Commentary

What’s So Great About the Great Society?

Forty four years ago this week Lyndon Baines Johnson traveled to Ann Arbor, Michigan, to deliver a speech that outlined the vision that would guide his administration. The speech may be read profitably today. Barack Obama has evoked “change” and “hope” while denying he is a liberal. Yet Obama’s supporters expect his administration will become the third stage of Progressivism, the two earlier being the New Deal and the Great Society.

LBJ began that spring day by stating a goal: “The purpose of protecting the life of our Nation and preserving the liberty of our citizens is to pursue the happiness of our people. Our success in that pursuit is the test of our success as a Nation.”

Like LBJ, Barack Obama sees in politics and governing the possibility of secular transcendence. ”

Compare that statement to some earlier words about the purposes of American government: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” These words from the Declaration of Independence reflect the individualistic, natural rights philosophy of the American founders.

LBJ’s words reflected a fundamentally different philosophy, Progressivism. Individuals do not pursue happiness within a framework of rights. Government pursues happiness for them or rather for “our” people.

Johnson noted two means to that collective end: the life of our Nation and the liberty of our citizens. The second is revealing. The liberty of the individual is not a goal of government. It is rather the means for the collective pursuit of happiness.

The great society would would realize that collective happiness. In the Great Society, “men are more concerned with the quality of their goals than the quantity of their goods.” They put aside “unbridled growth” and “the demands of commerce” to fulfill “the hunger for community.” Mere business and trade produce a “soulless wealth” that is far short of national aspiration.

The readers who see in LBJ’s words a call to secular spirituality through government are not far wrong. He said to the students and faculty of the University of Michigan: “You have the chance never before afforded to any people in any age. You can help build a society where the demands of morality, and the needs of the spirit, can be realized in the life of the Nation.” The speech ends with the hope of a “new world,” a remaking of the nation.

Ironically, in light of what actually happened later, LBJ also claimed that “The solution to these problems does not rest on a massive program in Washington, nor can it rely solely on the strained resources of local authority. They require us to create new concepts of cooperation, a creative federalism, between the National Capital and the leaders of local communities.” Over the next decade, federal spending tripled.

Like LBJ, Barack Obama sees in politics and governing the possibility of secular transcendence. He is a far better orator than LBJ was, and his skills might well bring a third phase of Progressivism to the United States in 2009. However, there is room for doubt. Obama lives in different world than LBJ.

In 1965, democrats held more than two-thirds of both chambers of Congress. As LBJ said on his inaugural night, “We can pass it all now.” Democrats may gain seats in Congress this year, but they will not have the same majorities LBJ had. President Obama will not say “We can pass it all now.”

LBJ began his quest for the Great Society by cutting taxes. Obama will have to raise taxes to pursue his dreams — excuse me, “our” dreams. Once “hope” and “change” cost real money, Obama will find Congress less willing to dream.

1n 1964, 76 percent of Americans trusted the federal government to do what is right almost always or most of the time. In 2004, 47 percent trusted the feds. Perhaps Obama’s charisma will foster trust. Or maybe not. Obama is running as post-ideological. If he undertakes a new Progressivism, voters are likely to feel betrayed and trust in government will drop as it did when Clinton ran as a moderate in 1992 and tried to govern as a liberal in 1994.

Conservatives have reasons for pessimism in 2008. But the spring of 1964 was much worse. Barack Obama may expect to renew the left’s quest for a secular spirituality rooted in politics and government, a religion to replace the older faiths. But 2009 is unlikely to be 1965. In fact, if Obama overreaches enough, 2010 might come to resemble 1994.

John Samples is the director of the Center for Representative Government at the Cato Institute and author of The Fallacy of Campaign Finance Reform.