Amity Shlaes’s “Great Society: A New History” is a thesis in pursuit of a past. Shlaes, the doyenne of revisionist conservative historians, seeks to demonstrate that the efforts of the 1960s “to make American society over, whether by tinkering or rebuilding, in the name of improving life for all,” were misguided from the start. The uniformly failed results of such reformism, in her view, stemmed from the doomed desire to rely on the public rather than the private sector to solve the country’s problems — an essentially socialist impulse. And Americans risk repeating those errors through contemporary efforts to increase prosperity, shrink inequality, improve the environment, and secure greater access to health care and education.

Shlaes is hardly the first to criticize President Lyndon Johnson’s hugely ambitious Great Society initiative, which led to the creation of hundreds of domestic programs between 1964 and 1968 — she quotes presidential assistant Joseph Califano’s observation that Johnson adopted programs the way a child ate chocolate-chip cookies. Even at the time, Johnson’s pledge to eliminate (rather than mitigate) poverty and racial discrimination struck many observers as hubristic overreach. And liberal intellectuals like Daniel Bell and Irving Kristol became neoconservatives when they cast a skeptical eye on the scale and cost of Great Society bureaucracies.

But Shlaes isn’t greatly interested in rehashing those critiques by examining, for example, how Medicare’s architects attempted to placate health-care interest groups in a way that drastically increased the cost and complexity of the program, or how the dramatic reduction in poverty among the elderly helped make them a separate, self-interested constituency. Her book is rife with assertions that she doesn’t seriously try to defend, among them: that high taxes and federal rules squelched innovation in the 1960s, that unions made U.S. companies internationally uncompetitive, that the War on Poverty made poverty worse and that citizens saw Keynesian economics as “mere window dressing for political expedience.”

Rather, her intent is to illuminate the interlinked efforts of those 1960s leaders who pushed the country toward socialism, such as writer Michael Harrington, United Auto Workers President Walter Reuther, student activist Tom Hayden and academic/administrator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and those who in various ways pushed back, including conservative politician Ronald Reagan, urban theorist Jane Jacobs, and Silicon Valley pioneers Robert Noyce and Gordon Moore.

She further complicates her task by considering the presidencies of John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon to have been all part of a unified Great Society era — all were “of a piece in their effort to get to ‘great.’ ” And since her principal symbol of Big Government failure is the Pruitt-Igoe public-housing complex in St. Louis — built between 1952 and 1956, and made possible by the federal housing acts of 1937, 1949 and 1954 — her broader target ultimately is all federal domestic policy from the New Deal onward.

With such a wide span to cover, Shlaes doesn’t really attempt to present a comprehensive history. This is a tale of the 1960s that manages to omit any significant discussion of either the counterculture or the conservative movement, in which many of the most familiar figures of the era (from the Beatles to Betty Friedan to New York Mayor John Lindsay) are largely offstage and Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination is covered in one sentence, Robert Kennedy’s in two.

Shlaes often skips over incidents and developments that critically affected the story she chooses to tell. There’s no indication in this account, for example, that the Great Society was made possible by voter revulsion against the radical conservative views of the 1964 Republican presidential nominee, Barry Goldwater. His resounding defeat dragged down the rest of the GOP ticket, handing the Democrats a 2-to-1 majority in both houses of Congress, without which Johnson could never have passed what amounted to a second New Deal.

Shlaes concedes that the civil rights acts of the early 1960s “indeed redeemed our democracy,” but whatever indignation she may feel about Jim Crow segregation pales in comparison with her outrage over Nixon’s ending the convertibility of dollars to gold. She bemoans that the provisions that prohibited business owners from discriminating against African Americans deprived such individuals of the authority of their own conscience, “substituting a federal, national conscience to overrule them.” In addition, she adds darkly, the civil rights laws “set a precedent for federal supremacy over states to an extent some of the Constitution’s authors would have likened to tyranny.”

Since the civil rights movement appears here principally as an agent of potential oppression, it’s unsurprising that Shlaes pays little heed to the ways desegregation was central to the Great Society. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were monumental achievements, but so too was the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which gave both the Johnson and Nixon administrations leverage to desegregate Southern schools. Medicare and Medicaid, combined with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, further compelled hospitals and nursing homes to admit patients without regard to race or national origin and to treat them with respect and professionalism.

The most insightful parts of Shlaes’s book are those where she puts aside her socialism-hunting to consider elements of a new order taking shape. Key among these was the development of the computer industry in California and the anti-hierarchical, iconoclastic culture of upstart businesses like Fairchild Semiconductor and Intel. Shlaes points toward a certain kind of future when she quotes one engineer explaining his departure from an establishment firm on an exit questionnaire: “I . . . want . . . to . . . be . . . RICH.” But she also notices how Japanese automaker Toyota leapfrogged Detroit in the ’60s in part by respecting factory workers enough to include them in the process of innovation and improvement, as opposed to the “ritualistic class war” that characterized sclerotic U.S. companies and unions.

Shlaes also has an eye for some of the absurdities of the era, such as the Office of Economic Opportunity’s effort to win public support for its program by producing a 90-minute televised special called “It’s What’s Happening, Baby!” The emphasis on community action that carried over from Democratic to Republican administrations meant that one of the guests at a Nixon inaugural ball was Mickey Cogwell, a member of Chicago’s notorious Blackstone Rangers gang. The tails-clad Cogwell, tongue firmly in cheek, took credit on behalf of his gang for the success of Nixon’s law-and-order campaign: “We elected Nixon. We are the ones who put crime in the streets.”

Spoiler alert: Shlaes’s quest to find socialism in the Great Society comes up empty. No industries were nationalized during the 1960s. In fact, Johnson and his advisers rejected quantitative, New Deal-style measures to bring about greater equality (such as cash transfers) in favor of qualitative measures to give every citizen an equal starting point in life and to offer the least advantaged better chances to share in the opportunities of American society.

Shlaes is quite correct that this broad aspiration was shared by the Nixon administration, a fact largely forgotten by the left. A comprehensive assessment of the federal initiatives of the 1960s — their successes, failures and missed opportunities — should extend across both Democratic and Republican administrations. But any such historical investigation shouldn’t have all the answers before the questions have been asked.

Great Society

A New History

By Amity Shlaes

Harper.
511 pp. $32.50