracy. Since Johnson left the White House, not one of the pillars of his authoritarian building has been shaken by the administrations that followed him. Quite the contrary, the failures of Johnson’s wars has done nothing to undermine the faith of the politicians of both parties in the virtues of the all-powerful state.

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Silvio Simonetti is a Brazilian lawyer, graduated in international affairs from the Bush School at Texas A&M University. He is currently a Research Fellow at the Acton Institute. Silvio loves history and the Catholic Church.