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The first promise of conservatism is that it’s an outlook that understands the world as it really is. To be conservative is to recognize that human beings are imperfect creatures and that progressive dreams cannot be built from such crooked timber. If anything, we should be grateful for what we have.

    What is Conservatism? (Joshua Tait, Nov 27, 2019, Arc Digital)

When Edward C. Banfield published The Unheavenly City in 1970, he knew it was going to upset people, particularly the progressive elites he had worked with in the New Deal and at Harvard. But experience had taught him several unpleasant (conservative) truths: there are rather few genuine crises that require a massive central government response; such responses as we undertake are likely not just to fail to do what we intend but are not unlikely to do more damage then good; such problems as exist will generally be ameliorated over time even if we do nothing; and those problems that are a function of culture may simply be beyond the capacity of government to do anything about.

As applied to the then (and always) prevailing notion of a crisis in the cities, he had the temerity to argue that the urban poor were not made poor by living in the city but lived in the city because they were poor: urban living had/has been rather good to them and had raised their standards of living considerably. Meanwhile, massive projects like urban renewal and public housing were more destructive than helpful, not only destroying affordable, if dilapidated housing stuck, but creating counterproductive population density. And, most controversial of all, he offered a schema of class that argued that one's wealth essentially depended on one's perspective: the upper class consisted of those with a sense of permanence, who wanted to leave a legacy; the middle classes wanted to create a cushion so they could retire well; but the poor were those with no vision extending past their next meal and no motivation to change their own circumstances. These class-based views were largely a function of the culture in which they were immersed and were, thus, not susceptible to government programs, were natural and semi-permanent:
The lower-class forms of all problems are at bottom a single problem: the existence of an outlook and style of life which is radically present-oriented and which therefore attaches no value to work, sacrifice, self-impprovement, or service to family, friends, or community.

Because so many of the urban poor were black, this last got mixed up--appropriately or not--with race/racism, and so, after 22 printings, Mr. Banfield "Revisited" his text and tried to clean up some of his own ambiguity to make it clear he was not specifically targeting blacks. His analysis and conclusions stayed the same, but he offered some personal defenses. That, predictably, didn't actually make his views any more acceptable though.

Mr. Banfield did not dismiss the idea that genuine problems did plague cities:
The conditions about which we should be most concerned...are those that affect, or may affect, the good health of the society. If there is an urban crisis in any ultimate sense, it must be constituted of these conditions.

It is clear...that crime, poverty, ignorance, and racial (and other) injustices are among the most important of the general conditions affecting the essential welfare of individuals.
But, just in case his analysis had not sufficiently inflamed the passions of his opponents, he offered a set of solutions that even his friends and allies wished he had left out, from putting the children of the poor up for sale to more responsible families to using birth controls to limit breeding to reducing educational opportunity and having poor kids go to work instead of finishing school. The reader will be excused for thinking Jonathan Swift has taken the wheel. While the author ultimately comes down on the side of treating the problems of cities with something approaching benign neglect, it's hard to forget that he's counseled something approaching active malevolence.

Fifty years on we can see that the text is almost equal parts prescient and blind. On the one hand, there's no one left to argue against what a disaster public housing projects were. His notions of the limits of planning, of unintended consequences, and of emergent solutions to problems look rather good. The revival of many cities has, after all, been driven by a bottom up gentrification rather than any top down renewal. And the current homelessness problem is as much a function of the planners putting restrictions on building new housing and controlling rents as anything.

On the other hand, no one puts much stock in his "horizon theory," that class status is a product of how future-oriented your milieu made you. There is simply too much social mobility here and abroad to take this idea seriously.

One interesting place where we can see that he was wrong, mostly because he was right. With his emphasis on crime as a legitimate problem justifying bureaucratic intervention and his advocacy, therefore, of harsher enforcement he is associated with the broken-windows policing explicitly advocated by his friend James Q. Wilson. Because cities like New York that adopted this idea saw a steep decline in crime rates it seemed to be effective. Unfortunately for the advocates, crime subsided pretty much everywhere, regardless of whether the policy was followed or not. As Mr. Banfield could have told himself, the passage of time itself and demographic trends worked the solution to crime, as the natural decline of the cohort of young people removed those most likely to commit them. Neglect might have been sufficient after all. Although, it's also possible that positive unintended consequences from government action helped too, if the presence of high levels of lead in areas housing the urban poor does turn out to be a contributing factor to crime rates. Or is this effect too just a matter of demographic change coinciding with a policy?

We can find some incidental insights about The Unheavenly City in several quotes found in an excerpt from Triumph Of The City by Edward Glaeser, a current Harvard professor who is mostly charitable to Banfield and his book. Professor Glaeser, while acknowledging urban problems, reiterates the point that cities have been a net positive for the urban poor both in terms of wealth and happiness:
Within the United States, workers in metropolitan areas with big cities earn 30 percent more than workers who aren’t in metropolitan areas. These high wages are offset by higher costs of living, but that doesn’t change the fact that high wages reflect high productivity. The only reason why companies put up with the high labor and land costs of being in a city is that the city creates productivity advantages that offset those costs. Americans who live in metropolitan areas with more than a million residents are, on average, more than 50 percent more productive than Americans who live in smaller metropolitan areas. These relationships are the same even when we take into account the education, experience, and industry of workers. They’re even the same if we take individual workers’ IQs into account. The income gap between urban and rural areas is just as large in other rich countries, and even stronger in poorer nations. [...] There is a myth that even if cities enhance prosperity, they still make people miserable. But people report being happier in those countries that are more urban. In those countries where more than half of the population is urban, 30 percent of people say that they are very happy and 17 percent say that they are not very or not at all happy. In nations where more than half of the population is rural, 25 percent of people report being very happy and 22 percent report unhappiness. Across countries, reported life satisfaction rises with the share of the population that lives in cities, even when controlling for the countries’ income and education.
And, as Banfield would have appreciated, the revival of NYC in particular was produced by private innovation that produced a new financial economy rather than public policy that tried maintaining an old manufacturing one:
New York reinvented itself during the bleak years of the 1970s when a cluster of financial innovators learned from each other and produced a chain of interconnected ideas. Academic knowledge about trading off risk and return made it easier to evaluate and sell riskier assets, like Michael Milken’s highyield (junk) bonds, which made it possible for Henry Kravis to use those bonds to get value out of underperforming companies through leveraged buyouts. Many of the biggest innovators acquired their knowledge not through formal training but by being close to the action, like mortgage-backed security magnate Lewis Ranieri of Liar’s Poker fame, who started in the Salomon Brothers mailroom. Today, 40 percent of Manhattan’s payroll is in the financial services industry, the bulwark of a dense and still-thriving city. And even though some of these financial wizards helped give us the Great Recession, the city that housed them has weathered that storm, too. Between 2009 and 2010, as the American economy largely stagnated, wages in Manhattan increased by 11.9 percent, more than any other large county. In 2010, the average weekly wage in Manhattan was $2,404, which is 170 percent more than the U.S. average, and 45 percent more than in Santa Clara County, home of Silicon Valley, which pays the highest wages outside of Greater New York.
Stripped of any racial implications and with 50 years of further evidence at hand, maybe we can agree more with Mr. Banfield that, while cities were never heavens and will not be made so by progressive intentions and interventions, they serve their populations as well as we might reasonably expect and left mostly to their own devices will adapt to keep it so.

N.B. I do have a few personal quarrels with Mr. Banfield's fatalism about intervention. The first concerns his assertion that mass transit is a mistake and cities ought just yield to the inevitable triumph of cars. On a range of issues from the lead content cited above to the obesity produced by car culture to just the livability of urban areas, displacing the automobile, especially from already overdense urban settings, seems like it would have been and still is sound policy.

Secondly, while he asserts--with whatever accuracy--that the concentration of the lower classes in urban areas is detrimental, insofar as it provides a dense mass of people with the same misshapen "culture," he propounds only negative solutions, where positive would seem useful too:
[F]rom the standpoint of a society that wants at once to protect lower-class people from each other and to protect itself from them, there are advantages in having lower-class people live in the town or small city, or, if they must live in the large one, in having them scattered in a way such that they will not constitute a "critical mass" anywhere. These considerations suggest that government programs (subsidies to large farmers, for example) that tend to push unskilled people off the land and out of rural areas ought to be stopped, that welfare programs should aim at making life in towns and small cities more advantageous to the chronically poor that it is now (thereby reducing one of their incentives to come to the city), and that, within large cities, there should be an end to that kind of urban renewal (almost the only kind in fact) the tendency of which is simply to shift the lower class from one place to another and not to dissipate it.
I'd really like to have seen him lean into this and think it remains a worthy goal, or at least worth experimenting with in a proactive manner, as George W. Bush and the idea of an Opportunity Society started to do. Convert federal housing dollars from subsidies that string the lower-classes along on that short horizon basis into mortgage payments on homes that they own themselves, homes in suburban and rural areas where they will have access to the preferable culture and their kids to better schools, while we simultaneously help them develop the kind of physical capital that gives one a long-term perspective. We can not go back a half century and re-run the public housing experiment that failed so spectacularly but we can fault those who knew it would fail for not forcefully advocating for something better.

Lastly, perhaps because Mr. Banfield was too dismissive of the efficacy of capitalism, he missed on opportunity to seize onto one of Milton Friedman's best ideas, replacing welfare with a guaranteed income, what we would now call a Universal Basic Income. Imagine that the War on Poverty had eschewed all the centralized planning and perplexity of different programs that the author was rightly dubious about and had, instead, simply transferred capital directly to those who lacked it? What if the best solution to poverty is just money? ">Early experimentation at least suggests that such a scheme may improve the "good health of the society" that he concedes is a legitimate worry. It would be nice to have had five decades of experience under our belts as we head towards a period when technology may displace labor to such a degree that we'll need a program like that for even those far-sighted middle and upper classes, eh?


Grade: (B)


Edward Banfield Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Edward C. Banfield
    -ENTRY: Edward C. Banfield (Contemporary Thinkers)
    -PAPERS: City Planning & Landscape Architecture Virtual Library > CPLA Special Collections > Edward C. Banfield Collection (Illinois Library)
    -ETEXT: American Foreign Aid Doctrines by Edward C. Banfield
    -ETEXT: Here the People Rule by Edward C. Banfield (AEI, December 02, 1991)
    -ETEXT: The Unheavenly City by Edward C. Banfield
    -ESSAY: Advice to Graduates About Advice: Never mind who said it or about what. (Edward C. Banfield, Spring 2002, Claremont Review of Books)
    -ETEXT: Ends and Means in Planning (Edward C. Banfield, International Social Science Journal Vol. XI, No.3, 1959)
    -VIDEO LECTURE: The City and the Revolutionary Tradition (Edward C. Banfield, April 11, 1974, AEI’s Bicentennial Distinguished Lecture Series at the Franklin Hall of the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)
    -ETEXTS: Edward C. Banfield, An Online Resource
    -OBIT: Edward C. Banfield (NY Times, 10/08/99)
    -TRIBUTE: Ed Banfield: a giant for our times (Thomas Sowell — Oct 16th, 1999)
    -TRIBUTE: Memorial Minutes: Edward C. Banfield: Faculty of Arts and Sciences (Harvard Gazette, 1/18/01)
    -TRIBUTE: Remarks at Farewell to E.C. Banfield on Departure from Chicago” (Leo Strauss, 1959)
    -TRIBUTE: Edward C. Banfield: An Appreciation (Charles R. Kesler, ed., Claremont, CA: Henry Salvatori Center for the Study of Individual Freedom in the Modern World, 2002)
    -VIDEO LECTURE: Edward Banfield: His sociological insights are a significant forerunner of current results from behavioral economics. (INSTRUCTOR: Tyler Cowen, George Mason University, Marginal Revolution University)
    -PODCAST: Christopher DeMuth on Edward Banfield: DeMuth and Kristol discuss the profound writings and teaching of the late Harvard Government professor. (Converstions with Kristol, March 19, 2014)
    -VIDEO PANEL: Democracy and the Constitution: Panel members responded to the question, "Is the Constitution in spirit designed to protect the wealthy masses against the poor?" Topics included majority rule, democracy, electoral college, and plurality. (C-SPAN, NOVEMBER 30, 1987)
    -ESSAY: Edward Banfield on the Promise of Politics and the Limits of Federalism (Kimberly Hendrickson, Autumn, 2004, Publius: Conservative Perspectives on American Federalism)
    -ESSAY: Return to ‘The Unheavenly City’ (Craig Trainor, May 17, 2020, Quillette)
    -TRIBUTE: The Independent Mind of Edward Banfield (James Q. Wilson, January 1, 2003, Edward C. Banfield: An Appreciation)
    -TRIBUTE: Edward C. Banfield (Terry Nichols Clark, 02 September 2013 , Political Science & Politics)
    -ESSAY: Rethinking Horizon Theory: Culture vs. Nature (B. Jeffrey Reno, 07 Aug 2010, Perspectives on Political Science)
    -ESSAY: Banfield’s “Heresy”: Last fall, just before Thanksgiving, Professor Edward Banfield resigned from Harvard University. (T. R. Marmor, July 1972, Commentary)
    -ESSAY: Edward Banfield Revisited (Daniel DiSalvo, Summer 2017, National Affairs)
    -ARTICLE: Banfield's Back (Jim Crumer, August 1, 1975, Harvard Crimson)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: Moral Sense and Social Science: Reading James Q. Wilson (John J. DiIulio, Jr., Claremont Review of Books)
    -ESSAY: A Nearly Forgotten Classic Study in Public Administration: Edward C. Banfield's Government Project (Kevin R. Kosar, 24 August 2009, Public Administration Review)
    -SYMPOSIUM: Banfield’sUnheavenly City: A symposium and response (Duane Lockard, Russell D. Murphy, Arthur Naftalin & Edward C. Banfield, 1971, Trans-action)
    -EXCERPT: from Triumph of the City: A new book describes how living and working in an urban expanse encourages the best humanity has to offer. (Edward Glaeser, August 17, 2011, Scientific American)
    -ESSAY: Loose Cigarettes Today, Civil Unrest Tomorrow: The racist, classist origins of broken windows policing. (JUSTIN PETERS, DEC 05, 2014, Slate)
In his 1970 book The Unheavenly City and a revised edition titled The Unheavenly City Revisited, Banfield addressed the era’s so-called urban crisis: high crime rates, riots, white flight. Liberalism was to blame, Banfield argued—or, at the very least, liberal policies would never help fix the crisis. The Great Society initiatives of the Johnson era had just served to widen class divisions and to encourage members of the lower classes to blame others for their plight, thus fostering feelings of resentment and entitlement.

Banfield argued that class divisions were based less on finances than on one’s life outlook and capacity for long-range thought. Members of the upper class were future-oriented, and, thus, able to postpone short-term pleasures for longer-term rewards. Members of the lower classes—urban blacks, in large part—lived from moment to moment, and acted out of a desire for instant gratification. They were also unambitious, “radically improvident,” antisocial, and prone to mental illness. Their problems were a matter of pathology, not racial prejudice (which Banfield argued was on the wane).

“The implication that lower-class culture is pathological seems fully warranted,” said Banfield. Thus, he argued, rather than waste time and public money implementing policies based on the false notion that all men were created equal, better to just face facts and acknowledge the natural divisions that exist. Members of the lower classes should leave school in ninth grade, to get a jump on a lifetime of manual labor. The minimum wage should be repealed to encourage employers to create more jobs for “low-value labor.” The state should give “intensive birth-control guidance to the incompetent poor.” And the police should feel free to crack down on young lower-class men.

Like many people, Banfield believed the urban unrest of the late 1960s had been stoked by matters of civil rights. But Banfield believed the problem was that the lower classes had too many of them. Criminal behavior was human nature—or, rather, in the nature of a specific subset of lower-class humans. “So long as there are large concentrations of boys and young men of the lower classes on the streets, rampages and forays are to be expected,” Banfield wrote. The clear solution was to remove these lower-class youths from the streets posthaste.

“There are individuals whose propensity to crime is so high that no set of incentives that it is feasible to offer to the whole population would influence their behavior,” Banfield wrote. The most effective way to prevent violent crime in cities, Banfield theorized, would therefore be to pre-emptively abridge the freedom of the “mostly young, lower-class males” who were likely to commit crimes in the future. What’s that? You say that “abridging the freedom of persons who have not committed crimes is incompatible with the principles of free society”? Well, said Banfield, “so, also, is the presence in free society of persons who, if their freedom is not abridged, would use it to inflict serious injuries on others.”

    -ESSAY: Broken Windows: The police and neighborhood safety (GEORGE L. KELLING & JAMES Q. WILSON, MARCH 1982, The Atlantic)
    -ESSAY: Edward Banfield on the Promise of Politics and the Limits of Federalism (Kimberly Hendrickson, Fall 2004, Publius: The Journal of Federalism)
    -ESSAY: The art of limited government (Arthur C. Brooks, March 26, 2013, AEI)
    -ESSAY: The Problem of the Cities (Mark Pulliam, MAY 17, 2016, Law & Liberty)
    -ARCHIVES: edward banfield (AEI)
    -REVIEW: of The Unheavenly City Revisted by Edward C. Banfield (Christopher DeMuth, The Alternative)
    -REVIEW: of The Unheavenly City: The Nature and Future of Our Urban Crises by Edward C. Banfield (David E. Vanderburg, Interfaces)
    -REVIEW: of The Unheavenly City (Edward Glaeser, NY Sun)
    -REVIEW: of The Unheavenly City (Duhl, L. J., & Blum, S. R., American Journal of Orthopsychiatr)
    -REVIEW: of The Unheavenly City (Julian H. Levi, Perspectives in Biology and Medicine)
    -REVIEW: of The Unheavenly City Revisited (Joel Lieske, American Journal of Sociology)
    -REVIEW: of The Unheavenly City (Charles D. Aring, MD, Arch Intern Med)
    -REVIEW: of The Unheavenly City (Richard Sennett, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of The Unheavenly City (Robert Hassenger, Sociology of Religion)
    -REVIEW: of The Unheavenly City (Martin Plax, Modern Age)
    -REVIEW: of The Unheavenly City (Herzig, Sidney J.Theory and Decision)
    -ESSAY: Unintended Consequences (Rob Norton, EconLibrary)
    -REVIEW: of City Politics. By EDWARD C. BANFIELD AND JAMES Q. WILSON (Stephen L. Wasby, Political Research Quarterly)

Book-related and General Links: