The Great Society: Lessons for the Future

By Eli Ginzberg; Robert M. Solow | Go to book overview

2
Economic policy and unemployment in the 1960's

EDMUND S. PHELPS

CERTAINLY it would be a mistake to interpret the experiments in governmental economic intervention made in the 1960's as a quantum change in the country's theory of the role of government or its attitudes toward inequality and redistribution. From the times of Bentham and Bismarck to the New Deal and Fair Deal there has been increasing government intervention on behalf of various groups, including those that are poor or disadvantaged. The policies and programs begun in the past decade, mainly during the Presidency of Lyndon Johnson, are another important episode in that history. My own guess is that, to the extent that the 1960's differ significantly from other periods of social change and experiment, they will be characterized by the widened assertion of various natural rights ahead of the public convenience, and even above equalitarian notions of fairness or "equity" in the distribution of economic benefits.

Whatever the 1960's were, the Great Society programs that were an important feature of them have since become the object of sweeping criticisms. Many of them are viewed as failures. There seems to be a diminished confidence in the effectiveness of the government generally to achieve its announced objectives and a heightened sense of the fallibility of the social knowledge, if any, that serves as the

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