Next Thursday, May 22, marks the fiftieth anniversary of Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” speech, delivered as a commencement address at the University of Michigan. It’s fun to read how the speech is a dated period piece—it opens with a greeting of Governor George Romney, and Johnson makes a joke about women and coeducational education that no savvy politician would make today.
We think of the Great Society as expressing an optimistic vision of progress—however mistaken that vision might be. But what is sometimes forgotten is what a dour and pessimistic vision of civil society is at the core of the Great Society programs.
Here’s the glum picture Johnson painted of the country to the young Michigan graduates:
It is harder and harder to live the good life in American cities today.
The catalog of ills is long, there is the decay of the centers and the despoiling of the suburbs. There is not enough housing for our people or transportation for our traffic. Open land is vanishing and old landmarks are violated.
Worst of all, expansion is eroding the precious and time honored values of community with neighbors and communion with nature. The loss of these values breeds loneliness and boredom and indifference.
Because of the erosion of values of community and neighborhood, Johnson argued an active government program is necessary to address these ills, which
. . . require us to create new concepts of cooperation, a creative federalism, between the national capital and the leaders of local communities.
Decentralized civil society has, at best a limited role and must be coordinate by the federal government. No wonder the Great Society programs so greatly expanded the role of government and displaced institutions of civil society.
This low estimate of civil society and of individuals is especially striking when one compares it to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” speech, delivered nearly a quarter century before Johnson’s “Great Society” speech. As Amity Shlaes’ The Forgotten Man has made so clear, Roosevelt was all too ready to dismiss civil society and the role of ordinary individuals and favor coordinated government efforts.
Yet, the Four Freedoms speech still presents an optimistic vision of America and American civil society, with phrases such as “patriotic example,” “personal sacrifice,” and “individual stake in the preservation of democratic life.”
Correspondingly, the Four Freedoms speech puts more emphasis on individual responsibility: Roosevelt spoke of the need for “jobs for those who can work” and helping “persons deserving or needing gainful employment.”
In contrast, Johnson’s Great Society speech emphasizes the collective effort “to end poverty”—and paved the way for programs that have contributed to a fall of workforce participation by working-aged men from 84.2 percent in 1964 to 71.9 percent today. Almost 3 in 10 working-age men are idle rather than working or looking for work—a sure sign that the Great Society has not been realized.
The young graduates who heard Johnson’s speech as a commencement address are now in their early 70s. Let’s hope they are sharing a more optimistic and hopeful account of American society acquired from their work and experience than they heard presented by Johnson fifty years ago.