Edward C. Banfield (1916–1999) was a political scientist who taught at the University of Chicago, Harvard University, and the University of Pennsylvania. He was Henry Lee Shattuck Professor of Urban Government at Harvard (1961) and helped lead the MIT-Harvard Joint Center for Urban Studies in the 1960s and 1970s, which produced numerous studies on city politics and administration. Banfield served as an advisor on urban issues to President Richard M. Nixon and as the chairman of his Model Cities Task Force. He also served on a task force on the arts, appointed by President Ronald Reagan.
Banfield published his first academic article, “Rural Rehabilitation in Washington County, Utah,” in 1947, and his final essay, a review of Christianity Without the Cross—God and Other Famous Liberals, in 1992. In between, Banfield wrote dozens of seminal articles and 16 books. James Q. Wilson, the famed political scientist and a student of Banfield, described him as “the man who knew too much.” Banfield’s studies covered an astonishing breadth of topics, including federal agricultural policy, city politics, housing policy, foreign aid, poverty, political philosophy, the American Founding, political parties, and human cooperation. Frequently, he was a prophet spurned—his arguments and conclusions often offended the regnant views of the day and were only gradually accepted years or decades later.
Banfield was born in Bloomfield, Connecticut, on November 19, 1916. He married Laura Fasano in 1938, who helped him produce the renowned book, The Moral Basis of a Backward Society (1958). Ed and Laura Banfield had two children, Laura, an attorney, and Elliot, an artist.
Banfield lived his early life in Hartford and on a farm outside the city. He entered Connecticut State College to study agricultural science, with thoughts of becoming a farmer, but soon changed his mind and took up journalism instead—a decision that well served him as he learned to write clearly and for general audiences.
Upon graduating in 1938, Banfield worked initially for a newspaper selling advertisements, then landed his first government position. He worked successively for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Northeast Timber Salvage Administration, the Farm Bureau of New Hampshire, and the Farm Security Administration. An ardent New Dealer, Banfield’s duties included producing information on various anti-poverty and rural rehabilitation projects for consumption by the media and, through it, the public.
By 1946, Banfield had grown disillusioned. In his travels about the country for the Farm Security Administration he found that the policies he was promoting with the press were, in fact, often ineffective and even harmful to the poor they were intended to benefit. These failures were not due to ill motivations or incompetence by government bureaucrats. Rather, they stemmed from politics, the complex structure of the federal system, and the refusal of beneficiaries to behave as policymakers expected.
That same year, Banfield was invited by Rexford Tugwell to attend graduate school at the University of Chicago. Tugwell, a prominent New Deal “brain truster,” was starting a new academic program on policy planning. At Chicago, Banfield met many intellectual luminaries, including Leo Strauss, Frank Knight, Milton Friedman, and Martin Meyerson. He wrote academic articles, taught courses in government, and finished his doctorate within a few years. His dissertation became his first book, Government Project (1951), which detailed the failure of a federally sponsored collective farm in Arizona that aimed to help itinerant field laborers.
Government Project was a blunt rebuke to the optimism of the New Deal, and it was the first of many books that aimed to illustrate the complexity of human societies and the difficulties and perils inherent to government efforts to improve them. Politics, Planning, and the Public Interest (1955), which he co-authored with Martin Meyerson, showed that urban renewal efforts were unlikely to help the urban poor. The Moral Basis of a Backward Society (1958) showed how cultural habits and beliefs can prevent societies from developing, and Government and Housing in Metropolitan Areas (with Morton M. Grodzins, 1958) showed that low-quality city housing is less a product of government structure than nongovernmental factors such as capital availability.
To the regret of Strauss and other Chicago colleagues, Banfield moved to Harvard in 1959, where he spent the rest of his career, save for a short time at the University of Pennsylvania. At Harvard, Banfield wrote many more books and articles and became known to the general public with the publication of the bestselling The Unheavenly City (1970)—one of a small handful of modern works of scholarship to become a major bestseller. Banfield promoted the book through provocative essays (e.g., “Babies for Sale”), which were published in venues including The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. The book challenged many popular perceptions about urban problems such as crime, race, poverty, and rioting, and questioned whether some others, such as traffic congestion), were problems at all. Many readers, especially in academia and the media, were outraged; his lectures were disrupted by radical students, and intellectuals attacked him in print. But the work was widely praised and cited as well, and over time its central arguments came to be accepted across the political spectrum.
Banfield’s The Democratic Muse (1984) similarly angered the intelligentsia by questioning the wisdom of taxpayer support for the arts and museums as currently operated. Not least, he noted, it was unfair to tax the public generally to support cultural institutions that were in large part accessible only by people who lived near them.
Ed and Laura Banfield spent their summers on their farm in East Montpelier, Vermont, where they frequently entertained colleagues and students (including Milton and Rose Friedman, whose summer home was in New Hampshire). He died of natural causes on September 30, 1999. (Mrs. Banfield died in New York City on August 20, 2006.) Before his death, Banfield burned his papers; he believed that his published works stood on their own merit and that nobody had any business examining his drafts or private correspondence.
Banfield’s legacy includes his writings, which remain models of intellectual rigor and fearless inquiry, and his students, many of whom remain grateful for “the gift of a great teacher.”
—This essay was written by Kevin R. Kosar, and draws upon material previously published in James Q. Wilson, “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court,” Kevin R. Kosar and Mordecai Lee, “Defending a Controversial Agency: Edward C. Banfield as Farm Security Agency Public Relations Officer, 1941–1946,” and Kevin R. Kosar, “Edward C. Banfield: Biography.”