Shlaes (Coolidge, 2013, etc.) offers a decidedly revisionist history of the 1960s in the United States.
“The New Deal created a forgotten man,” writes the author, chair of the board of the Calvin Coolidge Presidential Foundation. “The Great Society created more.” In a follow-up to her The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression (2007), Shlaes writes that Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society reforms “seemed designed to finish the job” of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal government expansion and had similarly disastrous results. The 1960s reforms—community action, housing, and other programs—came “close enough to socialism to cause economic tragedy.” While action in the public sector spurred advances in civil rights and health care, Great Society economic programs, including the “lost” War on Poverty, encouraged “a new sense of hopelessness” in welfare recipients, stifled private sector innovation, and led to inflation and unemployment in the ’70s. Moreover, argues the author, “Great Society collectivism” resulted in enormous entitlement costs that make it difficult to address today’s pressing problems. She cautions against the present flirtation with “broad, vague, and romantic” socialism and champions free-market capitalism and an end to federal intrusions in local government. Her vividly detailed narrative brings to life the social, political, and economic issues of the period. Shlaes emphasizes the little-recognized, outsized role played in public policymaking by socialist labor leader Walter Reuther, a supporter of the radical group that spawned Students for a Democratic Society, led by “professional protester” Tom Hayden, whose 1962 Port Huron Statement helped inspire Johnson’s Great Society. Together with democratic socialist Michael Harrington, Reuther hoped Johnson would “complete” Roosevelt’s revolution. The author chronicles at length federal “arrogance” in dealing with mayors to implement community efforts. Her disdain for liberal reformers and intellectuals will trouble some readers, as will her insistence that private enterprise, with its efficiency and measures-of-success approach, would have succeeded where public action failed in the face of social and political chaos.
A provocative, well-argued take on a turbulent era.