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Unwinding the Long Great Society

Conservatives have far more to learn from FDR than to disdain.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882-1945), 32nd President of the United States of America 1933-1945, giving one of his 'fireside' broadcasts to the American nation during.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882-1945), 32nd President of the United States of America 1933-1945, giving one of his 'fireside' broadcasts to the American nation during. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

What do we mean when we talk about “big government”? Conservatives have railed against this enemy for generations, but it is striking how rarely we try to define the term.

The conservative movement was born in opposition to the New Deal and has thus historically oriented itself against the programs that emerged from that era. Social Security, our New Deal-era retirement system, is America’s biggest federal outlay by far. This makes it tempting to conflate “big government” with the government’s total fiscal footprint. Yet at least since Trump, conservatives have awoken to the folly of libertarian-inflected cuts to popular entitlement programs. While Medicare and Social Security have their problems, they are viewed by the public as earned benefits, and don’t represent what most conservatives intuitively mean by “big government” anyway.

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Alternatively, bigness could refer to the sheer scope of the federal government’s direct and indirect involvement in our daily lives. This gets closer to the mark. Most laws have no direct budgetary impact, and yet contribute to the growing thicket of bureaucratic regulation that interferes with our ability to build the lives we desire for ourselves and our families. Worst of all are those policies that aim at reshaping society according to some contested set of values.

Modern conservatives are thus better served by delineating the New Deal from what came after: the Great Society. Indeed, while President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society initiatives are typically seen as an extension of New Deal liberalism, they originated in an entirely distinct political economy. The political scientist Matt Grossman goes so far as to dub the era between 1961 and 1976 “the Long Great Society,” spanning four presidents, with LBJ merely being the most prominent.

The Long Great Society witnessed the enactment of hundreds of new policies that dramatically expanded the scope and responsibility of the federal government into every aspect of American life. Some of the reforms, like the enactment of Medicare, built directly off the Social Security Act and reflected the New Deal ethos of universal, contributory social insurance. The broader potpourri of new federal programs, however, worked quite differently. From education and the environment to the War on Poverty and urban renewal, dozens of ad hoc programs emerged that construed America’s social ills as scientific problems solvable by an enlightened technocratic elite. This was no accident.

While LBJ benefited from large congressional majorities, Grossman argues that the legislative productivity of the Great Society cannot be explained by political fundamentals alone. Rather, the success and durability of the Long Great Society is owed to the powerful governing network that took shape in the decades after World War II, and which persists to this day. With the support of private philanthropy, legal organizations, leftist academics, community action groups, and professional policy analysts, the ascendent governing network supplied lawmakers with the ideas, expertise, and coalition mobilization needed to both enact liberal social policies and staff their operations.

The policies in question were thus inevitably symbiotic with the elite class whose interests they represented. Consider the rise of rights-based liberalism and the legal aid movement. In the 1950s, the Ford Foundation began providing substantial patronage to the legal profession through grants to legal reform organizations, law schools, and legal fellowships. This buoyed the emerging generation of lawyers who had attained status by helping businesses navigate the post-New Deal legal order. Subsequently, as part of the War on Poverty, the federal government committed to providing low-income defendants with free legal aid through the Office of Economic Opportunity’s Legal Services Program. “In the process,” notes the political scientist Steven Teles, “the concept of legal aid changed from representing individual indigents to encouraging broad-based political and social change.”

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By 1968, the Legal Services Program employed over 2,000 lawyers and had an annual budget of $40 million—nearly eight times the combined budgets of all the legal aid societies in the U.S. from just three years prior. While legal aid may sound like a benign if not worthy cause, the service quickly became a strategic litigant in the service of an elite reform agenda. By amplifying the growing network of XYZ Law Centers, the Great Society thus propelled the efforts of social justice reformers to bring case after case to the Supreme Court in an effort to transform American society through the judiciary.

The rising influence of technocrats was not limited to the legal profession. With the Great Society, it bled into every aspect of social policy, bringing elites’ propensity for faddishness along with it. The New Careers for the Poor program provides a case in point. As the historian Claire Dunning writes:

In the 1960s, a new and popular theory of “new careers” proposed to address urban poverty and deindustrialization by growing the human services sector and hiring so-called nonprofessional workers to aid the delivery of those services. This strategy gained traction in social scientific, philanthropic, and bureaucratic circles and shaped Great Society legislation, which allocated federal grants to create entry-level jobs and professionalizing career ladders in the fields of health, education, and welfare.

Unfortunately, the program was an abject failure. Rather than promote professional development, notes Dunning, the “efforts produced dead-end positions that left the predominantly African American women hired as aides in poverty,” thereby entrenching urban racial stratification.

To this day, the U.S. federal government maintains 43 distinct employment and training programs, many of which are direct descendants from the Long Great Society. Consistent with the New Careers program, most—if not all—have been proven ineffective by rigorous evaluations, that is if they’ve been evaluated at all. That they persist is a direct testament to the political acumen of the Great Society’s reform strategy.

As Mancur Olson famously argued, policies with diffuse costs but concentrated benefits are liable to become entrenched over time, as the interest groups that benefit can more easily organize in their defense. Promoting the general interest, in contrast, requires institutions that incentivize group action and solve for the collective action problem facing the broader public.

The ad hoc nature of many Great Society-era programs was thus a feature, not a bug. By targeting public policies to narrow constituencies, reformers aimed to fortify their programs against repeal. “Interest group liberalism” was thus born, a term coined by the late political scientist Theodore J. Lowi in his famous 1969 critique of the clientelistic origins of the Great Society.

Clientelism has its downsides. Last year, an infant formula shortage swept the nation, leaving parents scrambling to find food to feed their babies. The proximate cause of the shortage was a contamination at Abbott, the manufacturer of Similac, along with the general supply-chain issues created by the pandemic. Yet our infant formula supply was only fragile in the first place due to the Women, Infants, and Children program, better known as WIC. WIC is a Great Society-era program created to reduce nutritional risk among low-income pregnant women. Participants receive vouchers to purchase infant formula at reduced prices, accounting for roughly half of all formula spending. In exchange, the manufacturer receives rebates along with an exclusive contract with the state.

The combination of a sympathetic constituency—low income pregnant women—and a strong, state-based special interest—the monopoly manufacturer—makes the program particularly durable, but at a cost. Monopolies face less competition, including when it comes to health and sanitation. WIC has also long been a conduit for social engineering, as policy elites in D.C. engage in perennial debates over ideal nutritional standards, the merits of breastfeeding, and other upper-class parenting anxieties.

It wasn’t always this way. After all, the New Deal gave rise to a genuinely universal program in Social Security, the most successful anti-poverty program the U.S. ever enacted. Why was such ambitious and broad-based reform possible then in a way that seems impossible now? A major reason is that, at the time, America’s political system still featured robust, member-driven political parties and labor organizations that cut across class and geography. As the sociologist Theda Skocpol notes:

From the Civil War through the post-World War II era, voluntary membership associations and the U.S. version of the modern welfare state were thoroughly intertwined... Civil society and government thus worked hand in hand to fashion and sustain America's version of the modern welfare state, which historically consisted of educational, veterans', and social insurance programs intended to extend opportunity and guarantee a modicum of security to millions of individuals and families. Popular social programs in the United States were never “welfare” handouts for the poor alone. They were inclusive benefits or services, exactly the kinds of government activities likely to be favored by massive voluntary federations that spanned places and bridged classes.

It was precisely those “massive voluntary federations” that enabled collective action in the general, rather than special, interest. The Great Society era, in contrast, marked a silent regime change, as private philanthropy and independent legal and advocacy networks usurped the organizational role once played by strong parties and labor federations. In its place emerged an ecosystem of professional nonprofit and activist organizations with the most tenuous connection to the populations they claim to represent.

The basic governing structures of the Great Society carry forward to the present day, from the unaccountable power of private philanthropy to the elite obsession over race at the expense of class. Take the Biden administration’s effort to enact a national child care program as part of its stillborn Build Back Better Act. The program was big in the fiscal sense, costing on the order of $400 billion in jerry-rigged tax credits, grants, and subsidies. But more importantly, the program would have set the stage for the de facto nationalization of the child care sector, pulling children out of home and family-based arrangements and into center-based care managed by credentialed professionals, the novel constituency that reformers had hoped would defend the policy in perpetuity had it come to pass.

President Joe Biden’s boosters fancied him the next FDR, but in perspective, he’s at best the faint echo of LBJ, a caretaker for the sclerotic and diffuse form of government his generation helped set into motion. That makes it all the more important for conservative opponents of big government to define their terms. Size matters, but it isn’t the only thing at play. Unwinding our mid-century technocracy, and the patronage systems that sustain it, should be the primary goal. It’s also one that conservatives have far more to learn from FDR than to disdain.

This article is part of the American System series edited by David A. Cowan and supported by the Common Good Economics Grant Program. The contents of this publication are solely the responsibility of the authors.

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