The Liberal Hour

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The ’60s: Once Upon an Optimistic Time, by Barry Gewen, Book Review, NY Times: …“The Liberal Hour” by G. Calvin Mackenzie and Robert Weisbrot … [contends that t]oo many historians who write about the 1960s … have focused on the decade’s very visible rebellions and disruptions — all that sex, all those drugs, all that rock ’n’ roll.

What is often ignored, they say, is the hard work of little-known politicians and bureaucrats who were methodically creating a ’60s revolution from within. … Senators and congressmen … were permanently transforming the country with a tsunami of social and economic legislation.

Granted, it’s more fun to read about Abbie Hoffman than about Edmund Muskie, but … their overall argument is a valuable corrective to a lot of hackneyed thinking about the significance of the ’60s.

The “liberal hour” lasted only a few years, from 1963 to 1966, from the final days of John F. Kennedy’s presidency through the first three years of Lyndon B. Johnson’s, but in that brief period of time came two civil rights acts…; …Medicare and Medicaid; pioneering environmental laws; education and immigration bills; stronger protections for consumers; a host of antipoverty programs, including food stamps and Head Start; new federal departments of transportation and housing and urban development; and other reform measures, literally hundreds. Washington hadn’t seen such legislative energy since the New Deal.

If it was poverty and want that drove the New Deal, it was prosperity that provided the momentum for the ’60s, and with it the confidence to take on any challenge. “In the early years of the 1960s,” Mr. Mackenzie and Mr. Weisbrot write, “national optimism reached epidemic levels.” Inspired by Kennedy’s rhetoric and Johnson’s acumen, hundreds of inside-the-Beltway role players set about to change their country and the world. …

[I]t seemed that liberals would be on top for a very long time…, even a liberal century. Yet their moment quickly passed. … What happened?

It’s not a question that lends itself to easy answers, but … they come up with a powerful one: liberal overreaching. During the ’60s liberals were certain they could solve any problem — at home or abroad — with the right expertise, appropriate government policies, the application of reason and gobs of money.

“Do we have or can we develop a knowledge of human social relations that can serve as the basis of rational, ‘engineering’ control?” the eminent sociologist Talcott Parsons asked. “The answer is unequivocally affirmative.” Officials puffed up with a sense of their own omnipotence spoke of a “world New Deal.” Johnson himself exclaimed: “We’re the richest country in the world, the most powerful. We can do it all.”

Such arrogance led directly into the mire and jungles of Vietnam, the prime example of liberal overreaching… Suddenly, Americans were being called upon to make sacrifices, not only of money but also of blood, sacrifices that seemed endless.

It was little better at home. The legislation of the liberal hour was supposed to end poverty, heal racial divisions. Yet all at once, the cities were going up in flames. The primary beneficiaries of liberal largesse, it seemed, were ungrateful for the assistance, while Democratic leaders looked helpless in the face of riots and rising crime. Great Society solutions weren’t working, and so voters turned elsewhere.

“By 1966,” Mr. Mackenzie and Mr. Weisbrot report, “more than half of northern whites had come to believe that government was pushing too fast for integration.”

Johnson had come to grief because, to use Mr. Mackenzie and Mr. Weisbrot’s word, he had “overpromised.” Not every problem had a solution. Reasoning together didn’t work in the urban ghettos or the Mekong Delta. “The Liberal Hour” presents itself as a book about the brilliant legislative legacy of the ’60s, but by the end it has become a book about the legacy of the Johnson administration’s failings….

More optimistic than most of his optimistic countrymen, more confident and overbearing too, Johnson seemed incapable of understanding the virtues of skepticism and caution, the wisdom of pessimism. He never appreciated the limits of good intentions, especially his own. Like many a tragic hero, Johnson was brought down by hubris. And Democrats, Mr. Mackenzie and Mr. Weisbrot tell us, are still paying the price.

Have we just been through a period of “conservative overreaching”? Andrew Samwick quotes Warren Coats on the swing back to the left:

The Death of the Right?: As public sentiment swings back to the left what the public wants (domestically), I think, are largely free but better regulated markets and a better social safety net (health care and pensions). Those like me who think that too much regulation stifles beneficial market innovation and worry about the work incentive stiffing effects of excessive or poorly designed safety nets need to take note of these sentiments. The freedom for me to lead my life largely as I choose and to enjoy the fruits of my labor depends heavily on the willingness of my neighbors (fellow citizens and residents) to accept those rules of the game. Our society functions as it does because of a broad social consensus on the rules of public behavior. This consensus rests in part on each player’s confidence that if he fails there is a safety net that makes it worth his taking the risk of playing. We need to compromise what we consider first best for society (and Republicans and Democrats tend to differ on what this is) to the extent needed to preserve that broad consensus.

He goes on to say:

Congressman Barney Frank, Chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, epitomizes the best of the new left wing reaction to the Reagan Revolution. Frank is fully aware of the virtues of the market … and the need to get the incentives right, but insists that market excesses and rough edges should be removed with limited and well focused regulation. His collaboration with Republican Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson to fashion a Housing Rescue and Foreclosure Prevention Law enjoyed sufficient bipartisan support to gain the President’s signature on July 30. The bill’s many provisions were generally sensitive to moral hazard problems and market incentives… There were things for both Republicans and Democrats to like and to dislike in this bill.[8]

Frank is a pragmatist who is willing to sacrifice his version of “the best” for “the good.” He sees a major victory for his preference for limited, market friendly regulations in the Federal Reserve’s new rules (Regulation Z – Truth in Lending) to prohibit “unfair, abusive or deceptive home mortgage lending practices.” … These are not the sentiments of a wild eyed socialist and this is not a return to the heavy handed economic (as apposed to prudential) regulations of the 50s and 60s when government regulated, e.g., capital flows and interest rates on bank deposits. When asked why congress refuses to pass the no brainer free trade treaty with Columbia, which Frank has visited several times, he replied that “it has nothing to do with Columbia, nor the failure to recognize the benefits of trade. No trade liberalization deal will be passed by this Congress until more attention is given to compensating the losers. And don’t forget that today when someone losses their job, they also loss their health insurance.”[12]

For the next few years, maybe even a decade, until the next swing back in the political center, we can expect more regulation and more extensive safety nets. If we collaborate with market friendly Democrats like Frank, we can not only fix some of the genuine deficiencies with existing arrangements, but we can probably prevent some of the worst excesses of the over extension of government, until it is our turn again. …

Would health care reform guaranteeing universal coverage be considered one of “the worst excesses of the over extension of government”? The “brilliant legislative legacy of the ’60s” produced important programs that are still with us today. If Obama wins the election, I’m not too worried about overreaching, I more worried about Democrats not reaching far enough.

Originally published at Economist’s View and reproduced here with the author’s permission.