ON-Lion Letter

Fifty years ago, President Lyndon B. Johnson laid the foundation for a "Great Society."  After 50 years and $20 trillion, are we at the end of the road? 

In May, a panel of public-policy experts gathered at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research in Washington, D.C., to discuss what America has gained and lost since Johnson's Great Society address at the University of Michigan commencement.

During the event, Bradley Prize recipient Nicholas Eberstadt said the legacy of the Great Society has profoundly reworked our understanding of the limits of governance in America.  Eberstadt is AEI's Henry Wendt Chair in Political Economy and author of a new study, The Great Society at Fifty:  The Triumph and the Tragedy.

He pointed to two specific legacies:  1.) the civil-rights movement, which eliminated legalized racial discrimination; and, 2.) the creation of a brave new welfare state that eradicated 1960s-style material deprivation and financed a "tangle of pathologies" throughout American society, including welfare dependency, a flight from work, and family breakdown.

Elaine Kamarck of the Brookings Institution countered Eberstadt's point that the Great Society financed those pathologies, arguing that other extraneous factors such as the women's movement and deindustrialization of America could potentially explain these trends.

And the Cato Institute's Michael Tanner commended the civil-rights analysis in Eberstadt's recent study, elaborating that it spilled over to other minorities groups as well, and questioned the War on Poverty's increasing focus on inputs for antipoverty programs.

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