o I went and took a look at the speech Lyndon Johnson gave in May 1964 that inaugurated the “Great Society.” I was struck by how grandiose it was—not just in the wild ambitions of the programs he sought, but in the promises Johnson made that his new policies would lead to the revolutionary transformation of humankind itself. Johnson all but said the speech would prove to be a hinge moment in history. “In the future,” he declared, “men will look back and say: It was then, after a long and weary way, that man turned the exploits of his genius to the full enrichment of his life.” Pass his legislative agenda and the perfection of man would be assured.
Well, here we are. We are those very men and women of the future Johnson cited, more than half a century later. And rather than experiencing the full enrichment of our lives due to the workings of human genius, whaddaya know. We’re living our lives in a flawed but vibrant republic riven with anxiety—just as was the case in 1964. And we are coping with all the problems created by Johnson’s policy flourish—so much so that we often find it difficult if not impossible to acknowledge some of the glories they also helped produce.
If we look back at the Great Society and the headspinning claims Johnson made for it—how it would end poverty, rebuild cities, renew the countryside, bring about equality, end war, and ensure (in Johnson’s almost Marxian language) that “the meaning of our lives matches the marvelous products of our labor”—we see a hubristic belief in the healing powers of top-down change that even America’s most giddy progressives no longer share. Liberals often scoff at the conservative focus on the unintended consequences of policy, but progressives have also found themselves grappling with and trying to reverse the unintended consequences of large-scale social change. That’s why, for example, guerrilla groups made up of leftist lunatics have risen in Los Angeles and elsewhere to beat back the monstrous evil of…gentrification. Using semi-terrorist methods.
We know all too well, 54 years after Johnson’s speech, that privation and social conflict and even emotional dissatisfaction cannot be stilled and resolved through government action. It’s amazing to consider how many people thought they could be.
Now, however, we are in danger of falling short in helping to secure a more stable and prosperous future—because we cannot figure out how to argue the case for the things that truly must be done. What we need now is reform, not revolution. And the hard and necessary work of incremental reform now appears almost impossibly difficult to achieve precisely because it seeks not to change the world—which is easy to argue for—but avert disaster. Which is far less sexy.
Steering us away from the path of fiscal disaster due to the exponential growth of Great Society entitlement spending would be the most important domestic-policy achievement of our time. But it’s probably not going to happen because the only thing entitlement reform will achieve is the avoidance of a calamity. It’s the public-policy version of replacing your roof. It’s both modest and comprehensive. When you replace your roof, you are not participating in the full flowering of human genius. You are, instead, acting to ensure that at some future date, your roof won’t cave in.
The only pleasure you can take from that is the pleasure you take from being responsible. And we live in an age when Americans no longer experience the exercising of adult responsibilities as a source of quiet pleasure or existential satisfaction. The grandiosity of the promises Johnson made in 1964 played a part in that change—which might have been the worst unintended consequence of all.