The New York Times bestselling author of The Forgotten Man and Coolidge offers a conservative's revision of our last great period of idealism, the 1960s, with relevance for our contemporary challenges.
... Ms. Shlaes now offers an illuminating alternative to sentimental reminisces of liberals’ attempts in the 1960s—actually, in the years starting around 1963 and ending around 1972—to banish poverty in America ... Her account is original and persuasive, presenting the leading poverty warriors not with scorn but with sympathy and piercing insight ... Ms. Shlaes’s chronicle is not just a story of how good people’s good intentions went wrong. It is also a story of how the assumption that the near future will closely resemble the recent past can lead even the best intentioned and most well-informed people to pursue policies that turn out to be mostly counterproductive and often destructive.
Despite the change in scenery, Shlaes’s conclusions remain unchanged ... Shlaes’s book is part of a broader shift in the focus of popular historical narratives. The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves increasingly begin in the 1960s and, for the perpetual debate about the role of government in society, the shift from the Depression to more recent facts and anecdotes is a welcome development. Great Society, however, is a deeply flawed contribution to that discourse ... The book is well written; it goes down easy. But Shlaes’s evidence is highly selective: Medicare and Medicaid, the largest antipoverty programs created by the Johnson administration, are barely mentioned. Other major Great Society initiatives, including the Head Start preschool program, food stamps for hungry families and increased federal funding for public schools in low-income communities, also largely escape Shlaes’s notice ... it is indefensible as a matter of scholarship to completely omit the success of other Great Society programs ... One of the strengths of Shlaes’s book is her narration of the broader context in which the Great Society programs were created. She captures the nuanced relationship between the war on poverty and the war on Vietnam ... But the narrative is warped by Shlaes’s determination to establish that the expansion of federal spending amounted to an embrace of socialism ... For Shlaes, as for many conservatives, socialism has come to describe the redistribution of wealth by any means whatsoever.
Shlaes does a capable job excavating the archaeological record of LBJ’s Great Society program, including the anti-poverty community action initiatives of the Office of Economic Opportunity (under the leadership of Kennedy in-law Sargent Shriver), the expansion of public housing, and the growth of legal services to advocate on behalf of the poor. She takes a decidedly jaded view of these activities, portraying them mostly as the malign efforts of arrogant federal bureaucrats to triumph over the beneficent forces of the free market. Shlaes also spends considerable energy unsympathetically tracing the decline of the American labor movement during this period through the story of Walter Reuther, the powerful head of the United Auto Workers ... it’s no surprise that Shlaes renders a decidedly negative verdict on the reformist impulses of the Great Society ... for all its scholarly trappings, one’s reaction to this book is likely to turn on the political orientation the reader brings to it.