From the Editors of National Review, The Fifty Year War.
Trillions of dollars have been spent, and the number of Americans living in poverty is higher today than it was in 1964, while the poverty rate has held steady at just under one in five. That contrasts unpleasantly with the trend before President Johnson declared his war: The poverty rate had been dropping since the end of World War II. That progress came to a halt as President Johnson’s expensive and expansive vision began to be implemented in earnest, which coincided with the tapering of the postwar boom. By the 1970s, the poverty rate was headed upward. It declined a bit during the Reagan years, crested and receded again in the 1990s, and resumed its melancholy ascent around the turn of the century.
For all its shortcomings, and they were many, the New Deal was enacted in response to a genuine economic crisis—the Great Depression. The Great Society was launched under very different circumstances: Between the end of World War II and President Johnson’s declaration of war on poverty, the real economic output of the United States had doubled. The postwar boom was not destined to last forever, because the war-ravaged nations of Europe and Asia inevitably would reemerge as global economic competitors, but in the early 1960s the United States enjoyed a position of unprecedented economic advantage. The real challenge of the Johnson years, tragically overlooked, was figuring out how to build upon that position and consolidate those gains. Unfortunately, what got consolidated was political power, as Johnson and his progressive allies did what progressives always do: transfer wealth, power, and responsibility from the private sector to the public sector, where they can be put under the political discipline of men such as Johnson and his allies.
However well intentioned the War on Poverty may have been, at some point there should be some measurement of its success. It has been a political success for bureaucrats who draw big salaries to run these programs and deliver votes and campaign cash in return. But it has not only been a failure to reduce poverty, it likely created social trends that made poverty more likely. The inability to hold our political institutions accountable for the enormous expenses they incurred over decades is one great reason why we should be so hesitant to default to such political solutions in the first place.