The failure of the great society By Cliff Grubbs Austin Just when the decline of the great society passed the point of no return is difficult to say. Despair and hope; decay and revitalizationthese dialectical twins are always intimately interlaced during the closing years of a social epoch. Maybe if only a few important things had gone differently, the final outcome would have taken a somewhat different turn. During its high noon the great society could boast one of the most powerful economic and military organizations the world had ever known. Its army was the best equipped in history. Its navies controlled the seas. And its average standard of living was for a time the highest in the world. There seemed to be nothing the great society could not do, no idea too bold to try, no technological project beyond the genius of its engineers. How did it all come apart? What produced the failure of the great society? How did it happen? * * * * Some writers believe the decline of the great society actually began with the growth of a massive bureaucracy that slowly drained the life of the economy. Laws, regulations, price and wage controlsthere seemed to be no end to itslowly strangled the economic colossus and produced a plague of administrators and lawyers. Others have laid the blame on the federal tax system. They say that taxable economic production was penalized and that political corruption, malfeasance in high office, and tax evasion among the upper classes were institutionalized. Conversely, it is also said that the tax burden on business activity began to choke the profit margin, the social engine of economic growth. The demands of the military, public works, the welfare system, and the massive bureaucracy itself eventually absorbed the lion’s share of the national product. Adopting a somewhat longer point of view, other writers say the older capitalist spirit was more gradually eroded by war, uncertainty, and a depletion of natural resources. Still others hold that the die was finally cast by runaway inflation and economic stagflation. Of course, very strict wage and price controls were eventually imposed by the state, and much of the private sector was nationalized. But all that proved to be an economic failure. The farmers and the union members revolted and, in time, yet more severe measures were imposed by the state. Even the welfare system for the poor eventually became a form of riot insurance in the cities. Of course, by this time the well-to-do had already abandoned the cities, building homes and villas in the suburbs where they dug swimming pools and surrounded themselves with consumer Among the educated classes there was also a flight from public service, a retreat from responsibility and worry. Sensing the brief span of their own years and their personal inability to change the outcome, the educated, the gifted, and the hopeful gradually abandoned the sinking ship. So the incompetent, the lazy, and the uncivil servants began to swell the ranks of the bureaucracy. Nor did the ranks of the once powerful military organization escape the widening disintegration of the older political order. Returning from lost or indecisive wars, the soldiers were no longer cheered as in older times; while the generals, facing enemies on every front, could not bring decisive power to bear at any point. The ranks of the military were slowly filled by minority groups and the poor who had no economic stake in defending the older regime. Meanwhile, outside the great society, testing the col= ossus, probing its national resolve, striking on one frontier and then another, the enemies of the great society slowly began to realize that it was rotting from within. Not that the generals and the diplomats failed to do what they could abroad. Subsidies, bribes, and annual tributes were paid to strong men and petty rulers in ransom of their temporary favors. An older enemy was pitted against a newer one; alliances and pacts were formed; assassinations were planned. Every instrument of modern diplomacy was used. But none of it worked in the end. The internal exhaustion of its natural resources; the revolt of its military clients and economic colonies; the spread of internal disorder and the murder of its own leadersall that over a course of years proved to be too much for the great society. Maybe the big athletic games in the stadiums filled with cheering citizens were the last victories of the older patriotic order. Maybe what the older regime had lost in power it tried to relive through the games. However that may or may not be, the older creative elites were gone and the common person had no respect for their social counterfeit. An epoch was finished. So, weary and disillusioned like the rest, uncertain about the future, and intellectually tired, many thinkers of the great society abandoned their older gods and turned toward a new Eastern religious cult teaching peace on earth and good will toward the barbarians.. . This short sketch of the decline of the Roman Empire covers a period of about 250 years, roughly from the death of Marcus Aurelius to the invasion of Rome by the Goths in the year 410. The Diocletian period of price and wage controls, nationalization, and suppression of the farmers and the unions falls about halfway between Marcus and the Goths. Some of the human reactions described above reached their extreme forms during the terminal devastation after 410. However, as late as the year 372, the year the Huns crossed the Volga, eventually pushing the Goths before them toward Rome, there were 175 holidays a year in the city: 64 at the circus, ten replete with gladiatorial contests, and the rest with shows, fun, and the theaters. It could never be said that the original homo consumens failed in their duty toward modern writers who see the ghost of Rome in the “next 25 years” for the United States. But let us hope not. Let us rather hope that amidst the real crises which now lie ahead of this great society, we can still preserve the essential propositions of the human estate. Let us hope that we can move on toward a workable, multi-racial society in which many of the cruelties of this one have been overcome. Let us trust that amidst the social torment of the next 25 years, we can seed a creative period in American historythat out of the anger will come a greater wisdom of ourselves. Cliff Grubbs, professor of economics and director of the freshman economics program that teaches 9,00b students a year at the University of Texas at Austin, has won more awards for teaching excellence than can here be recited. THE TEXAS OBSERVER 71
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