Journalist Bill Moyers, who worked as an assistant to President Lyndon Johnson, shared memories in a column last year about how his old boss thought about our entitlement programs.
It was under Johnson, who championed the "Great Society" in the 1960s, that a good portion of the runaway government spending we are trying to get under control today originated.
Johnson signed into law Medicare, Medicaid, the War on Poverty programs, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
Moyers recounted that for Johnson, Social Security and Medicare "were about a lot more than economics."
He recalls a time when the Johnson administration was supporting retroactive increases in Social Security payments. Moyers said he argued for the increases as economic stimulus. But Johnson called him and said:
"My inclination would be ... that it ought be retroactive as far back as you can get it ... because none of them ever get enough. That they are entitled to it. That's an obligation of ours. It's just like your mother writing you and saying she wants $20, and I always sent mine $100 when she did. I always did it because I thought she was entitled to it. ... We do know that it affects the economy. But that's not the basis to go to the Hill, or the justification. We've got to say that by God you can't treat grandma this way. She's entitled to it and we promised it to her."
I don't think we could have a clearer picture of Johnson's muddled thinking about his job and the role of government, which contributed so much to the problems we have today.
Johnson's words sound so wonderfully compassionate. But let's get things in perspective.
He saw no difference in his relationship and responsibilities toward his own mother, and sending her his own money, and his responsibilities as president of the United States and the relationship of government to citizens.
There is a world of difference between the appropriate responsibility of parents toward their children and children toward their parents, and politicians deciding on how to spend someone else's money for someone else's children, parents or grandparents.
Johnson didn't seem to grasp, or care, about the fact that family and government are two entirely different social institutions that serve very different purposes.
So the Johnson administration years marked not just the beginning of many huge government programs that we can't pay for today, but they also marked a major cultural change where government began displacing family and personal responsibility.
It is no accident that as the American welfare state grew, the American family collapsed.
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