Amity Shlaes To Shapiro: The ‘Good Parts’ Of The Great Society Didn’t Cost Much Money

On this week’s episode of “The Ben Shapiro Show: Sunday Special,” Amity Shlaes, author of “The Great Society: A New History,” sat down with The Daily Wire editor-in-chief to talk about where President Lyndon Johnson’s domestic legislation went right, and where it went wrong. 

During the conversation, Shapiro remarks that in the 1960’s there was a belief that “if we just engage in massive government redistributionist schemes and major government involvement,” poverty can be cured. 

“The good parts of The Great Society weren’t the ones that cost so much money, such as the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, which came after it,” said Shales, who mentions the history of African American disenfranchisement in Mississippi and laws preventing equal access to lunch counters across the South. 

“Those things were not expensive,” she said of the legislative solutions. “They were emotionally expensive and politically charged, but they were not expensive because they were rights of freedom — what’s sometimes known as negative rights — which is rights about your individual, not that to which you are entitled, which is a positive right.”

After passing civil rights legislation, Shlaes contends that Johnson embarked on domestic programs to end poverty, and in the course of doing so, shifted his justification from providing opportunity to providing entitlements. 

“First he said that was all about opportunity — less expensive — then he said it was about what one is owed — very expensive,” said Shlaes, who remarks that this shift became apparent in a speech the president gave at Howard University.

The speech, a commencement address in 1965, was titled “To Fulfill These Rights,” and features the president arguing to the university’s graduating class that equality of opportunity is no longer enough. 

You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, “you are free to compete with all the others,” and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.

Thus it is not enough just to open the gates of opportunity. All our citizens must have the ability to walk through those gates.

This is the next and the more profound stage of the battle for civil rights. We seek not just freedom but opportunity. We seek not just legal equity but human ability, not just equality as a right and a theory but equality as a fact and equality as a result.

After recounting Johnson’s example of putting someone at the starting line of a race, Shlaes told Shapiro that the idea “we need to help people all along until they’re ready to compete with others” prompted the beginning of “massive spending in all areas.”

“It led to affirmative action that we have still with us today, but many other projects that did the opposite of enfranchisement,” said Shlaes, who argues that these spending policies “disenfranchised” people by making them dependent on “welfare-like programs.”

“I mention food stamps and sometimes people attack that,” said Shlaes, who clarifies that “there’s nothing wrong with a poor family sometimes receiving food stamps,” but that there is “something sick about for the family mostly for the family expecting it will always be on food stamps, and it’s children will and it’s grandchildren will. And that’s sort of what we’ve created.”

“The Great Society basically just increased and increased commitments for spending, made some very interesting legal shifts,” said Shlaes, noting that benefits, which were once viewed as a form of “charity from the government,” came to be viewed as a form of “property” or “entitlement” after the Supreme Court case Gold v Kelly (1970). 

“That’s a weird idea,” Shlaes told Shapiro. “Why should people be entitled to payments that cost someone else? Because when you spend for one person to get entitlement property, a benefit, you’re taking away someone else’s property.”


The Daily Wire, headed by bestselling author and popular podcast host Ben Shapiro, is a leading provider of conservative news, cutting through the mainstream media’s rhetoric to provide readers the most important, relevant, and engaging stories of the day. Get inside access to The Daily Wire by becoming a member.  

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