Great Society or Greatest Society? What Lyndon Johnson Dreamed

The Annual Elizabeth M. Whelan Lecture

March 22, 2021
Amity Shlaes event poster with red, black, and white book cover image of Great Society

Amity Shlaes, Chairman, Calvin Coolidge Presidential Foundation, with Allen C. GuelzoSenior Research Scholar in the Council of the Humanities; Director of the Initiative on Politics and Statesmanship, James Madison Program, Princeton University

A conversation on Great Society: A New History by Amity Shlaes (HarperCollins, 2019).

Today, a battle rages in our country. Many Americans are attracted to socialism and economic redistribution while opponents of those ideas argue for purer capitalism. In the 1960s, Americans sought the same goals many seek now: an end to poverty, higher standards of living for the middle class, a better environment and more access to health care and education. Then, too, we debated socialism and capitalism, public sector reform versus private sector advancement. Time and again, whether under John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, or Richard Nixon, the country chose the public sector. Yet the targets of our idealism proved elusive. What’s more, Johnson’s and Nixon’s programs shackled millions of families in permanent government dependence. Ironically, Shlaes argues, the costs of entitlement commitments made a half century ago preclude the very reforms that Americans will need in coming decades.

In Great Society, Shlaes offers a powerful companion to her legendary history of the 1930s, The Forgotten Man, and shows that in fact there was scant difference between two presidents we consider opposites: Johnson and Nixon. Just as technocratic military planning by “the Best and the Brightest” made failure in Vietnam inevitable, so planning by a team of the domestic best and brightest guaranteed fiasco at home. At once history and biography, Great Society sketches moving portraits of the characters in this transformative period, from U.S. Presidents to the visionary UAW leader Walter Reuther, the founders of Intel, and Federal Reserve chairmen William McChesney Martin and Arthur Burns. Great Society casts new light on other figures too, from Ronald Reagan, then governor of California, to the socialist Michael Harrington and the protest movement leader Tom Hayden. Drawing on her classic economic expertise and deep historical knowledge, Shlaes upends the traditional narrative of the era, providing a damning indictment of the consequences of thoughtless idealism with striking relevance for today. Great Society captures a dramatic contest with lessons both dark and bright for our own time.

Amity Shlaes chairs the board of the Calvin Coolidge Presidential Foundation, a national foundation based in the birthplace of President Coolidge, and a Presidential Scholar at The King’s College. She is the author of The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression (2008); The Forgotten Man: Graphic Edition (2014), a full length illustrated version of the same book drawn by Paul Rivoche; Coolidge (2013), a full-length biography of the thirtieth president; and The Greedy Hand: How Taxes Drive Americans Crazy (1999). Her most recent book is Great Society: A New History (2019), a sequel to The Forgotten Man. She is winner of the Manhattan Institute’s Hayek Book Prize, which honors the book that best reflects Friedrich Hayek’s vision of economic and individual liberty, and she currently chairs the jury for the prize. She was a co-winner of the Frederic Bastiat Prize, an international prize for writing on political economy, and a JP Morgan Fellow for finance and economy at the American Academy in Berlin. In 2004, she delivered the Bradley lecture at the American Enterprise Institute. Her lecture, titled "The Chicken versus the Eagle," looked at the effect of the National Recovery Administration on the entrepreneur in the New Deal. She has served as Senior Fellow in Economic History at the Council on Foreign Relations and as a director at the George W. Bush Presidential Center. Her syndicated column has been carried by the Financial Times, Bloomberg, and the Wall Street Journal, where served on the editorial board. She currently appears in print Forbes and in National Review. Ms. Shlaes is a magna cum laude graduate of Yale College.

Allen C. Guelzo is Senior Research Scholar in the Council of the Humanities and the Director of the Initiative on Politics and Statesmanship in the James Madison Program at Princeton University. His award-winning books include Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President (1999), Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America (2004), and Gettysburg: The Last Invasion (2013). He is currently at work on a biography of Robert E. Lee. He has been awarded the Bradley Prize, the Lincoln Medal of the Union League Club of New York City, and the James Q. Wilson Award for Distinguished Scholarship on the Nature of a Free Society. Together with Patrick Allitt and Gary W. Gallagher, he team-taught the Teaching Company’s American History series, as well as courses on Abraham Lincoln (Mr. Lincoln, 2005) on American intellectual history (The American Mind, 2006), the American Revolution (2007), and the Founders (America’s Founding Fathers, 2017). From 2006 to 2013, he served as a member of the National Council on the Humanities. He received his M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania.

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Great Society or Greatest Society? What Lyndon Johnson Dreamed

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