The View From 1776

Baltimore And The Great Society

Baltimore’s riots, looting, burning, and attacks on police and innocent civilians are not unprecedented.  Nor are liberal-progressive prescriptions for dealing with the phenomenon.  It didn’t work then and it won’t work today.

As I wrote in The Liberal Jihad: The Hundred Year War Against the Constitution:

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 had expressly disavowed any ideas of preferential treatment for classes of citizens, aiming for a color-blind society with equal opportunity for all. Yet, only a year later, President Johnson declared to students at Howard University’s graduation ceremony that the “next and most profound stage of the battle for civil rights” will be “not just equality as a right and theory but equality as a fact and equality as a result.”

Delivering literal equality, as an entitlement, regardless of whether individuals in the covered social classes had ever worked or even tried to find jobs, would require the government to contravene the equal-treatment provisions of the just-passed Civil Rights Act as well as the 14th Amendment, which mandates due process of law and equal protection under the laws. The Federal judiciary, by then largely staffed with liberal-progressive-socialists, were prepared to ignore this legal conflict and to sanction President Johnson’s new salient toward egalitarian social justice.

Going on welfare, in effect, became a career choice. Welfare “clients” were entitled to welfare benefits and they owed nothing to society. Since in socialist theory it was society’s fault that they were needy, they had no obligation to seek work or to limit the number of their illegitimate children. Nor was there any reason, moral or legal, that they and their progeny should not collect these benefits forever. Liberal-progressives, harking back to FDR’s “second bill of rights” declaration in 1944, called this a Constitutional right.

However much traditionalists deplore this ethos, their revulsion does not mean that society should ignore the plight of the less fortunate, that social welfare measures are inherently bad. It means simply that it doesn’t work to deal with human misery by telling the unfortunate that they have a Constitutional right to a large part of the fruit of other people’s labor, and that they owe nothing in return to society.

Michael Harrington’s 1968 Toward a Democratic Left: A Radical Program for a New Majority expressed the sense of the Great Society paradigm.

Even in a society based on private economic power, the Government can be an agency of social, rather than corporate, purpose… This does not require a fundamental transformation of the system. It does, however, mean that the society will democratically plan “uneconomic” allocations of significant resources… Under such conditions it would be possible to realize full— and meaningful— employment for all those ready and able to work. Going beyond the quantities of the New Deal, the economy could be stimulated by promoting the affluence of the public sector rather than by tax cuts, and in the process millions of creative jobs can be designed to better the nation’s education, health, leisure, and the like. Within twenty years such a policy of social investments should end all poverty, eradicate the slums and erode the economic basis of racism. And those people who are unable to work could be provided with a guaranteed annual income instead of shoddy, uncoordinated and inadequate welfare payments… The very character of modern technology, [Harvard economist John] Galbraith says, renders the old market mechanisms obsolete. In these circumstances planning is obligatory. The state must manage the economy in order to guarantee sufficient purchasing power to buy the products of the industrial system.

Now, more than forty years later, it is possible to review the actual results of the Great Society and of Mr. Harrington’s prescription. “Promoting the affluence of the public sector” as a means of stimulating the economy meant simply putting more people on the public payrolls. There is no evidence that this produced “millions of creative jobs” or did anything to eradicate poverty (or racism, if one is to believe black spokesmen like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton) within the twenty years of Mr. Harrington’s expectations.

Far from eliminating poverty, Mr. Harrington’s prescription, applied in the Great Society entitlements programs, produced the worst economic conditions since the Great Depression of the 1930s. The Bureau of Labor reported unemployment at 5.2% of the labor force in 1965; ten years later in 1975 the unemployment rate was 9.0%, accompanied by the worst inflation in our peacetime history.

That, of course, is much the same prescription followed by the Obama administration, with much the same negative result.