One by one, the intellectual giants who helped shape American conservatism in the latter half of the 20th century are leaving us. With Edward C. Banfield's death a few weeks ago at 83, conservatism lost a profound student of American politics, one of the most influential social scientists of the age, and a discerning critic of liberal optimism and self-congratulation.
Banfield was a political scientist who insisted on asking large and unfashionable questions. His formative years were spent at the University of Chicago, where he had gone to study the politics and economics of planning with Rexford G. Tugwell, one of the New Deal's biggest brain-trusters. Banfield wanted to know why so many of the New Deal's agricultural experiments had failed. He found the answer not in the programs' implementation but in the planners' assumptions. They hadn't calculated the unintended consequences of their actions, the ripple effects of change in a complicated economic and political system, the inability of reason to dictate social reality. Ed developed these themes as a scholar and teacher at the University of Chicago, where he was a friend and colleague of Leo Strauss and Milton Friedman, and later at the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard.
His greatest book was one of his earliest, The Moral Basis of a Backward Society, published in 1958. Researched and written with his wife, Laura, the book asked why a hilltown in Southern Italy, where Ed and his family had spent nine months living among and interviewing the inhabitants, was so poor. It wasn't because of class structure, as Marx would have insisted, nor because of the lack of national economic planning, as the New Dealers and contemporary development economists would have claimed. Ed argued, instead, that the region's poverty had a "moral basis." He showed that at the root of their squalor was the inhabitants' refusal to trust, and hence to cooperate, with anyone who was not a member of their immediate family.
This "amoral familism," as Ed called it, doomed the people to economic backwardness and political irrelevance. Unless this culture could be changed (and Banfield did not think it could, except slowly and over time), no amount of economic planning, income redistribution, or moral exhortation would turn these fatalistic villagers into eager citizens and entrepreneurs.
Banfield thus raised a classic question why does anyone ever trust anyone outside the immediate family? or to put it differently, what makes civil society possible? in a new and powerful way. Confirming insights by Hobbes, Tocqueville, and Fustel de Coulanges, Banfield uncovered the non-rational, habitual, and cultural roots of human association, proving again how "brain-trusters" trust the human brain too much.
Banfield's account of the primacy of culture and, in particular, of the culture of trust has been echoed by recent writers on "social capital," usually without attribution. But Ed's brilliant study may yet receive its due. Samuel Huntington, the prominent political scientist, lately praised The Moral Basis of a Backward Society as "a work for the ages."
Advanced societies have a moral basis, too, of course, and most of Ed's books were about American society and its characteristic problems. Probably his greatest book on America was The Unheavenly City, which in 1970 became a controversial best-seller. As the title suggested, Ed's thesis was that every human city is imperfect, and that the worst threats to urban decency and happiness come precisely from "enlightened" efforts to build heaven on earth. (Banfield had studied Mayor Daley's Chicago and other urban "machines" and had favorable things to say about them, particularly in contrast to the schemes of goo-goos and other professional reformers.)
Yet far from being bleak, The Unheavenly City acknowledged that in many ways the quality of life in American cities had improved over the past hundred years, and even proposed (unusual for Ed) some reforms that would improve matters further. But his critics noticed only his devastating attacks on Great Society programs. Unable to refute him, they settled for impugning him viciously in all manner of settings, including his own classroom. The Unheavenly City has stood the test of time, however, and many of its conclusions are now accepted even by liberal writers on race, crime, and welfare, who lament the existence of an urban "underclass." But Banfield saw it first, describing the "lower-class culture" whose members were so "present-oriented" that they lived mainly for immediate gratification and impulsive adventure. The result, not easily changed, was an urban landscape littered with drug use, fatherless families, and random crime.
Ed was a luminous opponent of modern rationalism who didn't expect to be loved by its votaries, and wasn't. What better way for them to confirm his rather dark view of human nature, after all? But he loved his wife and children and he loved his friends and students, almost all of whom remained close and would often visit Laura and him at their lovely 18th century farmhouse in Vermont, where they spent summers. It was there, where he was accustomed to being his most amiable, sceptical, and cantankerous self, that he passed away, surrounded by family and friends. To all and especially to Laura, his wife of 61 years, we offer our warmest condolences.