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George Will

George F. Will: Why Americans lost their trust in government

| Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2018, 9:00 p.m.
President Lyndon Johnson
President Lyndon Johnson

WASHINGTON

Is there anything more depressing than a cheerful liberal? One such, historian David Goldfield, has written a large-hearted book explaining that America's problems would yield to government's deft ameliorating touch if Americans would just rekindle their enthusiasm for it.

Goldfield's “The Gifted Generation: When Government Was Good” notes that in 1964, nearly 80 percent of Americans said they trusted Washington all or most of the time; today, about 20 percent do.

Goldfield does not explain why trust in government waned as government's confidence waxed. The question contains its answer.

He rightly celebrates the 1944 G.I. Bill of Rights, but misses what distinguished it from many subsequent social programs. It was intended as a prophylactic measure against unemployment and political extremism among millions demobilized from the military. It worked. Veterans overwhelmed campuses.

Eligibility for the bill's benefits was contingent upon having performed military service. The bill used liberal means — subsidies for veterans' education and homebuying — to achieve conservative results: Rather than merely maintaining people as permanent wards of government, it created an educated, property-owning middle class equipped for self-reliant striving.

In contrast, much of the Great Society's liberalism deemed repressive those policies that promoted worthy behavior.

This liberalism's political base was in government's caring professions that served “clients” in populations disorganized by behaviors involving sex and substance abuse. Surely this goes far toward explaining what Goldfield leaves inexplicable: Postwar America's political process chose Harry Truman and then Dwight Eisenhower to preserve the post-New Deal status quo. And then it chose Lyndon Johnson over Barry Goldwater, who was (rightly) viewed as hostile to the New Deal's legacy.

But just 16 years later, the electorate, whose prior preferences Goldfield approves, made an emphatic choice that he considers a sudden eruption of dark impulses that hitherto were dormant. Goldfield does not distinguish, as Ronald Reagan did, between New Deal liberalism and liberalism's subsequent swerve in another direction. And he has no answer as to why the electorate, so receptive for so long to hyperactive government, by 1980 was not.

Goldfield's grasp of contemporary America can be gauged by his regret that the income tax, under which the top 10 percent of earners pay more than 70 percent of the tax and the bottom 50 percent pay 3 percent, is not “genuinely progressive.” And he idealizes government as a disinterested “umpire” ensuring fair play. Has no liberal noticed that no government is ever neutral in society's allocation of wealth and opportunity?

The bigger government becomes, the more it is manipulated by those who are sufficiently confident, articulate and sophisticated to understand its complexities, and wealthy enough to hire skillful agents to navigate those complexities on their behalf. This is why big government is invariably regressive, transferring wealth upward.

George F. Will is a columnist for Newsweek and The Washington Post.

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