By Stephen Zierak

This lesson is taught by Dr. Kevin Portteus, Associate Professor of Politics at Hillsdale College, and faculty advisor for Washington Hillsdale Internship Program.  Dr. Portteus teaches courses in American political thought, and American political institutions.  He is also a visiting graduate faculty member at Ashland University.  Dr. Portteus’s book, Executive Details:  Public Administration and American Constitutionalism, is under review for publication.  He received his BA from Ashland University, his MA and PhD in Politics from the University of Dallas.  Those interested in seeing and hearing this lecture, or any of the others in the series may register at  There is no fee.

LBJ’s Great Society was the culmination of Progressive thought.  Wilson had argued that federal bureaucratic experts could address and solve modern problems faced by our citizens.  FDR had enacted programs of social justice, including federal regulation of the economy and money transfers to make economic outcomes more equal.  President Johnson had an even more ambitious goal for the administrative state.

In 1964, President Johnson delivered the Commencement Address at the University of Michigan.  He introduced the Great Society to the assembled students and to the nation:  “The Great Society is…a place where the city of man serves not only the needs of the body and the demands of commerce but the desire for beauty and the hunger for community.”  He meant it.  Government bureaucrats would not merely be ad hoc problem solvers.  In the tradition of Progressives like John Dewey, he believed that through state action we could remake our whole society by creating a perfect world in which humans would be transformed by designed uplift programs.  The phrase “city of man” was probably deliberately chosen.  The Founders believed that man and society were necessarily imperfect, and that utopian thought was dangerous to life and liberty.  Man could only find spiritual perfection on another plane, in the “city of God.”  But LBJ knew better.  “Will you join in the battle to build the Great Society, to prove that our material progress is only the foundation on which we will build a richer life of mind and spirit?  There are those timid souls who say this battle cannot be won; that we are condemned to a soulless wealth.  I do not agree.  We have the power to shape the civilization we want.”   So government has the knowledge, wisdom, and expert plans to remake our whole civilization for the betterment of all humanity.  The naïve nature of Progressive philosophy had never been so clearly on display.

The Great Society addressed the Progressive conception of racial justice and elimination of poverty.  It took a step beyond these, however, to also address spiritual longing for beauty and for community.  Let’s consider each element in turn.

From LBJ’s Commencement Address at Howard University in 1965

“In far too many ways American Negroes have been another nation:  deprived of freedom, crippled by hatred, the doors of opportunity closed to hope….But freedom is not 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….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.”  

Here was John Dewey’s distinction between the formal legal right to do something, and the effective ability to make it happen.  It was not enough to protect your freedom to pursue opportunities in your own way, based on your interests, abilities and efforts.  No, there were certain people that required special government treatment because of past impediments suffered by them or their group.  This idea was fathered by Progressive demands for a rough equality of outcomes.  And this speech was the source of affirmative action, and of a resulting “soft bigotry of low expectations” that was later identified by President Bush.  The Great Society would promulgate a massive state intervention into “equality as a result,” and establish government institutions, such as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, that would direct the intervention.  Since everyone’s life conditions are different from everyone else’s, the logical conclusion of such thinking leads to special favors from government for all manner of preferred persons and groups.  The Founders understood this danger.

While delivering equality of result at the stroke of a legislation signing pen, the Great Society would also dedicate itself to the total eradication of poverty in America.  FDR had addressed economic needs in programs such as AFDC, Social Security, and housing assistance, providing people with money to deal with their immediate problems.  LBJ wanted to build on these efforts, but go beyond them to attack the sources of poverty.  We would continue to treat the symptoms, but, more importantly, we would attack poverty at its source in community development efforts.  New programs would improve education, provide aid to distressed areas, stimulate community action efforts, and provide national coordination (through the Office of Economic Opportunity) of plans to end poverty. For the first time in human history we had the resources and expert knowledge to eliminate what had always been an immutable part of the human condition.  All we needed was the will to reject the selfishness and concern for individual success that had characterized us in the past, and move forward to employ our bountiful economic resources to serve the common good.  Like FDR, LBJ believed the necessitous man could not be free.  The Progressive understanding of freedom was that man must be liberated from the constraints of economic necessity.  This was quite a different view than that of the Founders, who believed freedom allowed men to deal with necessity, which is always with us, in ways of one’s own choosing, employing talents and efforts to achieve something better.  Man was free from political constraints, and protected from the threats of predators, to pursue his vision of happiness. To the Progressives, happiness was to be delivered to man, powerless on his own, by beneficent government action.

Yet racial justice and the eradication of poverty was not enough.  There was a spiritual aspect to the city of man that required tending by the federal government.  The Great Society would be a place where men would be more concerned about the quality of their goals than the quantity of their goods.  There would be three pillars of the Great Society efforts to transform civilization as we had known it.

First, we must bring beauty and community to our cities.  The Community Action Program would foster a sense of community, and the Community Action Councils would be empowered to decide how to employ federal funds in their neighborhoods.  State and local officials were to be bypassed to achieve an odd combination of participatory democracy and top down bureaucracy.  Other programs would address historical preservation, urban and suburban planning, architectural consistency, parks and other natural space.  Our cityscapes must bring joy, not depression, to residents and visitors.

Second, we must improve the countryside and the environment in general.  We must go beyond the wise use and land management of the old conservation, and create a conservation of restoration and innovation.  We must enhance man’s access to beauty, an essential to the quality of life.  So let us plant flowers on the desolate concrete highways.  And let us attack pollution, a destroyer of both beauty and health.  We will establish minimum exhaust standards for vehicles, effective quality standards for our water and our air, and extend the ban on DDT to other pesticides.  This statement of the goal occurred years before the formation of the EPA, and before the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act.  Those laws and institutions emerged later as a result of LBJ’s environmental vision.

Third, we must find ways to improve education and expand educational opportunity.  Programs would include more aid to primary and secondary education, Head Start, targeted aid to low income districts, project grants to states, regional educational laboratories for teacher training.  All of these ideas came to pass.  LBJ outlined the educational bureaucracy apparatus that has come to our K-12 education.  The way kids have learned for centuries was not good enough.  We needed new math, and whole language, and any number of other educational “improvements.”  Higher education was now a necessity of modern life, so there would be programs for work/study, federal student loans, regulation of private student loans (recently taken over by the federal government), and direct aid to educational institutions.  The Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 created the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (public/private funding agency) so some part of television would be dedicated to public enlightenment.  When President Johnson signed that act, he said, “Today our problem is not making miracles—but managing miracles.”

From the perspective of some fifty years, we might ask whether the Great Society either made or managed miracles.  We can smile at the naïve utopianism that permeated every speech of those times.  Less humorous is what the ideas of the Great Society meant to the conduct of government.  The Great Society was a logical outcome of Progressivism.  It went a step beyond the New Deal in its celebration of government’s responsibility and competence to remake our whole civilization.  President Obama’s “You didn’t build that” is the perfect summary of the Progressive belief that the individual can’t do anything without the resources and expertise of a centralized bureaucracy standing by him.  It is government that will build a fair society, that will transform our people, that will perfect civilization.  It is, then, also the government that will have to define happiness for us and impose it on us through compulsion.

The Founders understood that government attempts to provide happiness, rather than simply create conditions freeing us to pursue our own visions of it, was an elusive and impossible goal that could only end in tyranny.  As President Reagan often said, “A government big enough to give you anything you want is big enough to take everything you have.”  Not only your material goods, but also your spiritual autonomy.


Stephen Zierak, CPCU/ARM, graduated from Boston University with a BA in Political Science in 1969.  After a forty year career in property casualty insurance underwriting, Mr. Zierak retired as a Vice President of Swiss Re America in 2010.  At that time, he relocated to Hawaii, a move he had always wanted to make, but had delayed due to lack of appropriate professional opportunities here.  Mr. Zierak plans to continue his studies in Political Science, never really abandoned even during his professional career, and to write on matters of public policy.  Recently, he produced for Grassroot Institute summaries of Hillsdale’s ten part internet course on our Constitution.  Stephen Zierak is married to the love his life, Teodora, and they reside in Honolulu.



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