A reasonable function of government is to see to it that the conditions of life are tolerable. In modern societies this might involve considerable government intervention, to prevent or remedy social and physical evils, like urban poverty, exploitation of labor, traffic congestion, air pollution. But such a safeguarding function is entirely different from government trying to make life excellent, to make society moral, civilized, or magnificent. Intellectual or moral excellence is not a likely province for rulers of any breed, and certainly not for American politicians who have risen to power by speaking banalities, making deals, and pandering, and who stay in power by avoiding the risks of sharp definition, imagination, scrupulous integrity, or even too much wit. Political arts have their use, but they are not the way to spiritual excellence.
Yet the last three administrations have kept dabbling in this direction. President Eisenhower, who was hardly literate, ordered a commission to map our National Goals, and under him government agencies began to improve the school curricula and speed up intervention in scientific research. John Kennedy, who was stylish and had academic connections, called us to service and he wanted us to be respected for our civilization as well as our military and economic power. He was a champion of art centers, neo-glassic architecture, and concerts at the White House; above all, he speeded up the harnessing of academic social sciences to government policy. And now Lyndon Johnson, who is culturally noted for monograms and driving fast, is going to inaugurate for us The Great Society.
I do not think this was only a campaign slogan. Even if it were, we must note the change in slogans. “Fair Deal” and “New Deal” used to refer to political economy and were a legitimate bid for votes; “New Frontier” and “Great Society” are more spiritual. (Barry Goldwater, correspondingly, threatened to restore us to Moral Order.) In any case, the President has carried his slogan over into 1965, and when his oblique eyes become dreamy and his voice avuncular on the theme of our future greatness, I am insulted by his pretension.
Do not misunderstand me. When the President speaks of trying to dissolve hard core poverty, assuring equal rights, opening to every child the opportunity for an education, or coping with the blight of cities, I assent. (It is said that this populist strain in LBJ is authentic, and I hope so.) But that is not the program of a great society but of any decent society. It should be urged modestly and executed resolutely. There is no cause for fanfare in doing justice where we have been unjust, conserving where we have been vandals, and spending for neglected public goods what a small country like Denmark or Holland provides as a matter of course.
But the fact is that every element of The Great Society, including its war on poverty and its conservation, is contaminated by, compromised by, and finally determined by power lust, greed, and fear of change. No …
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