Lyndon Johnson's Terrible Legacy
Tags U.S. History
Recently my wife and I spent a morning at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library in Austin, Texas. The damage done by this big bully is incalculable. His library reminds us of the start of the blizzard of government expansion during Johnson's presidential term, which lasted from the Kennedy assassination in November 1963 to his decision not to run for a full second term in 1968, which usually is attributed to his failure to end the war in Vietnam.
Johnson was an admirer of FDR and was determined to revive and complete what he believed should have been integral parts to FDR's New Deal. Johnson called his program The Great Society. As if ignorance of the consequences of this socialist expansion of domestic control by government was not enough, LBJ expanded the war in Vietnam, promising America both Guns and Butter. Even today we live with this expansion of government domestic programs and seemingly never-ending wars as the modern Welfare/Warfare state.
The Johnson Treatment
I called Johnson a big bully in the paragraph above. I believe my assessment is justified by what actually is celebrated at his presidential library. The displays proudly explain and document "the Johnson touch" in print, photograph, and actual recorded telephone interviews. Johnson was a big man who towered over most people. He had a habit of getting very close to someone, leaning over at the waist, and forcing his partner in conversation to bend over backwards to avoid an uncomfortable encounter with LBJ's face. There is a large picture of Johnson giving Supreme Court Associate Justice Abe Fortas this "Johnson Treatment", literally face-to-face. Fortas, who was a long time LBJ supporter, appears to be taking the "Treatment" in good humor, but it is easy to see how it would be almost impossible to keep one's dignity with the president of the United States performing this obviously uncomfortable act.
Surprisingly the JBJ Library celebrates the Johnson Treatment with recorded phone conversations. One conversation was with powerful US Senator Richard Russell, a long time LBJ colleague. Johnson wanted Russell as his personal eyes and ears on the Warren Commission, tasked with investigating the Kennedy assassination. In the recorded phone conversation we hear Russell politely tell LBJ that he is honored but that he has no respect for Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren and must decline the offer. LBJ then badgers and bullies Russell into accepting the position. He says that he wants Russell to ensure that the commission does not investigate whether the Russians or Cubans had any role in the assassination. Russell's vociferous objection in writing to the Warren Commission's "single bullet" theory seemed to justify his opinion of Warren and the commission. The commission's staffers jumped through rhetorical hoops to claim that the report had the unanimous approval of all members.
That Which Is Seen and That Which Is Unseen
The library is full of typical memorabilia. The entrance has a huge display of pens with which Johnson signed hundreds of pieces of mostly domestic legislation. For example, Johnson authored and signed sixty pieces of legislation that effectively federalized education. Of course, the library is full of specious statistics that attempt to "prove" that all this legislation was effective, citing, for example, that the poverty rate decreased and that the percentage of Americans with college degrees increased. Even if one accepts such "facts" at face value, an Austrian economist would point out that all such so-called advances came at the cost of diverting resources from other, more highly sought preferences. Education is an economic good, as is healthcare, retirement savings, food, etc. If Americans valued higher education so much, they would have applied more of their limited resources to this end. The LBJ library ignores the cost, including the social cost, of all these programs and gives the impression that government supplied goods and services could be provided without any change in the nation's production of other goods and services. Thus, the famous "Guns and Butter" claim that we can have it all...a claim that survives to this day.
Perhaps the most enduring legacy of the LBJ years is that his Guns and Butter policies put the US on a path that ended the gold exchange standard, agreed upon at Bretton Woods in 1944, by which the US pledged to honor central bank dollar convertibility to gold at thirty-five dollars per ounce. In the 1950's Eisenhower's budget deficits were very modest and he actually balanced the budget for a short time. But Johnson's Guns and Butter policy caused huge deficits and prompted unprecedented money printing by the Fed. The Austrian economists in Charles de Gaulle's France understood the consequences--that the US did not actually have enough gold to honor central bank redemptions at thirty-five dollars per ounce--and began a run on the US gold supply that eventually drove the US off the gold standard in 1971. (Let me make it clear...the French did NOT cause the run on the US gold supply. The Fed caused the run by printing dollars to pay for LBJ's Guns and Butter policy.)
Vietnam Exposed the Limits of the Johnson Touch
The LBJ library openly shows us that Johnson never had a method for winning the war in Vietnam or extricating the US from what became known as a quagmire. In another telephone recording from early in his administration library visitors hear LBJ tell a partisan that he doesn't know how to win or how to bring the troops home honorably. That is a very bitter revelation to someone who had comrades in arms who died in Vietnam and others who endured captivity in the infamous "Hanoi Hilton". Repeatedly Johnson tried to get the North Vietnamese to a peace conference. This is pure LBJ hubris, convinced that everything is negotiable and that he can use the famous Johnson Touch on Ho Chi Minh. His pathetic bombing pauses to signal our desire to negotiate merely convinced the North Vietnamese that American involvement eventually would end.
What Have We Learned?
Apparently, not much. Today Johnson's Guns and Butter policy is alive and well. Few, if any, Great Society programs have been repealed. The federal government continues to wage war in faraway places and promises ever more goods and services, funded by fiat money set free from any semblance of a gold standard. There is no talk of eliminating any domestic programs or ending any of our wars. On the contrary our government seems determined to provoke new wars in Korea and possibly with Iran and even Russia. The legacy debt for all the federal government's programs--i.e., the unfunded obligations emanating from the government's entitlement programs — has been calculated to be well over a hundred trillion dollars. It is clear that it can be paid only nominally and not with money of even today's reduced purchasing power. So, was LBJ's presidency a success? Unfortunately for America, LBJ would say yes!
Patrick Barron is a private consultant to the banking industry. He has taught an introductory course in Austrian economics for several years at the University of Iowa. He has also taught at the Graduate School of Banking at the University of Wisconsin for over twenty-five years, and has delivered many presentations at the European Parliament.