May 22, 2014, marks the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s “Great Society” address, delivered at the spring commencement for the University of Michigan. That speech remains the most ambitious call to date by any president (our current commander in chief included) to use the awesome powers of the American state to effect a far-reaching transformation of the society that state was established to serve. It also stands as the high-water mark for Washington’s confidence in the broad meliorative properties of government social policy, scientifically applied.
No less important, the Great Society pledge, and the fruit this would ultimately bear, profoundly recast the common understanding of the ends of governance in our country. The address heralded fundamental changes—some then already underway, others still only being envisioned—that would decisively expand the scale and scope of government in American life and greatly alter the relationship between that same government and the governed in our country today.
In his oration, LBJ offered a grand vision of what an American welfare state—big, generous, and interventionist—might accomplish. Difficult as this may be for most citizens now alive to recall, the United States in the early 1960s was not yet a modern welfare state: Our only nationwide social program in those days was the Social Security system, which provided benefits for workers’ retirement and disability and for orphaned or abandoned children of workers. Johnson had gradually been unveiling this vision, starting with his declaration of a “War on Poverty” in his first State of the Union months earlier in 1964, just weeks after John F. Kennedy’s assassination. In LBJ’s words, “The Great Society rests on abundance and liberty for all. It demands an end to poverty and racial injustice, to which we are totally committed in our time. But that,” he said, “is just the beginning.”
The Great Society proposed to reach even further: to bring about wholesale renewal of our cities, beautification of our natural surroundings, vitalization of our educational system. All this, and much more—and the solutions to the many obstacles encountered in this great endeavor, we were told, would assuredly be found, since this undertaking would “assemble the best thought and the broadest knowledge from all over the world to find those answers for America.”
Memorably, Johnson insisted that the constraints on achieving the goals he outlined were not availability of the national wealth necessary for the task or the uncertainties inherent in such complex human enterprises, but instead simply our country’s resolve—whether we as a polity possessed sufficient “wisdom” to embark on the venture.
For a lesser politician, the Great Society speech might have amounted to little more than lofty rhetoric. For LBJ, it was an actual blueprint. With Johnson’s consummate legislative skills, honed over six years as Senate majority leader, and with the coming 1964 electoral landslide for his party, the Great Society vision would be swiftly implemented: through civil rights laws, a panoply of new social programs (Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, and so forth), new federal agencies (the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Department of Transportation), and a vast array of other federal social projects.
What began under Johnson continued—or, more often, expanded—under all successive presidents. Not even Ronald Reagan managed to reverse the growth of government set in motion by that call for the Great Society. Thus, the American welfare state as we know it today is very largely the outcome of forces Johnson unleashed in the first half-year of his presidency. (The most appreciable addition to this apparatus over the past half-century is arguably Obamacare, the health care guarantees forged into law under the Affordable Care Act of 2010.)
Half a century later, how should we assess the Great Society? Any attempt at a comprehensive assessment would demand vastly more space than this essay, given the audacity and expanse of territory it laid claims to conquer—or, more precisely, to improve. Everywhere Johnson cast his eye, he seemed to find an America in need of improvement: Environmental protection, community development, the arts—all of these and more he flagged in this one short speech as legitimate new areas for federal government involvement under the banner of the Great Society. We will confine our assessment here to that enormous first pillar of the Great Society: “abundance” for all and the “end to poverty” to which Johnson committed us.