Irving Bernstein graduated from the University of Rochester in 1937, the same year as the spectacular series of sit-down strikes in the Midwest industrial heartland, the Memorial Day “massacre” at the Republic Steel plant in South Chicago, and the publication of the LaFollette committee’s report on antilabor techniques. His college years saw the emergence of American industrial unionism with the establishment in 193 5 of the Committee for Industrial Organization, which became the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in 1938. He received his Ph.D. from Harvard three years after the end of a world war that permitted American labor to consolidate its gains and reach the apex of its power. It is not surprising that Bernstein should have made the study of American labor his life’s work. His previous books include The New Deal Collective Bargaining Policy, The Lean Years, 1920-1933, and Turbulent Years, 1933-1941. Nor is it surprising that, as evidenced in his most recent volume, his historical outlook still reflects the political passions and categories of the 1930’s. 

At a time when New Deal historiography has transcended the historical bromides of the 1940’s and 1950’s, Bernstein continues to see the New Deal in terms of “the classes vs. the masses” and “the people vs. the interests.” (Ironically, he also pictures Roosevelt as a conservative, striving to pre serve democracy, capitalism, and the work ethic.) The very title A Caring Society indicates Bernstein’s passé out look. Most contemporary New Deal historians are interested in establishing precisely who benefited from the New Deal largess in determining the broader effects of this solicitude. Many have not been particularly happy with what they have discovered: agricultural policies which displaced small producers and fostered corporate farming; labor policies which encouraged unionization at the expense of unorganized and poorer workers; industrial policies which aided big business and harmed small business; taxation policies which had hardly any impact on the maldistribution of income; Social Security legislation which hindered economic recovery; monetary policy which was intellectually incoherent; and rural relief policy which did little to ameliorate rural poverty. 

A prisoner of the conventional wisdom of the 1930’s, Bernstein retains a reverential attitude toward the Roosevelt Administration and Keynesian fiscal policy. The New Deal was, he writes, “a compassionate and popular government,” laying. the basis for the modern American welfare state. For Bernstein, welfare legislation is necessary to humanize and thus preserve modern industrialism. Hence the New Deal’s “administrative masterpiece” was the Social Security system, while its great errors were not taking the Keynesian prescription more seriously and in limiting to the bare minimum the coverage and benefits of its welfare programs. 

At times, Bernstein’s economic views betray an ignorance of pertinent scholarship. He is enthusiastic regarding the minimum wage provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, quoting Roosevelt’s statement that, with the exception of the Social Security Act, minimum wage legislation was the “most farsighted program for the benefit of the workers ever adopted.” But most con temporary economists would probably disagree, believing that minimum wages increase unemployment and dis courage the movement of business from high-wage to low-wage areas. 

Nowhere does A Caring Society analyze the cost of the New Deal, preferring instead to engage in historical cheerleading. All political and economic decisions involve trade-offs and priorities, and every government program necessarily has its winners and losers. For every subsidy there is a taxpayer; for every higher-priced farm product, a consumer; and for every beneficiary of public power, a shareholder of a private utility. This does not mean that Federal economic and social policies are always misguided. It merely means that historians should weigh their harm as well as benefits and should consider the claims of both those who bear the costs of the programs and of those who profit from them. It simply is not sufficient to praise FDR and the New Deal for establishing A Caring Society. Most historians would grant that the New Deal had the most philanthropic intentions, and yet we know where good intentions often lead. 


[A Caring Society: The New Deal Confronts the Great Depression, by Irving Bernstein; Boston: Houghton Mifflin]