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The Best of Intentions: The Triumph and Failure of the Great Society Under Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon

Author(s):Unger, Irwin
Reviewer(s):Ziliak, Stephen

Published by EH.NET (October 1998)

Irwin Unger, The Best of Intentions: The Triumph and Failure of the Great

Society Under Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon New York: Doubleday, 1996. 366

pp. $27.95 (cloth), ISBN: 0-385-46833-4

Reviewed for EH.NE T by Stephen Ziliak, Department of Economics, Bowling Green

State University.

The middle class reader is disarmed here by a gentle story about the

Great Society, a story which attempts to fill the reader with the quiet

satisfaction, however mellow, that something worked. The middle class reader

merges easily with a traffic of words, traveling in a pathos fit for the first

day of Spring in the opening pages of Irwin Unger’s The Best of Intentions:

The Triumph and Failure of the Great Society Under Kennedy,

Johnson and Nixon. The Great Society, Unger says plainly, made life more

“pleasant” (p. 9). The legacy of the Great Society is good for middle class

Americans. Unger has designs on easy listening, but the subtext is more

Springsteen than Kenny G.

Since the early 1980s, the typical way to begin a book about the

Great Society is to exhort with fists pounding that Americans have been

“losing ground” since Johnson waged a War on Poverty. Another way to begin a

book on the Great Society (less typical, though increasingly common) is to

emphasize with feminist and racial concerns–a la Frances Fox Piven,

Richard Cloward, and Linda Gordon–the post-Reagan attack on whatever gains the

War on Poverty made for welfare rights and the amelioration of poverty.

But Unger chooses the road less traveled. Unger’s book about the Great Society

begins by naming the good effects the Great Society had on the lives of the

educated middle classes.

The Best of Intention s opens with Unger and his wife driving

cross-country on a clean highway in a car fit with mandatory seat belts and

collapsible steering columns, listening to classical music and “intelligent

interviews” on National Public Radio (even from rural location s), stopping at

“well-equipped public rest stops” (p. 9), and taking in some nature,

such as they did at Assateague Island, in Virginia, a seashore preserve.

“The Great Society of the 1960s has left its mark on the land,” says Unger.

But Unger’s idea of “mark” is not what readers in the 1990s have come to

expect. Says Unger: “The Great Society . . . made our trip pleasanter and

safer” (p. 9). In other

words, by contrast with Charles Murray’s metaphor

“losing ground,” The Best of Intentions is positively cheery about the

ground that America has gained with the Great Society. Unger is cheery not

about the effects of welfare on the markets and morals of the poor (indeed,

on this judgment Unger is relatively quiet). Instead, Unger celebrates the

achievements of the Great Society which were designed with intent for the

middle classes. It’s not his only point.

Unger’s emphasis on the worth of human beings who find themselves

middle class is refreshing. The middle class, now that it has come in to the

view of historians after a hundred-year eclipse, is still ignored catholicity

in positive assessments of American culture. It’s all

“spectacle” and “gaze” at the fin-de-siecle. Thus it is notable, too, that

Unger includes the values and the practices of the middle classes in the

social welfare function when he evaluates the many programs of the Great

Society–including the War on Poverty. Unfortunately, The Best of

Intentions devotes little space to an articulation of the author’s chief

and boldest argument: that the programs of the Great Society which “worked

best” were in fact the programs designed for the benefit of the educated middle

classes (pp. 10, 366).

Unger devotes most of his formidable energies documenting the policy

processes which gave rise to the big budget items of the Great Society:

Medicare, federal aid to education, and the War on Poverty. Here,

Unger is particularly strong in archival detail and in administrative scope,

chasing Presidential and Congressional paper trails across the nation’s

depositories of oral history. Unger is also a patient teacher of the sometimes

painful formulation and design of the Great Society programs–from VISTA to

Head Start to the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The main problem with the book as policy history is that Unger

engages in an unarticulated rhetoric of economic and policy performance. It is

difficult to discern what standards are being used by Unger to evaluate the

programs that “work best.” For example

, Unger seems to write without irony: “The Economic Opportunity Act was sound,

[Sargent] Shriver told the legislators; the country would get a dollar’s value

for a dollar spent” (p.

86). That expected rate-of-return, it seems to Shriver and to Unger,

re presented what Shriver called “the best thinking in the nation on this

subject” (p. 86). According to Unger, the Economic Opportunity Act “sought to

change the poor . . . The proposed bill provided modest amounts of seed money

to enable the poor to acquire the skills, motivation, and attitudes they

needed to better cope with the existing economic rules of the game”

(p. 86). Unger’s main criticism of the bill is for its failure to promise a

massive transfer of income to the nation’s poor. The point here

is that Unger does not consider his own standards for how any policy could

“work best:” Sargent Shriver’s standard for investment, the textbook government

rule of TR=TC, does not–despite the intention to build skills among the

poor–promise growth in GD P. It is not clear in this chapter or in others for

what purposes a simple, massive transfer of income to the poor–if politically

feasible–would “work” well for both taxpayers and recipients.

Unger is not alone, of course, in being ambiguous

about performance standards in economic policy. The work is not cliometric: it

is an older style of policy history, pre-cliometric, pre-critical theory.

But a stated commitment to quantification or theory would not alone be

sufficient for improving Unger

‘s policy analysis. (Witness the abuse of tests of statistical significance,

even in the top journals of economics.)

What Unger is reaching for but not attaining is a language for valuing

improvements in the “quality,” not merely the “quantity,” of life.

Unger credits Johnson’s speech-writer, the Harvard-educated Richard Goodwin,

for putting a quality-of-life agenda in the mind of Johnson (p. 17). But Unger

himself has not decided how to evaluate quality of life as a policy variable or

as a way of bein g. Unger’s use of the term “quality of life”

is reserved for the middle classes–for Johnson’s middle class intellectuals,

who seem to inspire Unger, the quality-of-life agenda was about getting more

“Athens” and “Florence” and less sprawl of kitsch and

spiritless suburbia (p. 17). In The Best of Intentions, “quality of

life” does not seem to be an object of concern when evaluating policy directed

at those who lack severely in the quantity” of life. In fact in the epilogue

Unger leans against the project of making quality distinctions altogether,

yielding ground to the neoclassical economic (or philosophical emotivist) idea

that there is no arguing about tastes. Here, Unger suggests that if Americans

want to buy more Heater Meals and less health car e–and GDP is growing–

so be it (p. 364). Yet Unger’s main point is that Americans ought to

discriminate quality from quantity, and that was the good of the Great Society.

Americans should want less Kenny G in the elevators and more symphony in the

city parks, so be it.

Historians of social welfare divide over the perceived need to say

that some reform movement came mostly “from above” or mostly “from below.” In

some arenas the division is hardly perceptible. It is widely agreed, for

example, that the Charity Organization Movement of the late nineteenth

century– the first widespread attempt to privatize and organize

“welfare” in America–came from the enterprise of the white and Protestant

middle classes. Historians of the War on Poverty

are not in agreement, and the division–in a world in which the simple binary

top/down is toggled obsessively–has important consequences for how one goes

about policy and reform. The thesis of reform-from-below is found mostly on

the political left. “T he disagreement is not merely an academic squabble,”

says Unger.

“It is an issue that separates two models of America’s social essence” (p.

49). Yes, historically speaking, as perceived. But it might be better to

think of the division this way: The disagreement is not merely an academic

squabble. It is an issue that separates two models of America’s social


Says Unger, “[on] the whole I believe the top-down view more

persuasive” (p. 50). “The top-down perspective identifies antipoverty

initiatives as the work of liberal technocrats in the Kennedy-Johnson White

House” and of other “top layer” bureaucrats and academics (p. 50). In Unger’s

story of movements for reform in the 1960s, the credit goes to the likes of

Daniel Patrick Moynih an, the economists Walter Heller and Robert Lampman, the

speech-writer Richard Goodwin, the HEW’s Alice Rivlin. There can be no doubt

that these and many other “liberal technocrats” did the thinking and the

policy-writing for the War on Poverty. But Unger, using his own words, seems

to force the conclusion that “America’s social essence” in the 1960s was one in

which reform could have only come from the top; or, perhaps, though less

likely, Unger is concluding that the top is simply the proper location

for reform.

Yet it is plausible to think that Unger’s conclusion has been forced

not by his preferred model of America’s social essence. Unger’s conclusion

that the reforms of the 1960s were top-down may be forced by his preferred

model of American social science. The way Unger views the material of history

is itself top-down. Unger is not a builder of rational-choice models but he

borrows its top-down, policy-driven, and behaviorist rhetorics. Unger is an

empiricist but he examines the movements of the Sixties–community action

programs, “ghetto unrest,” the theater of Baraka–through the lens of

journalists, top-layer bureaucrats,

and liberal technocrats. In other words, Unger does not examine the rise of

anti-poverty initiatives by examining first-person stories and micro-level

practices of the nation’s welfare recipients, welfare rights activists, local

bureaucrats, and so forth. Unger does not examine the ways in which local

inspirations–even neighborhood events–might have gathered

steam from other localities, shaping from the bottom-up what look to be a

passing storm of “federal initiatives.” The top-down model of America’s social

science is shaping the top-down understanding of America’s social essence.

The general weak ness or absence of an explicit theoretical or

critical posture is what will turn many readers away from The Best of

Intentions. The Great Society made its mark on the land, but there were

apparently no women involved. (The author is explicit in his omission of race

and of civil rights [p. 10].) For this reader, Unger’s archival treasures are

material for testing important critical work on economic policy, such as that

which is to be found in Albert Hirschman’s The Rhetoric of Reaction

(Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1991) and in Robert Higgs’ Crisis and

Leviathan (New York: Oxford University Press,

1987). Hirshman’s “jeopardy thesis” needs Higgs’ “ratchet effect,” and the

fusion would surely illuminate The Best of Intentions. Unger is at his

best when his verbal analysis of post-program achievements is tightly woven

with a narrative of program intentions: this is easily witnessed in Unger’s

excellent summary of the Job Corps (p. 178).

The Best of Intentions is at its worst when it attempts to characterize

the behind-the-scenes lives of Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon,

sounding at times more like an Arts and Entertainment column than a history

with an ear to morals and manners.

But if Unger has not opened the conversation he has

surely–in his emphasis on the middle class–made an important contribution to

the way in which historians will view the triumphs and the failures of the

Great Society. The middle class matters. Thanks to Unger’s work, observers of

the Great Society will be challenged to add to the balance sheet a Sesame

Street and a theater and a well-equipped rest area for each ill-conceived

community action program and long-term welfare case.

Stephen Ziliak Department of Economics Bowling Green State University

Stephen Ziliak authored, with Deirdre McCloskey, “The Standard Error of

Regressions” (Journal of Economic Literature, March 1996). Ziliak’s

current research is on the economic history of welfare and charity in the

United States. His work on the privatization of welfare has appeared in

The Independent Review and Quarterly Review of Economics and


Ziliak is guest editor of a forthcoming issue of Social Science History

on voluntarism and the welfare state, and he is a co-editor of the millennial

edition of Historical Statistics of the United States: Colonial Times to the

Present (Cambridge University Press).

Subject(s):Economic Planning and Policy
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII