Contributor Post Created with Sketch. The Great Society: A New History with Amity Shlaes


This week on Uncommon Knowledge, a conversation with author and historian Amity Shlaes on her new book, Great Society: A New History. Begun by John F. Kennedy and completed by Lyndon B. Johnson, the Great Society was one of the most sweeping pieces of legislation ever enacted in American history. On its surface, the Great Society was a plan to reduce rural and urban poverty, but at its roots were the socialist and communist movements of the 1930s. Shlaes shares the history of those movements and lays out how they influenced the post–World War II generation of American politicians, including lesser-remembered figures such as Sargent Shriver, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and Walter Reuther. In addition, the Great Society was a harbinger of many of the policies and ideas that are in vogue today, including Universal Basic Income and Medicare for All. Shlaes also argues that what the Great Society’s marquee policy initiative, the War on Poverty, and the new flood of benefits actually achieved “was the opposite of preventing poverty—they established a new kind of poverty, a permanent sense of downtroddenness.” Shlaes proves that, once again, policies and laws with the best of intentions often have the opposite effect.

Recorded on January 17, 2020

Published in General
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  1. James Gawron Thatcher
    James Gawron Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member


    Ahhh, I remember it well. The ebullient emotion that carried everyone. There were conservative voices but they were pushed aside. The momentum of the Great Society once ignited in full by Johnson’s huge victory in 1964 was simply unstoppable. Amity alluded to it but didn’t actually say. I don’t think I’m misremembering, but at one point just after 1964 victory, LbJ said he wanted to pass as much legislation in his first 100 days as FDR had in his first hundred days. Pure hubris. In 1933 unemployment was at 25%. In 1964 unemployment was at 3%. Not only pure hubris but pure macroeconomic stupidity.

    There is a strange Great Society thought experiment involving an alternate history. What if JFK had not been assassinated and he had run against Goldwater in 1964. How much difference would it have made? Certainly, there would have been a much more interesting debate. Maybe the debate would have stimulated deeper thinking about the wisdom of the policies. People just knew that big Lyndon’s gravy train couldn’t be stopped so why trouble yourself with hard questions. Imagine a Kennedy Nixon style debate in 1964 with JFK on one side and Barry Goldwater on the other.

    Oh well, maybe only a daydream. Thanks to Amity for covering this beat. I’m sure people who are capable of this kind of analysis are in short supply. For those kids who didn’t live through this, her book is especially invaluable.



    • #1
    • March 25, 2020, at 10:49 AM PDT
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  2. Ansonia Member
    Ansonia Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Fantastic interview !

    • #2
    • March 25, 2020, at 9:14 PM PDT
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  3. Songwriter Member
    Songwriter Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Terrific interview. I was just a kid in the 60s. I had only the vaguest understanding of the Great Society program. And if ever there was an example of the road to hell being paved with good intentions, it would be the Great Society program.

    • #3
    • March 26, 2020, at 6:20 AM PDT
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