Government Project, by Edward C. Banfield (AEI Press, 248 pp., $14.95)

Socialists often say their preferred economic system has never really been tried. In their eyes, the horrific results of the Soviet Union and Communist China’s collective farms don’t undermine socialists’ vision of collective ownership.

While many remember Communist countries’ collective farms, fewer remember that the United States built similar sites during the New Deal. These cooperatives, like those planned in more authoritarian regimes, failed spectacularly.

America’s cooperative farms are the subject of Government Project, a remarkable but forgotten book by the late Edward C. Banfield, a long-time political science professor at Harvard. Published in 1951 and out of print for decades, the book has been republished by the American Enterprise Institute, with a new foreword by senior fellow Kevin Kosar. Kosar writes that if “a neoconservative is a liberal who got mugged by reality,” as Irving Kristol famously put it, then Banfield—a New Dealer who worked under Rexford Tugwell in the late 1930s and early 1940s—was “the earliest neoconservative, and Government Project is the first neoconservative book.” Indeed, one might say that reality mugged Banfield on the farm.

Banfield is remembered mostly as a scholar of American cities, having published the controversial 1970 book The Unheavenly City. But before he turned to the problems and prospects of urban America, Banfield intensively studied the federal government’s efforts to resettle 57 migrant farmworker families on a government-created, 5,000-acre cooperative farm in Casa Grande, Arizona.

Between 1937 and 1942, the cooperative farm flourished, producing alfalfa, beef, poultry, cotton, grain, and pork. “In today’s dollars,” Kosar writes, “Casa Grande’s assets were valued at more than $4 million, and its annual profit reached nearly $500,000. The settlers’ equity in the project was about $1 million.” Yet despite a major investment by Washington and direction from Tugwell (who wrote an introduction to the 1951 edition of Government Project), the cooperative farm was eventually disbanded and the families fell back into the poverty. Why?

The story Banfield tells is more provocative and fuller of wisdom than a dozen recent articles in top social science journals. He does not start with a grand theory; nor does he produce any regression equations. Instead, he proceeds inductively from the case at hand, studying available government documents, interviewing participants on the farm and in Washington, and only then cautiously offering an explanation for why the farm failed. The result is a genuinely interdisciplinary work, one blending public administration, sociology, and political theory—the sort of thing that receives much lip service in the academy today but not much else.

Two fundamental questions animate the book. The first: What induces people to cooperate? A collective farm can only succeed if the participants can work together. The second: To what extent, and by what means, can government alleviate poverty and promote upward mobility? In Casa Grande, the government provided dirt-poor families, who had been living in shacks and tents, with “completely modern” houses, with “bathrooms, running hot and cold water, electric wiring and fixtures, and a garage attached to the house.” But the participants abandoned the farm and returned to their prior ways of living.

Banfield argues that the farm failed because the participants “were unable to cooperate . . . because they were engaged in a ceaseless struggle for power.” Barring a coercive reeducation program (the Communist solution to such a problem), the farmers sought various forms of esteem and engaged in ceaseless rivalry. Banfield argues that with little formal education, a hardscrabble background, and no broader cultural bonds to tie them together, the farmers could not be persuaded to cooperate, no matter how much their material circumstances improved. They sought not just higher incomes, it turned out, but higher “status.” But status is a scarce resource, too, and the collective farm lacked the means to satisfy all the demands for it. And insofar as the newfound wealth the farmers enjoyed had been given to them, rather than earned, their attachment to it was less than their desire for admiration.

Federal policymakers assumed that boosting the living conditions of the farmers would make them grateful and eager to cooperate to sustain their good fortune. The government, in Banfield’s telling, was reasonably honest, efficient, and effective in improving material conditions. But it assumed that the farmers would behave as “economic men,” with the single goal “to increase their level of living.” Such narrow-minded rationality did not account for the farmers’ vanity. As a result, the farmers regularly formed a wide range of opinions from the same information, often to suit their individual purposes. Conflict rather than cooperation ensued.

Banfield’s emphasis on noneconomic motives cut against the grain of his day—and ours, too. Indeed, he returned to a bit of eighteenth-century wisdom, which held that man’s overriding desire is to be admired. Economic success, one source of admiration, is only a piece of a much larger puzzle. Any policy program that fails to account for such larger drives is doomed.

Though it’s of a lower order of importance in explaining why Casa Grande failed, Banfield also highlights the lost-in-translation aspects of policymaking, as misunderstandings inevitably emerged between officials in Washington and administrators on the ground in Arizona. For instance, policymakers had to forgo trying to educate participants in the principles of cooperation because doing so would have slowed down the launching of the enterprise. But without education or training in how to cooperate—and without the glue of religion, racial or ethnic ties, or some other cultural bond—it was impossible to get the farmers to sacrifice their self-interest, as they saw it, for the common good.

A final obstacle for the collective farm was a lack of leadership. Banfield has a powerful lesson on this point. Leadership, he writes, “rests on intuition and the ‘feel’ of the situation; it includes (but is not limited to) a gift for handling non-logical elements in an intuitive way.” Such skills are rare, however, and highly valuable in society, which makes it highly unlikely that a good leader will long remain present among poor migrant farmers—or even government officials working with poor migrant farmers. Skill in the management of complex government programs is hard to find. This limits what the government can do to improve the lot of the poor and the downtrodden.

Banfield’s story of the rise and fall of Casa Grande offers vital insights on the difficulty of securing human cooperation; these are perhaps even more relevant today in our highly polarized society than they were in 1950s America. Equipping people to handle the inevitable disagreements in a modern democratic society requires civic education—the kind of instruction that too few institutions currently offer. That’s a challenge for democratic cooperation.

Photo: Dorothea Lange, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


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