Last fall, just before Thanksgiving, Professor Edward Banfield resigned from Harvard University. His colleagues in Harvard’s government department were informed by note that Ban-field was to become a University Professor at Pennsylvania, where Martin Meyerson, co-author with Banfield of the widely admired Politics, Planning, and the Public Interest, was president. No official attention was drawn to Banfield’s reasons for leaving. Yet it would be extraordinary if his departure from Harvard were not partially occasioned by the angry and imbalanced controversy over his book, The Unheavenly City1—a controversy which tells us less about what may be wrong with Banfield than about what is wrong with standards of critical discourse among social scientists today.
The controversy over The Unheavenly City was expected, and indeed it was partially provoked. Banfield seems to lead readers into distemper, the preface to his book containing the following anticipation of adverse reaction: “This book will probably strike many readers as the work of an ill-tempered and mean-spirited fellow. I would not mind that especially if I did not think it might prevent them from taking its argument as seriously as they should. I should like therefore to assure the reader that I am as well-meaning—probably even as soft-hearted—as he. But facts are facts however unpleasant. . . .”
The reception accorded The Unheavenly City was true to Ban-field’s expectation. The book in fact has been a minor political phenomenon. Since publication in the spring of 1970 it has sold over 100,000 copies, generated an astonishing amount of news coverage, and been analyzed by journals as diverse as Commonweal and the Social Science Quarterly, Trans-action and the National Review, Fortune and the Library Journal. Time and Newsweek covered The Unheavenly City as a news event, a document which had “found favor with the Nixon administration.” And it has been the topic of numerous academic symposia as well as special panel sessions of the Association of American Law Schools and the American Political Science Association.
In substance, if not in tone, The Unheavenly City reads like a political scientist’s version of Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom. In it, Banfield makes a number of different claims about 20th-century urban progress, the character of America’s “lower class,” and the minimal, sometimes negative, contribution of public programs to urban change. He shows how urban conditions have improved in absolute terms during this century and asserts that only our “rising expectations” explain why our present circumstances are seen by some as a “crisis.” Blacks have taken part in this general progress, he maintains, citing secondary evidence of the unmistakable improvement in the housing, income, health, and political patterns of black Americans. The situation of the city’s least fortunate inhabitants, he concludes, is thus not all that bad.
However, Banfield claims that most of this improvement has been produced not by government policy, but by the independent play of market and social forces. It is unlikely, furthermore, that government policy can deal successfully with the one intractable problem which has resisted solution by the private sector. That is the problem of our “lower class,” the group whose cultural level is as low as its income and whose inability to postpone gratification makes it stumble and fail continuously in the great American upward scramble. The “lower class” is disproportionately black and urban2; it will not, like old soldiers or 19th-century immigrants, fade away from public notoriety. Nor will the problem of the “lower class” respond to governmental remedies. Indeed, says Banfield:
So long as the city contains a sizeable lower class, nothing basic can be done about its most serious problems. Good jobs may be offered to all, but some will remain chronically unemployed. Slums may be demolished, but if the housing that replaces them is occupied by the lower class it will shortly be turned into new slums. Welfare payments may be doubled or tripled and a negative income tax instituted, but some persons will continue to live in squalor and misery. New schools may be built, new curricula devised, and the teacher-pupil ratio cut in half, but if the children who attend these schools come from lower-class homes, they will be turned into blackboard jungles, and those who graduate or drop out from them will, in most cases, be functionally illiterate. . . . If, however, the lower class were to disappear—if, say, its members were overnight to acquire the attitudes, motivations, and habits of the working class—the most serious and intractable problems of the city would all disappear with it.
Finally, in other essays included in The Unheavenly City, Banfield makes a number of separate points about housing and metropolitan growth patterns, riots and their causes, minimum-wage legislation and education policy, private wants and the public inability to satisfy them.
But if Banfield’s views read like a political-science version of Milton Friedman, they have been received with nothing like the scholarly respect that Friedman regularly commands. Although Banfield has had his champions (who include James Q. Wilson, Irving Kristol, and Robert A. Nisbet) and although some of these have if anything exaggerated the excellence of The Unheavenly City, they have been overwhelmed both in numbers and in passion by his detractors. These latter have charged Banfield with a bewildering variety of sins: distortion by selective citation, unsound inferences, intellectual opportunism, moral insensitivity. His book has been described as “warped,” “perverse,” “wrong-headed,” “a tract that will have unfortunate social effects.” The Village Voice characterized it as “a piece of shit.” Duane Lockard, chairman of the department of politics at Princeton, labeled the work “patent racism.” David Elesh asserted in the Journal of Human Resources that “it is not enough to say that this is a bad book. It is irresponsible and propagandistic . . . mere assertion.”
Why has the book aroused so much emotion and so little fair-minded analysis? To discover the answer is to understand why dissenting voices in the social-policy community have been subjected to intimidation and why the discussion of social policy has become so shrill an enterprise. In part, the emotionalism indicates that what Banfield has to say is significantly disturbing. His ideas about the existence of an intractably pathological lower class, for example, strike at the very basis of middle-class reform ardor. “If Banfield is right,” Richard Todd noted correctly in the Atlantic Monthly, “the noblest efforts of the past 30 years have been wrong.” This is heresy to liberals, and it is attacked as such.
Others among Banfield’s critics have charged him with academic heresy—that is, with bias and distortion. As Robert L. Bartley summed it up in a sensible essay on the whole Banfield affair in the Wall Street Journal: “The ever present insinuation [of reviewers] has been that Mr. Banfield did not follow his evidence and logic to his conclusions, that the conclusions spring first from some ulterior purpose, that he is a dishonest scholar.” Thus Peter Rossi, the Johns Hopkins sociologist, described Banfield’s analysis in the Social Science Quarterly as “intellectual opportunism” and “selective citation,” and labeled the book, “a political tract, better documented than most, but a tract nevertheless.” Robert Agger claimed in the same issue of the Social Science Quarterly that “Banfield’s use of studies and events to document his theses is a not so clever but purposeful, manipulative, selective ordering of so-called fact.”
The charge that Banfield is merely an apologist for the status quo was leveled by others. Writing in the New York Times Book Review, Jeff Greenfield accused Banfield of blatant political bias in a “largely theoretical tract” which “absolves institutions now in power.” “Banfield,” fumed Richard Sennett in the New York Review of Books, is “. . . an innocent, blind to the facts of class and race in America today, and taking refuge from the storms of modern events in an old-fashioned small-town mythology of class and the individual’s place in history.”
The Banfield controversy sharply illuminates our depressing current mode of discussing social-policy issues. First, it illustrates the habit shared by many intellectuals of dismissing claims that, even if true, might tend to weaken reform impulses. Such critics seem to believe that improvement for black Americans cannot proceed if even demonstrable falsehoods—such as that the material circumstances of blacks have been getting worse over the past decade—are laid to rest. Thus, Robert Agger warned that the fact that “Banfield is quite right in demonstrating the hopelessness of well-intended but minor reforms should lead no one to his inference and guiding postulate that ‘fundamental reforms’ are impossible or unwise in a free society.” Agger took the anti-intellectual and rather alarmist position that “During this period of groping for new forms and new solutions, the voices of the Ban-fields could do damage.” Peter Rossi said of Banfield, “It is all too easy to read into [his] term ‘lower class’ the content ‘black’ and to conclude that as long as we have blacks in our cities we will have problems because so many of them are incorrigibly lower class.” These critics held Banfield to the position that truth and bad consequences are unheavenly partners.
Second, the reception illustrates how the scholarly community fails to assess dispassionately the relative merits of a book or argument. Many rejected the entire book on the basis of partial disagreement, especially on the issue of income-redistribution and its power to affect poverty. Banfield believes that welfare payments do not produce greater independence or self-reliance in the “lower-class” poor because lower-class culture amounts to a pathology that is immune to merely symptomatic treatment. “The implication that lower-class culture is pathological,” wrote Ban-field, “seems fully warranted . . . because of the relatively high incidence of mental illness in the lower class.”
But how large is this group of the culturally poor? Banfield does not know. What is the evidence that such a group exists at all in anything but trivial numbers? Banfield is not clear. Frank Levy properly noted in remarks before the American Political Association in 1971:
. . . on the issue of size, Banfield is quite ambiguous. When making estimates, his numbers seem small. When discussing policy, the numbers seem large indeed. On page 61, Banfield quotes with approval an estimate that 5 per cent of all city families and 15-20 per cent of all city families below the poverty line are “multi-problem” families, families who qualify as Banfield’s polar case of the lower class. This suggests that the other 80 per cent of poverty families could benefit to some extent from government programs. Yet many of Banfield’s verbal arguments sound almost like the opposite proportions exist.
Peter Rossi supported Levy’s criticism, claiming that “there is nothing but the most fragmentary and inconclusive evidence that there is a ‘lower class’ which is unable to defer gratification, or plan for the future”; and he thereby concluded that Banfield builds his model of urban society in order “to support his conservative ideology.”
This criticism is important and cannot be lightly dismissed by Banfield or his defenders. Yet it does not prove that Banfield’s thesis about housing patterns is false, that his views of the “costs” of rising expectations are wrong-headed, or that in general he is a Nixon lackey. He might just be wrong about income-maintenance and the definition of poverty.
The Unheavenly City is written in a cantankerous, irritating tone, and it is true that this tone may have prompted some of Banfield’s critics to respond in kind. In his passion for criticizing the unreason of liberal clichés, Banfield characteristically comes on as a “soured idealist”; as the Wall Street Journal noted, Banfield has
an argumentative streak . . . which is not entirely unrelated to the book’s reception. Even his defenders observe that he has a taste for zingy rhetoric that can invite outraged reply. His chapter on urban riots, for example, argues that a certain incidence of outbreaks was inevitable when large and growing numbers of lower-class youths became concentrated in central cities and that this was much aggravated when political leaders started to read into outbreaks the quasi-justification of political purpose. He chose to title this “Rioting Mainly for Fun and Profit.”
The fury of the liberal response to Banfield is, then, understandable and Banfield himself is not without responsibility in provoking it. Nevertheless, the entire enterprise of intellectual debate in the United States was demeaned by the reception of The Unheavenly City. No work by a prominent social scientist, however unorthodox, however flawed, however provocative, merits the kind of hysteria which greeted this book. In the process, another chance was lost to discuss seriously the problems of urban America and their possible cures. The Banfield case can be added to those of Moynihan, Jensen, and Herrnstein as an example of the intemperate and intimidating atmosphere in which the discussion of social policy has come to be conducted in America.
1 Little, Brown, 308 pp., $6.95.
2 That is to say, a higher percentage of blacks are in poverty than are in the middle or upper class; among Americans as a whole there are of course more whites than blacks in impoverished circumstances.