Guest Essayist: J. Eric Wise, Partner at Gibson Dunn & Crutcher LLP, New York City

The Great Society Speech

President Lyndon Johnson delivered the Great Society speech at the University of Michigan in May of 1964. Superficially, the Great Society speech is a typical modern speech, an agenda of platitudinous and pragmatic goals. More deeply, the Great Society speech represents a dramatic rhetorical reorientation of the United States.

Ambitious American political speeches invoke the founding. And the Great Society Speech is no exception, alluding to the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration of Independence sets forth both the basis for the dissolution of government and the foundation of governmental authority. This is the political equality of human beings, particularly as they are endowed with inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Governments are instituted to protect these rights, deriving their just (or rightful) powers from the consent of the governed.

Johnson’s Great Society Speech transforms this. Johnson says, “The purpose of protecting the life of our Nation and the liberty of our citizens is to pursue the happiness of our people.” But the life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness Johnson referred to are not individual natural rights, they are collective rights. Life and liberty are not inalienable rights; they are conventional rights. In this new light, respect for these rights is compelling only as a means to an end, the “happiness of our people.”

According to Johnson, in the first half of the century “we called upon unbounded invention and untiring industry to create an order of plenty for our people.” Although the product of private enterprise, Johnson’s words “we called upon” recast the origin of the fruits of industry as directed by national authority. The Great Society, according to President Johnson, challenges Americans, through their national government, to “use that wealth to enrich and elevate our national life and to advance the quality of our American civilization.”

The audience at the University of Michigan must have felt some relief when the notoriously coarse Johnson said he did not “pretend that we have the full answer” to the qualities of an advanced civilization. Instead, Johnson flattered the gathering of academics, he would “assemble the best thought and the broadest knowledge from all over the world to find these answers for America.” The federal government, through “working groups” of assembled experts would hold meetings “on cities, on natural beauty, on the quality of education and other challenges.”

Federalism recedes before the Great Society. According to Johnson, the top down implementation of the findings of these experts would require new governmental structures, or at least new uses and constitutional understandings of existing governmental structures. Thus Johnson pledged that the federal government “will create new concepts of cooperation, a creative federalism, between the National Capital and the leaders of local communities.”

Most radically, the Great Society never ends. “It is,” Johnson said, “a challenge to be constantly renewed, beckoning us toward a destiny where the meaning our lives matches the marvelous products of our labor.” Johnson’s unspoken corollary is that the power required for the effort is likewise limitless.

The Great Society speech’s themes of technocracy guiding the transformation of ideas and, with it, the use of the material means of production parallel historicist (and Marxist-Leninist) themes in which history and revolution transform human ideology to change permanently the relationship of capital and labor and the citizen and the state. The Great Society Speech is both a conscious attempt to politically co-opt the growing radicalism of the ‘60s and an expression of progressive historicist thinking, widespread, then and now, in American elite opinion.

Johnson also invoked Aristotle, perhaps as a throwback for dissenters. Johnson noted that the city comes together for the sake of living but remains together for sake of living well. But for Aristotle the happiness of a people, or a city, is grounded not in an unfolding history but in an unchanging human nature. The perfection of this nature requires the city but is essentially individual. Health in the city exists to the extent that good citizenship is compatible with – and in fact requires – the individual exercise of the virtues, which radiate from practical wisdom. Aristotle’s good life is knowable, indeed is more or less known, not just to experts but to good people everywhere, at any time. This idea that sufficient knowledge of the good life is broadly possible is as much at the foundation of self-government as the idea of equality.

The Great Society has come and gone, but its legacy remains. The threads of historicism, the unending call for transformation, a future we cannot fully see but confidently know to be better, and the appeal to the authority of expertise as a substitute for political judgment, these are the bread, butter and jam of progressive rhetoric. Confidence in the benevolent rationality of history as opposed to the rationality of deliberate individuals is at the root of the claim recently made that a bill must be made law to know what is in it.

It is ironic that President Johnson gave his Great Society Speech just forty miles from the City of Detroit. In 1966, under the Great Societies’ Model Cities Program, Detroit, funded by massive federal Great Society grants totaling $490 million, leveled nine square miles of the city to build a new centrally planned “Model City.” No city received more Great Society central planning attention and money than Detroit. And today, Detroit is on the brink of the largest municipal bankruptcy in history.

Read Lyndon B. Johnson’s Remarks at the University of Michigan here:

J. Eric Wise is a partner at Gibson Dunn & Crutcher LLP in New York City.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013 

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