The Man Who Knew Too Much

James Q. Wilson, The Weekly Standard, October 18, 1999.


IN THE INCREASINGLY DULL, narrow, methodologically obscure world of the social sciences, it is hard to find a mind that speaks not only to its students but to its nation. Most scholars can’t write, many can’t think. Ed Banfield could write and think.

When he died a few days ago, his life gave new meaning to the old saw about being a prophet without honor in your own country. Almost everything he wrote was criticized at the time it appeared for being wrong-headed. In 1955 he and Martin Meyerson published an account of how Chicago built public housing projects in which they explained how mischievous these projects were likely to be: tall, institutional buildings filled with tiny apartments built in areas that guaranteed racial segregation. All this was to be done on the basis of the federal Housing Act of 1949, which said little about what goals housing was to achieve or why other ways of financing it — housing vouchers, for example — should not be available. This was heresy to the authors of the law and to most right-thinking planners.

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