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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Both Wilson and Banfield explain the core urban problems as ones that flow from social class. To Wilson, an "underclass" has emerged, made up of people who lack skills, experience long-term unemployment, engage in street crime, and are part of families with prolonged welfare dependency. Banfield would have agreed. But to Wilson, the underclass suffers from a shortage of jobs and available fathers, while for Banfield it suffers from a defective culture.

Wilson argued that changing the economic condition of underclass blacks would change their underclass culture; Banfield argued that unless the underclass culture was first changed (and he doubted much could be done in that regard), the economic condition of poor blacks would not improve. The central urban problem of modern America is to discover which theory is correct.

Banfield had some ideas to help address the culture (though he thought no government would adopt them): Keep the unemployment rate low, repeal minimum-wage laws, lower the school-leaving age, provide a negative income tax (that is, a cash benefit) to the "competent poor," supply intensive birth-control guidance to the "incompetent poor," and pay problem families to send their children to decent day-care programs.

The Unheavenly City sold well but was bitterly attacked by academics and book reviewers; Wilson's book was widely praised by the same critics. But on the central facts, both books say the same thing, and on the unknown facts -- What will work? -- neither book can (of necessity) offer much evidence.

Ed Banfield's work would probably have benefited from a quality he was incapable of supplying. If it had been written in the dreary style of modern sociology or, worse, if he had produced articles filled with game-theoretic models and endless regression equations, he might have been taken more seriously. But Ed was a journalist before he was a scholar, and his commitment to clear, forceful writing was unshakable.

He was more than a clear writer with a Ph.D.; everything he wrote was embedded in a powerful theoretical overview of the subject. "Theory," to him, meant clarifying how people can think about a difficulty, and the theories he produced -- on social planning, political influence, economic backwardness, and urban problems -- are short masterpieces of incisive prose.

His remarkable mind was deeply rooted in Western philosophy as well as social science. To read his books is to be carried along by extraordinary prose in which you learn about David Hume and John Stuart Mill as well as about pressing human issues. To him, the central human problem was cooperation: How can society induce people to work together in informal groups -- Edmund Burke's "little platoons" -- to manage their common problems? No one has ever thought through this issue more lucidly, and hence no one I can think of has done more to illuminate the human condition of the modern world.

A few months ago, a group of Ed's former students and colleagues met for two days to discuss his work. Our fondness for this amusing and gregarious man was manifest, as were our memories of the tortures through which he put us as he taught us to think and write. Rereading his work as a whole reminded us that we had been privileged to know one of the best minds we had ever encountered, a person whose rigorous intellect and extraordinary knowledge created a standard to which all of us aspired but which none of us attained.