On this pop-up episode of She Thinks, we talk to author Amity Shlaes about her groundbreaking Great Society: A New History and why the most ambitious and well-meaning government initiative in our history had such catastrophic results. Amity’s remarks bear directly on the sudden vogue of socialism among today’s young voters.  

Shlaes talks to Independent Women’s Forum Director of Cultural Programs and Senior Editor Charlotte Hays.  


Charlotte: Hello, I’m Charlotte Hays, director of cultural programs for the Independent Women’s Forum. I’m joined today by Amity Shlaes who has just written another very important book. This one is called Great Society, A New History. IWF types already know Amity for her book, The Greedy Hand, The Forgotten Man, and for her groundbreaking reexamination of Calvin Coolidge, our 30th president. There’s so much I want to ask Amity, welcome to the podcast, Amity.

Amity: Thank you Charlotte. It’s good to be back with you.

Charlotte: Well, thank you. I’m just going to jump right into it. You had a great, well, you had so many great chapters, but I want to get to the origins of the great Society. Apparently after World War I we had such an incredible sense of prosperity an intoxicating sense, a sense of bonanza and that accounts in part for the growth of the great society. The roots could be found there. Can you explain that to us?

Amity: Well, throughout the century, but especially after World War I and II. And here we’re focusing on II actually, that we felt we could do anything. There’s a quote I found from the writer, thinker Norman Podhoretz, he said, “After Europe, after victory in Europe, well, anything we had to do here would be a mopping up action. That is, we solved everything in Europe and West Europe and capitalists. Certainly we can make Appalachia capitalists and free and democratic and happy.” Happy add that. And so Americans were extremely ambitious. One example of ambition was getting to the moon, another was eradicating poverty.

And remember what we’re talking about here is a movement in the 60s, a political movement led by a president, but also a vision shared by many presidents. I cover three in the book, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon. And they all said, let’s get to great. Good is not enough guys. Let’s get too great. Let’s go to the moon and let’s be great at home and change everything and make America the utopia we know it can be. So what an ambitious idea. And that was the beginning of the 60s.

Charlotte: Well Amity, what accounts for this, I think somebody, maybe you call it the mystical face in government. And is that why this experiment ultimately failed the government shepherd.

Amity: The government shepherd, yes it is. And if I have a philosopher behind the book, it would be Hayek. Friede Von Hayek because Hayek explained why government is bad planner and we know that government is a bad planner, it’s bad at planning wars and is bad at planning peace. He said the government is insulated from knowledge feedback. It doesn’t get little signals that you have. Even if you’re a merchant running a coffee shop, pretty soon you’ll know if people like your coffee or not. You’ll know if people like your widget or not. By lunchtime. They’ll buy it. They’ll tell you it’s bad. If you’re in government, it takes years for you to get feedback on a project. And so you develop your own fantasy about the quality of your work. The metrics come slowly and they’re often poorly formed.

So we decided, we could have made our society great to the private sector. And in the book I profile some private sector companies who did seek great and even found it. But we chose to try for great through the public sector, through government expansion and that didn’t work out because the government wasn’t very good at figuring out what is needed, Charlotte.

Charlotte: Now, this is a question way down on my list, but I’m going to go into it now. What was an alternative to the great society? Should we have just left well enough alone? Should there have been a kind of capitalist reply? Should we have tried to eradicate society? Sorry, eradicate poverty. Are there alternatives? What’s the road not taken? Was there a successful road not taken?

Amity: The successful road, not taken, was taken by the companies that said, “Well, what’s the thing you can do for poor people above and beyond anything else?” And the answer is, provide poor people with jobs. It’s very simple, right? What’s the greatest charity you can do for someone? It’s provide him with a job. It’s not even charity. It becomes a positive interaction. He’s giving something. You’re giving something. That is what we owe the poor. An economy that creates jobs that they can take.

So if we had focused upon it that way and I’m confined our work to education and mainly making the environment friendly enough that people would create jobs. The right kind of jobs and be able to afford training people, we would’ve had an entirely different economy. And basically we recognize that in the 70s. So in the 70s and all the way up to the 90s when Bill Clinton undid welfare. This was the cleaning up action for the great society. We recognize the great society was wrong, a huge government intervention didn’t work. And just to name a couple of facts so our listeners know. President Johnson promised to eradicate poverty. He didn’t say, I will provide a palliative, I will manage your chronic condition. He said, “Cure poverty, cure poverty.”

And if you look at a chart of the poverty level from the 50s on, poverty went down in the 50s. The share Americans who were technically in poverty by government definition went down rapidly. It continued to go down very early in the great society. Then it flattened out at 10% which is about where we are now. All the way to today. So we didn’t cure it. We failed. We didn’t even help because what we did in the process was enslave people, frankly, to benefits. We trained them, that the only way to live comfortably was through benefits from government. And that is a terrible thing to do to people. It puts them back in a childish position. It de emancipates them.

Charlotte: Amity, for years we’ve talked about the effect that the great society programs had on the black family. And I want to talk about something you’re getting into right now. What did the great society do to our work ethic? What did it do to the idea that you could support yourself? I think it’s had a profound impact on the work ethic. How about that?

Amity: I agree with that. I actually don’t see it so much as black and white. There are civil rights laws that were important that were passed in the 60s. Those were laws. They weren’t giant funded programs, which are more my topic, which hurt blacks and whites. So blacks and whites suffered because we taught them about food stamps. There was a massive expansion of food stamps, for example, under President Nixon. We began to nationally subsidize housing. What today is known as section eight. And all of them said, well, Medicare, Medicaid, both 60s items, food stamps, housing, these are things that I’m used to getting. I’m used to getting and I need them and I will continue to want to have them. And many, many Americans became net takers from the government.

Do you remember that Mitt Romney got in trouble when he talked about a great share of this society being people who receive money from government and that they might never vote for Republicans. I don’t know about that because Republicans provide benefits too, but if that is the truth, that more and more Americans are getting benefits. In fact, George Romney, the father of Mitt, is in this book, the Great Society as one of the beleaguered intelligent, yet foolish characters who built the great society. So Mitt knew where he spoke because his father had been head of HUD, the housing authority. Housing and urban development, and Mitt was so bitter that he said, “Well, we should just end HUD because housing didn’t help families, it hurt families.”

Very, very often, we sort of had two housing programs in America, Charlotte. If you look at the great society, and even the period before the 50s. One program was for the middle class, that was the Tocqueville Program, where like as in division of Alexis Tocqueville. You fund families to set up in suburbs where they’re near their church and their neighbors on a cul-de-sac and they make friends and they have a car. That was one version. But for poor people, we had another vision that was the vision, not of Tocqueville, but of Karl Marx. They had to live in Karl Marx land in a tall European style, brutal internationalist building. In terms of architecture with no commerce around them. Kind of isolated from the rest of the city. Long way to get a quart of milk and a ghettoization which was the opposite of Tocqueville. It really was a social democratic or socialist vision.

Why didn’t we focus on making everyone homeowners? We had a lot of trouble with that. Maybe we thought poor people weren’t ready to be homeowners. That was crazy. So wow. The other thing we did, Karl Marx wise was we made business in cities very expensive and companies moved out to cheaper places. So even when you put people in an apartment, in a tower, if you don’t provide them with a job, they’re going to stay poor. And that’s what happened in the major cities. For example, St. Louis, where they expected enormous growth would fund public housing. It didn’t.

Charlotte: Right. I want to talk a little bit about mayors. You have a chapter on mayors, but I want to share an experience. I was a reporter in New Orleans when moon Landrieu was mayor. I know I’m dating myself and he was considered a good mayor, a great mayor because he got money from the federal government for poverty programs. And it seems to me that the great society transformed the job of mayor into getting grant money and it transformed the cities into a sort of giant poverty welfare program. And it also the types of programs which were funded help to create a protest culture. Is that correct?

Amity: Yes, so you’re talking about … I’m sorry, you’re talking about chapter four, right? The revolt of the mayors. That was a very much fun chapter to write and the question is what is a municipality, and again, actually that goes back to Tocqueville, not to sound pedantic. But he said, “You know what, a municipality in the 19th century,” he wrote this, “Is a fragile thing.” Almost like a consumptive patient who could die any time because the state could wreck it. The county could wreck the municipality or the federal government could wreck it. And yet it’s a precious thing. It’s where we get our schools, our police, our garbage collection.

And the mayors were accustomed to that. Although already in the 50s they were trained to receive federal money even in the 40s and the 30s and if you’re a mayor, looking at it from the point of view of a mayor. You need money to improve your town, to please your voters, but you don’t want to raise taxes. That’s unpopular. If you’re being a brash political person, of course you don’t want to raise taxes. So along comes a federal officer who offers you money and raises taxes

So along comes a federal officer who offers you money for a highway, 90% of the cost of a highway, or offers you money for housing, 50 or 90 or 40% for housing. You say, “Yeah, this is free money that will please my voters. Why not take it?” And mayors did that over and over again, and that gave everyone in the city a weird feeling about where the money came from, who were they, their identity, because of course, federal money comes with caveats. It comes with strictures and requirements, and a lot of those strictures and requirements are against the interests of the city itself.

Taking the example of St. Louis, which is in the book, St. Louis town fathers were proud and they did charity for their city. They conducted much charity, a very big tradition of that, German Americans, and along came the federal programs of urban renewal and the ’60s Great Society and said, “The federal government will do this.” The mayors were simultaneously grateful for the money and furious because they saw what the federal government was doing was destructive. There was a housing project in St. Louis, very famous called Pruitt-Igoe, and the mayors were just grossed out by this project. It wasn’t solvent. Just by the arithmetic, not enough tenants to pay for the maintenance, which it’s supposed to be, and the mayors were stuck with the crime and misery in a half empty, angry housing project in the case of St. Louis Pruitt-Igoe.

Then you mentioned one of the thing, Charlotte. When the Great Society came along, there was also a sort of citizenship effort, part of the Office of Economic Opportunity, which was supposed to teach citizens and enfranchise them. That sounds nice, but what it really was with the following: A federal poverty office teaching the rest of the country, going into towns, telling people how to handle poverty, and teaching people in the towns to protest, and the mayor thought this was absurd and dangerous. You’re a mayor, say the mayor of Chicago, Mayor Daley, you have a poverty office. You need funds for your poverty office or your assistance office. You’re hoping President Johnson will send you the funds. In fact, you’re counting on it because you were the one who helped Johnson get elected in 1964.

Mayor Daley actually sent President Johnson or Washington, the list of all his poverty initiatives that he expected to be funded by Washington as a thank you for his help and electing Johnson in ’64. Nice box, right? No, no. The federal government came back, “We have another idea. We’re going to send our own people into your village, Chicago. We’re going to let them run the poverty even if you dislike them.” And in Chicago’s case, there were gangs that received money, the Blackstone Rangers, there were activists who were violent against the city and so Mayor Daley, you can imagine him, what a gruff guy, and I learned a lot about Daley, just called up the White House and said, “Does the president realize he’s sending M-O-N-E-Y to a subversive type of people who might unseat me, his ally?”

So it was an absurd situation, which led to great frustration because jurisdictional fights hurt the poor people, the people who needed help one way or the other … we can argue what kind … and that did lead in the case of Los Angeles to the Watch Riot in 1965. There’s something worse than telling people you’re not going to give them money. The worst thing is telling them you’re going to give them money and then not giving them money, right? That’s terrible. And that’s what happened in Los Angeles. There was much promise for the summer of ’65 that didn’t come because of Yorty’s jurisdictional, titanic fight with the federal government, Sam Yorty, the mayor of LA at that time.


I want to go back to a little bit about the history. You start with a marvelous chapter of Michael Harrington, the democratic socialist, coming to DC for job. How important were Harrington, Tom Hayden and the Port Heuron people in shaping the war on poverty? I’ll just use the S word. Is there a socialistic bent to the war on poverty?


There’s a socialist bent to the war on poverty, no question, because anything that’s redistribution is socialist. That does not mean these people reported to Moscow. The trouble with socialists and social democrats of the city … that would be the left wing, the progressive wing of the democratic party … was not that they were traitors. The trouble with them was that they were wrong, the belief that redistribution would work. Why were these people influential? They were influential because Johnson felt, “Hey, I got to give back because I’m sending more and more, hundreds, thousands of more of young men to Vietnam.” If you imagine this theater of the Great Society on the stages, domestic program, in the background, there was always the rumble of cannons or airplanes that is the rumble of the Vietnam War to this play, right, to this piece of drama.

And the other was great concern about that there would be riots in the city, so, “Build or burn,” was a motto. Build in the cities for poor people or they will burn the city down. I would say build and then burn, because the way they built was so offensive. But that’s just all part of the story and the question of whether people were reds or not is irrelevant, but they were socialists. And it’s not like a situation where you just be a little bit socialist and a little bit more socialist, a little bit greater role for government in society and you’ll never get to true socialism. That’s not the way it works at all. Eventually there is a tipping point and people expect more from government and less from themselves and we went along on, say, the highest road to serfdom quite a good measure in the ’60s, a bit farther down than we ever imagined we would go through incremental steps of government expansion.

And what the book describes is that every president wants to do a little bit more than the guy before him, but a little bit more plus a little bit more does eventually get you to redistributed state. It’s not like Zeno’s paradox where you take a half step more and you never get there. You do get there. You get pretty quickly to a redistributive state and we had that, which was the reason we had the terrible economy we had in the 1970s.

Charlotte: Amity, socialism has had quite a resurgence in the US and people are not hesitant to use the name. Young people seem to think socialism is great. You’ve talked about the blow of socialism. What is the Great Society? Tell us about all this. If you were going to tell people who are voting today what they should make of the resurgence of socialism, what would you say?

Amity: Well, first of all, I feel very liberated that younger people are calling for socialism. We are allowed to talk about social democracy and how it begets authoritarian governments, slow growth or socialism. Before, if we talked about this, had we had this conversation 20 years ago, Charlotte, we’d say, “Oh, we sound like we’re red baiters when we’re … Let’s just call them progressive.” But if the other side is calling for socialism, and by which they mean in the United States, probably, the compromises of social democracy, then we too have license to talk about it, and the lesson of the Great Society is that it doesn’t work for the United States. It’s not a plan that takes well in the United States, no matter how much money you spend.

In the ’60s, we thought that we were going to spend an untold amount on poverty. The original dollar amount for the poverty program in 1965 … ’64, ’65, we began talking about it, right? ’64, I think. ’63 was when Johnson became president in a tragic event. ’64, he ran for office and promised this war on poverty … was $1 billion. And that sounded just like a huge amount. Harrington, this figure, who is a wonderful socialist, honest, interesting figure … the book is full of characters … said, “Well, that’s nickel and dimes billion,” but the official to whom he said it, the poverty czar, Sergeant Shriver, the brother-in-law of the late president Kennedy said, “Well, I don’t know about you, young man, but I’ve never had a billion to play with.” Well, they had a billion to play with. It was not enough. They spent multiples of a billion on the next poverty effort, which was housing. And it went on from there.

And there are characters I never knew about, Charlotte, who spoke since throughout the period. One was Wilbur Mills, the chairman of the Ways and Mean Committee, who is less loved now, and you hear about some scandals at the end of his career. But he was a thoughtful Ways and Means chairman. When I grew up, and you maybe, they referred to the powerful Wilbur Mills so often that you felt powerful was his first name and Wilbur was his middle name. Powerful Wilbur Mills. And powerful saw right away, went along this Medicaid and Medicare, which was supposed to be kind of nice but still just addenda to social security … They were social security amendments … kind of nice, but in a war time and in a period of concern, let’s try him. Their budgets almost instantly exploded. And he said, “Wow, I didn’t mean this. I’m not signing on with anything else. I had a learning curve, Mr. President Johnson, and I’m not signing on to other things.” But Johnson just wanted to keep going because he was not an economic person. He was a politically ambitious person, as presidents go.

And there’s a hilarious scene when Johnson calls Mills to agree, I think, to a tax increase to pay for yet more expansion. And Mills says, “I’m doing that only if you have commensurate cuts in spending. If you want me to do this to get our house in order, you have to do something.” And Johnson hauls him to the White House with a bunch of other important people, maybe congressmen and cabinet members, and he goes around and goes, “This person’s for me, this person’s for me, this person’s for me. Of course, you’re going to be for this plan I have for tax increase too, Wilbur. Where are you when we are on the right side?” And Mills says, “Well, I know where I am. I am in the wrong place,” and he walked out of the White House.

I never met Wilbur Mills in this way. So I recommend getting to know the characters of the ’60s. I just name a couple of them for you, Charlotte, because this is as much biography as policy, this book. It’s about lovable people who tried to help those they loved and instead hurt them. And that would be Sergeant Shriver, the poverty czar, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, so famous, Wilbur Mills, Walter Reuther, the great union leader, and so on. I do have … I don’t think these are lovable but very interesting also … John Connolly of Texas, George Romney of Michigan. Explains a lot about Mitt. Who else? I’m trying to think of characters. Arthur Burns, the fed chairman, who was a tragic character because he knew that inflation was bad. He was the author of the most important inflation papers. He was the father of inflation writers such as Milton Friedman, and yet he agreed to policy that gave us the inflation of the ’70s, so it has the aspect of the Greek drama.

Charlotte: So Amity, this is a woman’s organization. Are there any women in your book?

Amity: There are women in my book. The heroine is Jane Jacobs, who understood the power of small, because she lived in New York. She’s described as a housewife. I don’t know if that works or not for your listeners, but she basically said these big highways that are built mainly to help autos traverse cities, prevent people from stopping in the cities.

Let’s think about the nature of cities, and how much we love to walk in the old corridors of Savannah, Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, and San Antonio. Why don’t we preserve that? She had an intuitive understanding of how cities work. She wrote a book called The Death and Life of American Cities. It’s one of the best written books anyone will ever encounter, and she had a combo of knowledge of the constitution and common sense. It’s very rare. She didn’t talk down to people, and she pointed out that… At the time, the received idea was that once a slum, always a slum, so you have to bulldoze it over. What she said is slums can un-slum.

The book was called Death and Life, not Life and Death. Slums can un-slum. That is, she anticipated what we call gentrification, a kind of inclusive gentrification that included all. But there were also, Charlotte, another group of women who joined the student movement. And I start with them at Port Huron, which is where the great student statement of the 60s was written. The Port Huron statement. There were girls there along with boys, and they became to see, Charlotte, that this new movement was not including them. They were just the typists, the mimeographers, they weren’t the speakers.

And the men, free love just meant availability for sex with immature boys. Let me say that again. Availability for sex with immature boys. Great. That makes you feel wonderful. So they began to turn away, and there’s one, Mary King, and there’s another, Casey Hayden, I describe in the book. And they went off and did different things, because they saw this movement wasn’t so new as old, and not particularly aimed at helping women.

That’s also true for blacks, by the way. There’s an interesting character, Robert Paris Moses, who was a leader in the civil rights movement. And eventually he went off disillusioned, and he founded something called The Algebra Project, where he decided what black children needed was algebra. And if they could understand algebra, they could get a job. And that remains true to this day.

How unusual. It wasn’t about ethnic or gender identity, it was about knowledge. So I like these characters and I follow them. There was also a Congresswoman, Edith Green, who got tired of the Poverty Czar, and began to write amendments to try to change the Poverty Czar office in Washington, and limit its control. So the women are ones to follow, and they sometimes tell the truth in the book.

Charlotte: I thought it was a terrific book about the people. I love the chapter Moynihan Agonistis, if I’m pronouncing that correctly. And I wanted to ask you about the characters in the book, but what I’m going to say to our listeners is, buy this book, it’s really important. It’s really a great read. And I’m going to ask you one more question, and I hope people will buy this book cause it’s really terrific, Amity. What’s your prescription? What should we do now?

Amity: My prescription is less government. It’s very simple. I was thinking maybe I would write a biography of Tocqueville. It’s been done, but return to the America where we have some faith in our local community, and we don’t get the federal government too much involved in the local community, and respect for business.

Why did we do so well after this awful story? We did so well because the businesses we regarded as just milk cows, domestic animals to serve the government, to be herded and exploited, actually carried us through. Because when we pull back… And Ronald Reagan is a character in this book, I should mention that. When we pull back, and Reagan did pull back on welfare, the businesses gave us a better life.

You think of the things that kids consider part of their life, such as Apple, such as eBay, such as Uber. If you’re in college, let’s name the things, Uber and eBay are about community trust. Expecting the person driving the car won’t kill you. Expecting the apartment you go to will be nice enough for you to stay there overnight, and worth the price. And usually they are, right?

So if we’d been in the 60s, and I had told your parents and my parents, one day you’re going to order an automobile part from someone you don’t know in a strange state, and you’re going to send him $185 for this rare automobile part, and you’re going to expect that it will work, and be what it says in the picture, my father would’ve said, “I wouldn’t trust an out-of-state dealer who I don’t know, and send them a money order. I’m not sure I would do that. I didn’t see it in advertised in the back of my college magazine, or some other community magazine. How would I know?” I wouldn’t stay in place I didn’t know about, that I just heard about in a strange city, in someone’s apartment.”

But all these things have worked. I’m talking now about the networks like Uber and eBay, because American people are essentially trustworthy. And in commerce there’s a code. If you have a bad room on Airbnb, well, people know that pretty soon. The market punishes you, right? If you have bed bugs in a hotel, the market punishes you, and the information that’s available on who has bedbugs helps us take hotels or Airbnb that don’t most of the time.

So look at how much power the market has. Even going to space, which in the 60s was the ultimate example of a concept whereby we believe that only government can do this. Only government has resources to send a man into space or to the moon. All grownups believed that. Well, it turns out private companies can send people out into space and to the moon or farther.

So the market offers more than we expect, particularly if it respects contract. If it does what it says it’s going to do. If you actually, when you ordered that piece of jewelry or that part for the automobile from eBay, it actually comes, and it actually works, well, that’s the market serving you. And that requires another set of policies, which do not include rent control or national eBay tax

On the contrary, the freer eBay is, or the freer Airbnb is, the better it serves the customer. So I would look at this from a customer point of view and say, “Wow, the market did this.”

One last example, people were not satisfied with American cars. They were one, too dangerous, Ralph Nader, and two, surprisingly shoddily made, the Detroit cars.

If you remember the way a father would slam a door in the olden days to be sure it shut, that’s how we dealt with car doors in the old days. They were sometimes kind of off, so you just slammed it extra double to be sure it shut.

What came along? Cars that were slightly better made, maybe slightly better value, such as Toyota or German or English cars, and the market solved a problem that Detroit was unable to solve, which is how to make a quality car at a reasonable price. I really have a lot of respect for the market. I don’t think it needs to be condescended to, or prettified, or subsidized by the federal government. It just needs not to be burdened by the federal government.

Charlotte:Amity, this is an absolutely great podcast. I knew it would be. We hope that you enjoyed this podcast. I know you did, and you’ll take away something from today’s conversation. If you did enjoy this episode of She Thinks, or like our podcast in general, we’d love it if you could take a moment to leave us a rating review on iTunes. This helps us to get our message across to as many Americans as possible. Share this episode and let your friends know that they can find more She Thinks episodes on their favorite podcast app.

From all of us at IWF, remember, you’re in control. I think, you think, she thinks. Amity, thank you so much.

Amity: Oh, thank you so much.