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Culture Q&A

Amity Shlaes

Delving deeper into liberal failure

Author Amity Shlaes tells what the 2020s can learn from the 1960s

Delving deeper into liberal failure

Amity Shlaes (Cooper Neill/WireImage/Getty Images)

Great Society by Amity Shlaes received an honorable mention for Accessible History in WORLD’s 2020 Books of the Year issue. We ran an interview with Shlaes in our June 27 issue, but here are some additional questions and answers we didn’t have room for.

What are the main lessons from Great Society for 2020?

First, listen to the locals. They know a lot. Let them build a great neighborhood themselves. There’s no limit to what a community can do for itself if left alone and not disturbed with wrong incentives or perverse incentives imposed from far away.

Lesson No. 2?

Property rights are essential. In the 1960s writer Garrett Hardin talked about the tragedy of the commons, by which he meant private people will take and take until the commons is bare and there’s no grass for anybody’s sheep. But the most common tragedy occurs when there’s no private property. That is, if you really own your sheep you want your sheep to be able to eat grass in the future, so you make a compact with the other shepherds and figure out how to handle the commons: when to be fallow, when to plant, and so on. But in housing projects, without any property rights, kids often ruin everything, including the precious community space. Because nobody owns it, nobody cares enough. Property rights help the economy grow and help us feel we’re going somewhere.

Did urban renewal respect property rights?

To build complexes such as Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis, the government and the towns colluded and bulldozed whole parts of cities—the tenements, yes, but also shops owned by the people who lived in the tenements, shops that employed people who lived in the tenements, and churches they attended. It was a terrible thing, but it was also quasi-involuntarily moving people from one place to another. So, black families were displaced when brought to the United States as slaves, displaced voluntarily but roughly when they came north for jobs, and displaced when they moved from their tenements or even OK homes and were pushed into the projects. That’s a lot of displacement.

One landmark case in 1954, Brown v. Board of Education, was a crucial foundation for civil rights achievement in the 1960s. How did a less-celebrated landmark case from 1954, Berman v. Parker, influence attitudes that underlay the 1960s War on Poverty?

A little guy, Berman, had a variety store. The government came and said, We’re bulldozing this whole area because you’re blighted. Berman said, I’m not blighted. This is a going concern. The Supreme Court sided with the bulldozers. The government taught poor people that instead of aspiring to own property, they should aspire to get more benefits.

You have a hilarious chapter on the way Richard Nixon played leading economists of that era. Why did Federal Reserve Chairman Arthur Burns care so much about getting presidential pats on the back?

Played is the right verb. A president anxious about an election decides to loosen money so people have easy credit before the election. Inflation might come, but that will be after the election. So we abolished the gold standard, our last vestige of fiscal responsibility. We increased tariffs. We said we don’t care much about inflation. Arthur Burns wanted to stay in the game, to be the Nixon ear whisperer, so he went along with anything Nixon thought of. The leading economists went along. We got purgatory, aka the 1970s, when people couldn’t afford the houses they deserved because they had worked hard, when we began to believe that America would run out of energy and everything else, and that our period of expansion was over.