Reparations for slavery, you say? Well, we tried that experiment, in the $20-plus trillion spent on welfare, Medicaid, housing, and food stamps for the mostly minority poor since Lyndon Johnson declared his War on Poverty in 1964. As Amity Shlaes shows in her cautionary Great Society: A New History, those trillions only made matters worse. As the clamor swells to compound LBJ’s mistake, Shlaes provides a sobering postmortem, dissecting how and why, when government presumes to reshape society, the result is likely to be gory.
It took LBJ a lifetime to learn that lesson, and he learned it the hard way. He began his government career as an ardent New Dealer, first as a tireless functionary charged with pressing Texas farmers to limit their crops, on Franklin Roosevelt’s cockeyed theory that overproduction caused the Great Depression, and then as one of FDR’s most energetic congressional lieutenants, ramming through New Deal programs—many of doubtful constitutionality. He firmly believed that the New Deal had heroically wielded the power of the federal government to defeat the slump, though as Shlaes showed in her earlier best-selling book, The Forgotten Man (2007), it only prolonged it. Continue reading