We may be condemned to repeat the hangover from still another Socialist inebriant. Philosopher Georges Santayana would be rueful that yet another generation may well fall prey to the truth of his famous maxim. Yet, today’s inhalers of Keynesian hot air—the AOCs, the Sanders’ acolytes, and Bidenites sworn to progressivism—all think the crazy stuff of yesterday’s fools failed only because smart people like them didn’t control the levers of power.
Author Amity Shlaes has recently given us Great Society, in which she reminds us that the economic distortions of yesterday’s “experts,” beginning with those on Kennedy’s New Frontier, season the current love affair with the so-called “generosity” of Socialism, and as a political philosophy, it is very much alive. This, despite Irving Kristol’s 1976 declaration that, “The most important political event of the twentieth century is not the crisis of capitalism but the death of socialism.”
Always about greed, Socialism’s snake oil, free lunch sucker pitch requires both a fresh crop of dupes and an older generation preferring to forget what Shlaes has so well demonstrated. Americans needed decades to get over, economically, what the administrations of Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon had wrought, and socially, we are still living with the family destruction gifted by welfare’s soul-shredding cruelty.
The postwar era, remember, was one where Toyota was a “minor importer,” Fairchild had not yet become Intel, and black unemployment in the 1950s was the same as whites. The DOW approached 1000 points in the mid-1960s, but because of Johnson’s “guns and butter” approach to Vietnam and dissatisfaction with societal equity initiatives, it wasn’t until 1982 that the DOW moved past its first millennial marker. Too, it was an era when big city mayors like Sam Yorty of LA and Richard Daley of Chicago wanted nothing from the federal government but distance.
Democratic socialist Michael Harrington’s The Other America, a Wikipedia of the downtrodden, served as one of the ignition points for the Great Society as envisioned by Johnson and his famous sidekicks, Sargent Shriver and Joseph Califano. Once launched, Johnson grabbed hold of new social initiatives “the way a child ate chocolate chip cookies.” Accompanied by plenty of cash, the pols once suspicious of federal largesse, embraced it with abandon. The federal government was seen as the shepherd taking care of us sheep. Sheep we were then, and are now. Our country has never been the same.
Those of us in their formative years during the 1960s perceived the goals of Johnson’s Great Society as being noble, worthy, and uplifting for all Americans. Some civil rights reforms were worth the effort, to be sure. People of color could vote, find work, and “conduct their lives with dignity.” Medicare and Medicaid were and are boons to the poor and seniors, yet Bidenites seem driven to overextend identity rights and giveaway entitlements beyond what the paying citizenry may be willing to bear.
When in the name of urban renewal, however, they tore down most of the downtown where I grew up, a little burg on Lake Erie, solons promised the future would be grand and glorious. It proved, instead, to be two decades of overgrown, empty lots serving no one. Isaly’s, Rexall’s, the Ritz Theater, Corky’s, the Knotty Pine, and so many others, became the stuff of memories. And the town’s experience became another Great Society data point of failure.
Federal money had strings attached, of course. Rules meant restrictions. Labor oversight meant new and unforeseen expenses. America became less competitive, its products not as desirable as some others. Quality initiatives in manufacturing came from elsewhere, not here. Yet, for a few years the philosophy remained attractive, even for a Richard Nixon to adopt many progressive measures as his own. But by 1971, foreign investors realized, before we did, that America could not afford “guns and butter,” and used gold to short the dollar. Even today, Shlaes notes, Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies are “a measure of markets’ and individuals’ distrust of the dollar.”
For Shlaes, the icon for the Great Society’s failures was the giant Pruitt-Igoe housing complex in St. Louis. Once trumpeted as the model for housing decency and equity, it became a crime infested cancer on the city’s corpus, one from which the people it was supposed to uplift fled in droves. It was the symbol of the era’s heralded beginning and its humiliating end, when in 1972, Building C-15, once home to 200 families, was dynamited to smithereens because finally, “the government gave up.”
The political distrust from overpromises to Americans of every color and cradle produced a populace so angry it elected Ronald Reagan who thought a much better welfare program was the dignity of a job. The young Leftists who were wrong a half century ago wrote our textbooks, populated our political seats, and embedded their ideas into our young. A harvest of identity politics and division produced the election of Donald Trump. And today, Bidenites are just as wrong, even as their proposals more resemble a regurgitation of yesterday’s Harrington hash than a blazed pathway for a bright future.
Shlaes reflects, correctly, “Nothing is new, it is just forgotten.” People over 50 have no excuse, however. In the present context, she might also agree with what Yogi Berra so famously revealed: “It’s déjà vu all over again.”
Biden-Harris wordbeaters will cry it’s “butter” they want, not “guns,” in perfect pitch for Russia and China, but if America is, indeed, the last best hope on earth, we cannot be taken in again. We sipped the temptings of Socialism during the 1930s. We aftertasted the bitter bile of its Great Society flavor in the 1960s and ‘70s.
The question is: Can Americans finally brush aside Socialism’s latest recipe for its poisonous brew?