The public choice theory of LBJ

I am about 3000 pages into Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson. Caro, now in his 70s, has spent thirty-eight years writing the biography of one man. Volume 4 published in 2012 finished in early 1964. The best biography about; Caro has you looking over the shoulder of LBJ and into his mind and into the minds of everyone around him.

LBJ was an astute man who could look deep into other men’s hearts to see exactly where he could find a weakness or a common ground to exploit to change their minds.

Johnson was famous for persuading the strongest of men to do something they absolutely did not want to do. It became known as the Johnson treatment.

The Southern Democrats thought JFK was a cream puff when it came to passing civil rights bills. They had no difficulty killing his bills in committee.

The Southern Democrats were full of despair the moment LBJ became president.

They knew that Johnson would find a way to pass a major civil rights bill through congress and despite any senate filibusters. Such was Johnson’s reputation as a legislator and a tactician when he was senate majority leader in the 1950s.

LBJ was behind the first civil rights bill of the 20th century. This was the 1957 civil rights bill.

LBJ’s astute understanding of public choice processes was central to how he crafted the 1957 bill.

Johnson could see that the Southern Democrats would not live with racial integration at the social level.

But he knew from his dealings with the Southern Democrats that in their hearts that they could not ultimately deny that people have a right to vote.

LBJ knew that if Black Americans in the Southern States could secure the right to vote, all the other rights they sought would soon follow and would be protected by law. He was right.

The 1957 and, particular, the 1964 civil rights laws overthrew racial segregation because more Black Americans could vote in the Southern States in state and local elections. Politicians soon courted those votes and there was a political realignment and a social revolution. The lawlessness that back-up most of segregation quickly came to an end  because its victims could now vote. Richard Epstein explains:

With Jim Crow in the South this set of insidious practices was not accomplished by explicit laws mandating racial segregation.

Rather, those  inflexible social and economic patterns were supported by four interlocking strategies.

First, illicit control of the electoral franchise, which in turn translated into control of the police and the courts.

Second, corrupt use over the infrastructure translated into an ability to deny water and electrical hook-ups to firms that did not toe the segregationist line.

Third, private violence to which southern police forces turned a blind eye when they did not actively support it.

Fourth, social ostracism to those who spoke up against the system. Sensible people either left, stayed away or remained silent.

… At its best, and in its original form, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 sought to break the control of the local segregationist forces over their political institutions. First on the list was Title I, which attacked exclusion from voting.

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