The Gifted Generation: When Government Was Good by David Goldfield, Bloomsbury USA, US $35.00, Pp 544, November 2017, ISBN 978-1620400883
In the last few decades, both the left and the right have embraced the idea of a small government that does not intervene in the free market. The idea of small government discourages government intervention in the public life including education. Is small government the solution to our problems? Probably not. In The Gifted Generation, David Goldfield shows that the first boomers – born into America in the 1940s and early 1950s – were twice as likely as their parents to attend college. This became possible only because of the federal government policies. They were the gifted generation. The federal government policies also eased the way for their parents and made achievements more realizable for themselves.
Goldfield says that the booming economy after World War II hummed along in great part because of their needs such as foods, clothing, education, housing and everything that could go into a house from air conditioning units to toys. Their educational attainments fueled the transformation of the nation’s economy and spurred innovation and invention. The government kept giving gifts, not only to the gifted generation and their offspring, but also to the Commonwealth. Goldfield says that the Commonwealth ideal defined governance in the United State during the first two decades after WW II. The ideal followed three basic principles of governance. First, the government should enhance opportunities for all Americans. Second, the ideal charged government with the responsibility of balancing competing interests – individuals, business and industry, and government itself – to benefit the nation. Third, the Commonwealth ideal required obedience to the rule of law.
The ideal worked best when citizens believed the government kept their interests paramount. That was the case during the Great Depression and World War II. Once those crises were over, maintaining the commonwealth ideal became difficult. Goldfield says that the federal government kept people’s interests above anything else for two decades – under presidents Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Lyndon B. Johnson. They were of similar family and geographic backgrounds, and each of them was shaped by Great Depression and World War II. The three presidents expanded opportunities for a broad cross-section of Americans, who, in turn, produced an era of prosperity and innovation. The public policy provided the gifts for Americans, especially those of the gifted circumstances of American life.
Goldfield says that the Commonwealth ideal represented a passion for government action to maximize individual achievements for the benefit of the whole. It was not an intellectual creation of the postwar era. Goldfield writes, “The idea of government promoting the general welfare to ensure individual welfare appeared in the economic policies of Alexander Hamilton, Henry Clay’s American system, and his disciple Abraham Lincoln’s nationalist measures during the Civil War. The Commonwealth ideal flourished in the early twentieth-century during the progressive era, the administration of Woodrow Wilson, and most of all, in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.”
World War II demonstrated that we could accomplish with nearly all of our diverse population contributing to the general welfare. Goldfield says that the challenge of postwar life was to carry this model forward. And just as the federal government, in partnership with public, and private institutions, orchestrated the successful war effort, so too would that partnership build a more inclusive, more just society.
The Gifted Generation is a meticulously researched history book that challenges several established historical theories. David Goldfield conclusively shows that better governance – and not small government – is the answer to many of our problems. Goldfield shows that the federal government can produce another silent revolution by keeping the interests of the people supreme. This brilliantly written history book is an enjoyable read. The Gifted Generation proves that Goldfield’s academic credentials remain unmatched.