Remembering Edward C. Banfield

Banfield was a clear-eyed, independent-minded political scientist willing to follow the data wherever it led. Beginning his career as an ardent New Dealer, he “switched sides” and later refused to accede to political correctness. This made him a best-selling author but led to pariah status in academia.

This essay originally appeared in the May 2024 issue of Chronicles (here). Thanks to the American Enterprise Institute (here), and Power Line!

For decades, the Ivy League generally, and Harvard in particular, have become so enmired in the pathologies of wokeness that it is hard to believe Harvard professors ever had anything sensible to say. Yet Edward C. Banfield, who taught at the University of Chicago from 1952 to 1959, and at Harvard from 1959 until his death in 1999 (save a brief interval at the University of Pennsylvania from 1972-1975, where he was effectively chased out by disruptive student radicals), was one of the most trenchant conservative intellectuals of the 20th century, producing a lasting corpus of scholarship and mentoring influential academics such as James Q. Wilson (with whom he co-authored City Politics in 1963) and public administration scholar Martha Derthick.  

Although Banfield is best known for his bluntly realistic assessment of “our urban crisis” in his 1970 bestseller The Unheavenly City, his scholarship—on a variety of topics–began much earlier. Despite his sixteen books, scores of articles, service to three Presidents (Nixon, Ford, and Reagan), including chairing Nixon’s Model Cities Task Force, and a teaching career that spanned the most tumultuous period of higher education in the 20th century, Banfield has been largely forgotten since his death in 1999. The reasons for this remain elusive. Various explanations are possible.

Unlike many of his academic colleagues, Banfield focused on studying facts rather than espousing theories; the rub is that intellectual circles tend to favor theorists (such as Banfield’s friend, Leo Strauss) over empirical investigation. Moreover, despite his training as a political scientist, Banfield also drew on the disciplines of economics, sociology, psychology, history, public administration, and even anthropology to study social problems. He therefore became known as a “social scientist,” a field not generally disposed to center-right perspectives—or known for generating lasting academic legacies.  Banfield placed great emphasis on the roles of human nature and culture, eschewing in both cases the utopian thinking so fashionable in the social sciences. He was swimming upstream.

As Daniel DiSalvo has lamented, even “[t]he area of study in which [Banfield] made his name, urban politics, is now the rump of the discipline of political science.” Banfield, a free-thinker who earned his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago in 1951, refused to be pigeon-holed  into any single ideological camp (including Chicago School economics), making it less likely that he would be adopted as an icon by any particular faction on the Right. He shunned self-promotion, going so far as to burn his personal papers before his death. While relatively few of his students went on to become university professors, many became prominent in other fields, such as Christopher DeMuth and Robert Samuelson. Finally, Banfield’s arguments, although controversial in their day, have in many cases subsequently become accepted as “conventional wisdom,” without being credited to Banfield as pioneering wisdom. 

Whatever the reasons, it is disappointing that Banfield’s trailblazing work as a policy maverick did not result in lasting renown. His influence, however, is evident in the work of other scholars, such as Charles Murray. Moreover, I suspect that I was not the only curious college-age Boomer for whom The Unheavenly City was the gateway drug for lifelong conservative orientation.

Born in 1916, Banfield grew up on a farm in Bloomfield, Connecticut. He studied English and agriculture at Connecticut State College (now the University of Connecticut), where he was an editor of the student newspaper and met his Italian-speaking wife, Laura. After graduating in 1938 with a B.A. in English, Banfield worked briefly in journalism before joining the federal government. In 1941, Banfield, not yet a conservative, got a job doing public relations for a major New Deal program called the Farm Security Administration (formerly the Resettlement Administration). For migrant farm workers and tenant farmers, Dust Bowl conditions compounded the economic hardship of the Great Depression. Think of Okies such as the fictional Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath. Among other things, the FSA  relocated distressed urban and rural families to agricultural communities planned by the federal government, with the goal of making desperately-poor Americans permanently self-sufficient.

New Dealers believed that poverty could be solved by agrarian social engineering, moving impoverished people to new situations like pieces on a chess board. The FSA participants were human guinea pigs. One of the FSA’s projects was the 3,600-acre Casa Grande Valley Farms, a  quasi-socialistic “cooperative” in arid Pinal County, Arizona. The participants would repay to the federal government the cost of the land, roads, homes, equipment, and buildings provided by the FSA, thereby ameliorating unemployment while producing useful crops. Like many New Deal programs, the FSA (abolished in 1946) was a costly fiasco.

Banfield eventually became disillusioned with the New Deal and, after pursuing a graduate degree at the University of Chicago (at the invitation of former FDR Brain Truster and FSA head Rex Tugwell, who was organizing a planning program there), published his doctoral dissertation as his first book, Government Project (1951) (reissued by AEI Press in 2024). Government Project was a withering critique of the Casa Grande project. Government planning, Banfield concluded, no matter how well intentioned, could not override human nature. The Casa Grande cooperative failed because the headstrong participants, many of whom were formerly tenant farmers—thrown together with strangers in an unfamiliar “collective” environment—stubbornly refused to cooperate with one another. Petty feuds destroyed the project.

Due to the massive influx of federal resources, and with an initial government-appointed project manager, in its early days Casa Grande flourished, taking 60 families from destitution in decrepit shacks to comfort in modern houses. But when left to their own devices, the fiercely-independent families chafed at federal interference and communal ownership. They decided that they really wanted to operate their own farms. Unable to resolve their internal disputes, the families decided to liquidate Casa Grande and walk away. The resulting legal fees and repayment of federal loans made them paupers once more and left them uprooted. Why? After studying the record closely, Banfield concluded that “The settlers were unable to cooperate because they were involved in a ceaseless struggle for power.”

The New Deal bureaucrats had failed to recognize that rugged individualists could not, with a wave of the wand, be converted into happy Bolsheviks. Sharing property didn’t suit them. Casa Grande—now shuttered–had “solved” nothing; none of the participants ultimately acquired their own farms. Banfield realized from this experience that government planners cannot override (or “fix”) human nature. The importance of human behavior in social organization—and the hubris of government planning–became a theme in Banfield’s later work.

His next book, Politics, Planning, and the Public Interest (1955), co-written with Martin Meyerson, challenged the then-prevailing wisdom about public housing for low-income residents. The book dealt with Chicago public housing projects. Massive, high-rise developments were the rage among urban planners at the time. Banfield and Meyerson predicted that concentrating poor minorities in dense urban complexes would breed crime and blight. They were right. Planners have subsequently moved to options such as housing vouchers, and many mega-projects have been dynamited as disastrous eyesores. As Banfield’s protégé, James Q. Wilson, later reflected, “In time, much of what Banfield wrote was accepted by bright people as, slowly and unevenly, they were mugged by reality.” 

The Moral Basis of a Backward Society (1958), written with the assistance of his wife, examined a poverty-stricken community in southern Italy to understand why it was so poor. (The town, Chiramonte, was assigned the pseudonym “Montegrano.”) Wilson deemed The Moral Basis of a Backward Society “a masterpiece, one of the great classics of modern social science”:

In less than two hundred pages, Banfield destroyed the argument that some physical or economic problem kept these Italians poor. Their problems were instead political: People scarcely participated in political activities, turned strongly against whomever was elected to office, did nothing about the poor quality of schools, and would not campaign to get a hospital built there…. People cared very much for their own families and not at all for other people. This amoral familism developed, Banfield speculated, out of an abiding fear of premature death, a land-tenure system that made the formation of extended families very difficult, and other complex factors.

Once again, customs, culture, and community mores—all aspects of human behavior—outweighed the importance of external factors. Banfield found that tight-knit Mormon communities in Utah were able to overcome similar hardships (such as scarce natural resources) due to their industrious civic cooperation. Achieving prosperity depends on making the correct choices—and, hence, entails moral agency. This notion was anathema to liberals, who invariably seek to blame poverty on racism or capitalism.

By now, Banfield was a conservative, as became evident in his later works, especially the controversial 1970 best-seller, The Unheavenly City, described by one reviewer as “a political scientist’s version of Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom.” In Ivy League circles, this was tantamount to heresy.  The Unheavenly City brought Banfield both fame and infamy. In the wake of recent urban unrest (the Detroit and Watts riots, for example) and Great Society-fueled concerns about poverty and slums, at the end of the 1960s Americans were preoccupied with the impending “urban crisis.” Banfield was unfazed. Yes, cities are crowded and congested, he conceded, but only because so many people want to live there—in greater comfort and with greater convenience than ever before.

“Facts are facts, however unpleasant,” he insisted. Accordingly, facts “have to be faced unblinkingly by anyone who really wants to improve matters in the cities.” To this end, he amassed the data about a variety of urban “problems,” including traffic, education, unemployment, poverty, crime, and race relations. His conclusion: “A great many so-called urban problems are really conditions that we either cannot change or do not want to incur the disadvantages of changing.” This was waving a red flag at his liberal critics, who were avid do-gooders—like the New Dealers before them–eager to spend boundless taxpayer resources in well-intentioned but futile social engineering. Banfield knew that “mammoth government programs to aid the cities,” if they had any effect on serious problems, tended, “on the whole, to aggravate them.”  

He pointed out the inconvenient facts of “urban renewal” (mainly benefiting the well-off), poverty (Americans’ standard of living has steadily risen, albeit with inevitable income inequalities), slums (inhabited mainly by “present-oriented” individuals in female-led households), unemployment (exacerbated by rising minimum wages and inflated union pay scales), and crime (driven largely by “class culture,” which determines an individual’s propensity to commit crime). Banfield advocated aggressive policing, including “stop and frisk.” Banfield’s most controversial topics, however, were race and rioting.

In a chapter entitled “Race: Thinking May Make It So,” Banfield pointed out that Negroes (the accepted vernacular used in 1970) were not the first ethnic or racial group to face prejudice in America. The Irish, Jews, Italians, and other groups overcame discrimination through assimilation and adoption of cultural characteristics that led to middle-class status (or higher). High school drop-out rates, rampant illegitimacy, fatherless households, and criminality are not “caused” by societal racism; they are elements of a dysfunctional lower-class culture. Skin color does not matter; culture does. Blaming undesirable social outcomes (poverty, unemployment, etc.) on racial prejudice, Banfield maintained, “encourages the Negro to define all his troubles in racial terms.”  

If this were not provocative enough, Banfield addressed urban unrest in a chapter entitled “Rioting Mainly for Fun and Profit.” His thesis was that “race (and, incidentally, poverty as well) was not the cause of any of the Negro riots.” Riots involving looting, Banfield maintained, are merely excuses for stealing—the “foray for pillage,” in his blunt words. Lenient responses to rioting and looting increase the probability and severity of such events in the future. Characterizing arson and looting as a “race riot” emboldens the participants by creating a patina of “justification,” thereby reinforcing the irresponsibility that is characteristic of the lower-class culture from which rioters are largely drawn. Similarly, predicting violence often invites it. There is no excuse for rioting, and liberals inclined to explain it as “racial” behavior are engaged in a “dangerous game even when played with the best of motives.”

Most social problems result from individuals’ improvident decisions and dysfunctional lifestyles (which Banfield described as “lower-class culture”), not external circumstances. These qualities transcend racial lines. Solving these cultural problems requires internal changes, not blaming others. Excusing anti-social behavior by blaming others only leads lower-class individuals to forego self-improvement. Government “solutions” often make things worse. Bourgeois values such as industriousness, thrift, sobriety, monogamy, and familial devotion have worked throughout time and across different ethnic and racial groups. The liberal demand for action, even if counter-productive, is a form of self-indulgence—what we now call virtue-signaling.

Banfield’s bold analysis and tough-minded conclusions were prescient. Recognizing that his book would elicit criticism from the Left, Banfield impishly acknowledged in the Preface that many readers would judge the book to be “the work of an ill-tempered and mean-spirited fellow.” Little did he know that his prophetic arguments would make him an early subject of academia’s cancel culture. Banfield “walked into a tsunami of criticism in 1970”; he was denounced as a “racist,” an “apologist for the status quo,” and worse. Banfield became targeted by student protesters, who disrupted his classes and lectures. But the widely-quoted book became a best-seller and demonstrated the power of common sense—a rare quality in the Ivy League. Thomas Sowell described it as “ a demolition derby of fallacies that continue to dominate thoughts and actions in our own time.”                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          

Banfield was not a patrician elitist unsympathetic only to the lower classes. In The Democratic Muse: Visual Arts and the Public Interest (1984) he outraged the affluent by opposing taxpayer support of the arts, including federal funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, as a wealth transfer from the middle class to wealthy patrons. He was an even-handed skeptic, delighting in debunking fashionable assumptions. Despite his friendship with Milton Friedman, Banfield also rejected the libertarian premise of Chicago School economics. As Wilson explained,

Banfield did not believe that personal freedom was the highest human goal and hence did not believe that any market transaction, voluntarily entered into by free men, would necessarily produce the best outcome. The reason is simple: If freedom is the highest good, then there is no way of judging market transactions other than to say they were freely made. But merely because they were freely made does not make them good. 

Rather, Banfield would insist, “I am a vintage Burkean.”

This essay highlights some of Banfield’s major works. He wrote broadly, covering topics including foreign aid, urban politics, public housing, crime, social class, the minimum wage, education, race, employment, and immigration.  Charles Kesler, editor of the Claremont Review of Books, rates Banfield as “one of the greatest social scientists of the twentieth century.” Banfield’s legacy is not limited to his scholarship. His son, Elliott Banfield, is an accomplished artist (who contributed to The American Spectator back in the day, and the Claremont Review of Books currently), and his daughter, Laura Hoguet, is a successful lawyer.

Banfield’s substantial oeuvre defies a short summary. Readers seeking a deeper dive should consult the collection on, created and curated by Kevin Kosar, an AEI scholar and spouse to one of Banfield’s grand-daughters. Better yet, read Government Project and The Unheavenly City.

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