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5 Defending Positive Liberty and Championing the Disadvantaged in the Great Society

5 Defending Positive Liberty and Championing the Disadvantaged in the Great Society

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to hold a job, to enter a public place, to go to school. It is the right to be

treated in every part of our national life as a person equal in dignity and

promise to all others.” Regarding the latter, he cautions:

But freedom is not enough. You do not wipe away the scars of centuries by

saying: Now you are free to go where you want, and do as you desire, and

choose the leaders you please. You do not take a person who, for years, has

been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line

of a race and then say, “you are free to compete with all the others,” and

still justly believe that you have been completely fair. Thus it is not enough

just to open the gates of opportunity. All our citizens must have the ability

to walk through those gates. This is the next and the more profound stage

of the battle for civil rights. We seek not just freedom but opportunity. We

seek not just legal equity but human ability, not just equality as a right and

a theory but equality as a fact and equality as a result.24

Johnson further explains that poverty, community, familial decay, and dysfunction need to be addressed through government programs to actualize equal opportunity for all Americans. This passage gives the clearest

expression to the link between the ethos of the Great Society and its moral

order and the logos that it is the government—through the consent and

participation of citizens—that is required to play an active role in creating basic conditions of justice in society and to correct an enormous and

challenging legacy of inequality and government-sanctioned disadvantage

directed to racial minorities and the most economically disadvantaged.

Johnson also has a strong message of expectation that the wealthy assist

the poor as a matter of justice and a clear expression of communitarian

concern. The explicitness of his redistributive demands of the wealthy

is unique, and contrasts powerfully with the lack of such statements in

defense of healthcare reform and other government programs in the rhetoric of Clinton and Obama:

I have not come here tonight to ask for pleasant luxuries or for idle pleasures. I have come here to recommend that you, the representatives of the

richest Nation on earth, you, the elected servants of a people who live in

abundance unmatched on this globe, you bring the most urgent decencies

of life to all of your fellow Americans. There are men who cry out: We must

sacrifice. Well, let us rather ask them: Who will they sacrifice? Are they going

to sacrifice the children who seek the learning, or the sick who need medical care, or the families who dwell in squalor now brightened by the hope



of home? Will they sacrifice opportunity for the distressed, the beauty of

our land, the hope of our poor? Time may require further sacrifices. And if

it does, then we will make them. But we will not heed those who wring it

from the hopes of the unfortunate here in a land of plenty. I believe that we

can continue the Great Society while we fight in Vietnam. But if there are

some who do not believe this, then, in the name of justice, let them call for

the contribution of those who live in the fullness of our blessing, rather than

try to strip it from the hands of those that are most in need. And let no one

think that the unfortunate and the oppressed of this land sit stifled and alone

in their hope tonight. Hundreds of their servants and their protectors sit

before me tonight here in this great Chamber. For that other nation within

a Nation—the poor—whose distress has now captured the conscience of

America, I will ask the Congress not only to continue, but to speed up the

war on poverty.25

In Johnson’s speeches addressing poverty, the poor are never a distant,

abstract, or marginal entity, and Johnson depicts himself as their most

ardent guardian. About Medicare, for example, he says: “But under this

plan all Americans, not just the rich and affluent Americans, all Americans

can face the autumn of life with dignity and security.”26 Embedded in the

use of the word “all” are working-class and middle-class Americans, from

the poorest Americans who are jobless or living in poverty despite working, to middle-class Americans who, despite a reasonable level of income,

lack health insurance and would be left economically devastated if they or

their family members were to suffer a major illness with its attendant high

medical costs.

With regard to expanding healthcare through Medicare and Medicaid,

Johnson is equally emphatic that the economically disadvantaged have the

same access to quality healthcare, irrespective of income. In his Special

Message to the Congress on the Nation’s Health on February 10, 1964,

he states:

The American people are not satisfied with better-than-average health. As a

Nation, they want, they need, and they can afford the best of health:—not

just for those of comfortable means—but for all our citizens, old and young,

rich and poor. In America,—There is no need and no room for second-class

health services.—There is no need and no room for denying, to any of our

people the wonders of modern medicine.—There is no need and no room

for elderly people to suffer the personal economic disaster to which major

illness all too commonly exposes them. Clearly, too many Americans still



are cut off by low incomes from adequate health services. Too many older

people are still deprived of hope and dignity by prolonged and costly illness.

The linkage between ill-health and poverty in America is still all too plain.27

Repeatedly in his many speeches on the War on Poverty and the Great

Society, Johnson dignifies the poor by empathically relating the structural

barriers to their full economic and social equality. He commits himself and

invites the American people to join together to defeat poverty and include

those marginalized Americans living in poverty in the vision of the US as

a land of promise and opportunity for all its citizens:

Very often a lack of jobs and money is not the cause of poverty, but the

symptom. The cause may lie deeper in our failure to give our fellow citizens

a fair chance to develop their own capacities, in a lack of education and training, in a lack of medical care and housing, in a lack of decent communities

in which to live and bring up their children.28

Equally significant is the way in which the Great Society and the War on

Poverty envision social change that crosses every conceivable boundary in

the American polity, from race to class to color to geographic location, a

project for all Americans to pursue on behalf of and in partnership with all

Americans—not an act of charity toward the poor, but a shared effort at

promoting justice:

Our joint Federal-local effort must pursue poverty, pursue it wherever it

exists—in city slums and small towns, in sharecropper shacks or in migrant

worker camps, on Indian Reservations, among whites as well as Negroes,

among the young as well as the aged, in the boom towns and in the

depressed areas.29

In addressing the structural causes of poverty, Johnson emphasizes that

poverty is largely a function of government failure to provide disadvantaged Americans with a quality education, which the Great Society aims

to rectify:

Today, 8 million adult Americans, more than the entire population of

Michigan, have not finished 5 years of school. Nearly 20 million have not

finished 8 years of school. Nearly 54 million—more than one-quarter of all

America—have not even finished high school. Each year more than 100,000

high school graduates, with proved ability, do not enter college because they

cannot afford it.30



Johnson explains the vicious cycle that is perpetuated when primary and

secondary schools are inadequate because of a lack of funding and individuals fall into a poverty trap because without access to quality education,

they cannot develop their knowledge and skills sufficiently to find a place

in the labor force, nor can they afford a college education:

In many places, classrooms are overcrowded and curricula are outdated.

Most of our qualified teachers are underpaid, and many of our paid teachers

are unqualified. So we must give every child a place to sit and a teacher to

learn from. Poverty must not be a bar to learning, and learning must offer

an escape from poverty.31

Indeed, education (along with job and skills training) was one of the

major areas of government expenditure in the War on Poverty and the

Great Society because it was so fundamental to positive liberty and

was a key tool of government to decrease poverty by enhancing citizen


Johnson also links the welfare of the economically disadvantaged

Americans with that of all Americans as a whole, which, as we have seen,

was a prominent feature of Truman’s rhetoric and which we will see does

not feature as centrally in the rhetoric of Clinton and Obama. This linkage served two purposes. The first is to convey to Americans that social

programs that target the poor are in the interests of society as a whole and

thus should receive the support of all Americans—including and especially

wealthier Americans. The second is to contribute to the redefining of the

American social imaginary in an inclusive way whereby Americans would

come to perceive themselves in a more united way across boundaries of

race, class, and geography united by shared civic values of communitarian

solidarity and a moral order based on equality and solidarity. We will now

examine two of the most important pieces of legislation that advanced

these principles of equality.




Two major pieces of legislation that informed the values of the Great

Society and legally codified the place of equality in the American moral

order and social imaginary needed to make the social and economic promises of the Great Society tangible are the Civil Rights Act of 196432 and



the Voting Rights Act of 1965.33 The Civil Rights Act barred discrimination against African-Americans and women in places such as schools and

any form of “public accommodation” such as hotels, restaurants, cinemas,

parks, and theaters, and, crucially, in the workplace. The Voting Rights

Act34 ensured that African-Americans would not be discriminated against

at the polls and have their right to vote violated. In 1968, the Housing Act

was passed which banned racial discrimination in housing and included

subsidies for low-income housing, which would in large part benefit

minorities, reflecting Johnson’s consistent approach of addressing both

legal barriers to equality and providing the economic means necessary to

surmount poverty that itself was largely the result of decades of invidiously

discriminatory government practices.

In explaining why legislative changes were needed to overturn formal,

legal government discrimination against African-Americans and other ethnic minorities, Johnson did not mince words on the moral motivation for

these changes:

Let me make one principle of this administration abundantly clear: All of

these increased opportunities—in employment, in education, in housing,

and in every field—must be open to Americans of every color. As far as the

writ of Federal law will run, we must abolish not some, but all racial discrimination. For this is not merely an economic issue, or a social, political,

or international issue. It is a moral issue, and it must be met by the passage

this session of the bill now pending in the House.35

As we have discussed, Truman had initiated this process of purging government programs and laws of racism, and requiring the enforcement

of equality laws. He addressed it in his address on healthcare reform,

insisting that returning soldiers of all colors, races, and backgrounds

should have access to the same quality of healthcare, and that indeed all

Americans irrespective of race and background should be assured of the

same opportunities. But it was Johnson who addressed this issue repeatedly both in his oratory and in his policy with the greatest investment of

energy, an uncompromising stance, and a relentlessly explicit commitment to equal opportunity across every social and political domain (not

just healthcare) that he would reaffirm throughout his presidency and

that he was able to commit into government policy with far-reaching








Though Johnson had no need to show deference to conservative concerns with the size of government and government expenditure, given the

extent of the Democratic majority in Congress36 and the overall strength of

the American economy—and in the mid-1960s the conservative concern

with reduced government spending was not a salient political issue—it

is interesting to note that Johnson’s social programs were part of reductions in government employment and expenditure as a whole. Johnson

proudly noted that despite large increases in social spending his budget

was the “smallest since 1951.”37 He emphasized the relative frugality of

the budget:

It will call for a substantial reduction in Federal employment, a feat accomplished only once before in the last 10 years. While maintaining the full

strength of our combat defenses, it will call for the lowest number of civilian

personnel in the Department of Defense since 1950. It will call for total

expenditures of $97,900 million—compared to $98,400 million for the

current year, a reduction of more than $500 million.38

Despite these cuts, Johnson’s social expenditures were significant. His

budget was possible, likely, because overall tax rates were substantially

higher at that time than today and more progressive, providing the government with greater revenue than what is available today at a time when

costs for social programs—particularly healthcare—were much lower.39

Although this extensive array of government programs necessitated

large capital expenditures, Johnson also passed a massive tax cut of $11

billion “to create new jobs and new markets in every area of this land” by

freeing up funds for private investors and entrepreneurs. This demonstrates

that the dichotomized “limited government” vs. “big government” framing of conservative and liberal philosophies of governance, introduced by

Reagan and vigorously championed by Republicans since his era, was not

always the dividing line in American politics, despite being so powerfully

prevalent in the past three decades and today.

Johnson’s tax cuts and reductions in the deficit were not aimed at

winning over conservatives and appropriating their values and rhetoric,

promoting political moderation, or laying the foundations for bipartisan



policy consensus, in part because of the scope of Democratic majorities in Congress.40 While we will see similar rhetoric of efficiency in

Clinton’s and Obama’s rhetoric, the context is a very different one,

where Clinton’s and Obama’s rhetoric is deferential to and apologetic

toward specifically conservative concerns with limited government,

rather than the universal value which transcends political ideology of

avoiding wasteful expenditures. But they demonstrate that a president

who championed the extensive redistribution of wealth through progressive taxation and a powerful and comprehensive social welfare safety

net guaranteed by government was far more concerned with restraining

government spending than how he has been depicted by conservative

Republicans who find the Great Society so threatening to their ideology

of limited government.

As we have seen, the Great Society represents—alongside Roosevelt’s

New Deal and Truman’s Fair Deal—the antithesis of the conservative

ideology of limited government in its concern for government provision of social services and recognition of social and economic rights.

Johnson’s efforts reflect a continuation of Roosevelt’s and Truman’s

promise to advance the human security of all Americans through government programs to realize their social and economic rights, and to

enable them to achieve their fullest potential and actualize positive liberty. However, despite greatly increasing government expenditures on

social programs, Johnson did not intend to establish a large, centralized government bureaucracy. In many of his speeches, he calls for safeguards to limit waste and maximize efficiency with regard to Medicare

in particular, but also to all the programs of the Great Society. He cautions that the federal government cannot provide the answer alone to

addressing educational inequalities and insufficiencies and the injustice

of poverty; it would need to do so through partnership with states and


The solution to these problems does not rest on a massive program in

Washington, nor can it rely solely on the strained resources of local authority.

They require us to create new concepts of cooperation, a creative federalism,

between the National Capital and the leaders of local communities.41

In his 1964 State of the Union address, Johnson emphasizes the same:

“Poverty is a national problem, requiring improved national organization

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5 Defending Positive Liberty and Championing the Disadvantaged in the Great Society

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