The Magazine

The Man Who Knew Too Much

Edward C. Banfield, 1916-1999

Oct 18, 1999, Vol. 5, No. 05 • By JAMES Q. WILSON
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IN THE INCREASINGLY DULL, narrow, methodologically obscure world of the social sciences, it is hard to find a mind that speaks not only to its students but to its nation. Most scholars can't write, many can't think. Ed Banfield could write and think.

When he died a few days ago, his life gave new meaning to the old saw about being a prophet without honor in your own country. Almost everything he wrote was criticized at the time it appeared for being wrong-headed. In 1955 he and Martin Meyerson published an account of how Chicago built public housing projects in which they explained how mischievous these projects were likely to be: tall, institutional buildings filled with tiny apartments built in areas that guaranteed racial segregation. All this was to be done on the basis of the federal Housing Act of 1949, which said little about what goals housing was to achieve or why other ways of financing it -- housing vouchers, for example -- should not be available. This was heresy to the authors of the law and to most right-thinking planners.

Within two decades, high-rise public housing was widely viewed as a huge mistake and efforts were made to create vouchers so that poor families could afford to rent housing in the existing market. Local authorities in St. Louis had dynamited a big housing project there after describing it as a hopeless failure. It is not likely that Ed and Martin's book received much credit for having pointed the way.

In 1958, Ed, with the assistance of his wife, Laura, explained why a backward area in southern Italy was poor. The reason was not government neglect or poor education but culture. In this area of Italy, the Banfields said in The Moral Basis of a Backward Society, people would not cooperate outside the boundaries of their immediate families. These "amoral familists" were the product of a high death rate, a defective system for owning land, and the absence of any extended families. By contrast, in a town of about the same size located in an equally forbidding part of southern Utah, the residents published a local newspaper and had a remarkable variety of associations, each busily involved in improving the life of the community. In southern Italy, people would not cooperate; in southern Utah, they scarcely did anything else.

Foreign aid programs ignored this finding and went about persuading other nations to accept large grants to build new projects. Few of these projects created sustained economic growth. Where growth did occur, as in Singapore, Hong Kong, and South Korea, there was little foreign aid and what existed made little difference.

Today, David S. Landes, in his magisterial book that explains why some nations become wealthy while others remain poor, offers a one-word explanation: culture. He is right, but the Banfield book written forty years earlier is not mentioned.

In 1970, Ed published his best-known and most controversial work, The Unheavenly City. In it he argued that the "urban crisis" was misunderstood. Many aspects of the so-called crisis, such as congestion or the business flight to the suburbs, are not really problems at all; some that are modest problems, such as transportation, could be managed rather well by putting high peak-hour tolls on key roads and staggering working hours; and many of the greatest problems, such as crime, poverty, and racial injustice, are things that we shall find it exceptionally difficult to manage.

Consider racial injustice. Racism is quite real, though much diminished in recent years, and it has a powerful effect. But the central problem for black Americans is not racism but poverty. And poverty is in part the result of where blacks live and what opportunities confront them. When they live in areas with many unskilled workers and few jobs for unskilled people, they will suffer. When they grow up in families that do not own small businesses, they will find it harder to move into jobs available to them or to meet people who can tell them about jobs elsewhere. That whites treat blacks differently than they treat other whites is obviously true, but "much of what appears . . . as race prejudice is really class prejudice."

In 1987 William Julius Wilson, a black scholar, published his widely acclaimed book, The Truly Disadvantaged. In it he says that, while racism remains a powerful force, it cannot explain the plight of inner-city blacks. The problem is poverty -- social class -- and that poverty flows from the material conditions of black neighborhoods. Banfield's book is mentioned in Wilson's bibliography, but his argument is mentioned only in passing.