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The Perils of “Doing Something”

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The Perils of “Doing Something”

Fifty years on, Edward C. Banfield’s skeptical take on the urban crises of his day offers useful advice for dealing with our own. December 31, 2020
Cities
The Social Order

Fifty years ago, Edward C. Banfield published The Unheavenly City: The Nature and Future of Our Urban Crisis at a time much like our own, with poverty, crime, and racial unrest seemingly ascendant. It was also a time in which both Left and Right engaged in a great deal of hyperbolic commentary about these problems—a tendency Banfield’s book sought to address.

The Unheavenly City is one of those rare academic books that became a bestseller, marked by Banfield’s characteristic straight talk and satirical passages, such as when he muses on whether the burdens of impoverished, unwedded mothers might be lifted by authorizing them to sell their babies. The book also outraged the Left—particularly the political class and intelligentsia, which had invested a great deal of time trying to solve America’s urban crises. They damned the book as “reactionary,” “ignorant,” “dangerous,” and “tasteless.” The New York Review of Books ran an unflattering caricature alongside a scathing review by a young Richard Sennett. For years after the book’s release, radicals disrupted Banfield’s classes and public lectures, calling him a racist and a fascist—neither of which was true.

Many of the critics missed the point of the volume, which was at its core Socratic. America was worked up about cities, with some fearing a national race war and a collapse of civilization. The “war on poverty” was in full swing, and more policies aimed at saving cities were in the works. Banfield saw good reason to ask tough questions and consider all possible solutions, no matter how unfashionable.

He had seen firsthand the results of using radical government action to solve social problems during the Great Depression and shortly after World War II. He had been a New Dealer as a young man, working in FDR’s administration. Two of his earlier books, Government Project (1951) and Politics, Planning, and the Public Interest (1955), were in-depth examinations of government efforts to aid the rural and urban poor. The earlier book examined an effort to settle migrant workers onto cooperative farms, while the later one looked at slum clearance and “urban renewal.” Both proved expensive failures that did harm in some cases. Indeed, the more Banfield saw of government schemes to improve the public, the more skeptical he grew, making him one of the earliest domestic neoconservatives.

The Unheavenly City is, as Banfield states upfront, “an attempt by a social scientist to think about the problems of the cities in light of scholarly findings.” The first step, he wrote, was to ask a deceptively simple question: “What’s an urban problem, and which ones do we have?”

His key insight was that problems are socially and politically constructed. Surveying the purported problems of the cities, Banfield argued that many of them reflected upper-class prejudices. Cities are congested, with traffic jams at rush hour; ugly and rundown buildings mar some blocks. So what? Banfield asked. These issues are annoyances, not “serious problems” that damage residents’ “essential welfare.”

Consider rioting—or “civil disturbances,” as some preferred to call them. The urban unrest of the 1960s upset many Americans and particularly vexed policy wonks and elected officials. America’s well-meaning leaders largely took the view that these were race riots—understandable protests against systemic racism, lack of opportunity, shoddy housing, and bad cops. If government fixed those problems, the riots would end.

Banfield thought otherwise. He pointed out that by nearly all empirical measures, conditions in the cities had improved over recent decades. Housing quality was better, a higher percentage of the young were being schooled and for longer durations, and racism and police brutality had declined. (Banfield repeatedly noted, however, that racism still existed and had negative impacts.)

Banfield laid out a typology of riots. Some are rampages, some are outbursts of righteous indignation, some are opportunistic forages for pillage, and others are political demonstrations. Understanding the difference is key to understanding how to respond, and crucial to determining whether government action can ameliorate the factors causing them.

Whether the issue is unrest, housing, or other “problems,” Banfield cautions reformers: “To a large extent . . . our urban problems are like the mechanical rabbit at the racetrack, which is set to keep ahead of the dogs no matter how fast they may run.” Trying to do better is laudable, but it carries a danger: that we will “mistake failure to progress as fast as we would like for failure to progress at all, and in panic, rush into ill-considered measures that will only make matters worse.”

This American itch—that we must “DO SOMETHING” and “DO GOOD,” as Banfield put it—also fosters a psychological-sociological trap, wherein Americans take the view that society “could solve all problems if it only tried hard enough; [and the fact] that a problem continues to exist is therefore proof positive of its guilt.”

When it comes to solving urban problems, government’s record was mixed at best. The “mammoth government programs to aid the cities” mostly were directed to the problems of “comfort, convenience, and business advantage” for which the upper classes clamored. The poor saw few clear benefits to seeing their run-down neighborhoods bulldozed and being relocated themselves to new government housing projects.

Whatever hopes Banfield might have had that his left-wing critics would give him credit for these views were dashed by his contention that many serious urban problems simply could not be solved. This conclusion was especially offensive to various elite reformers, whose livelihoods were premised on finding ways to save America’s cities.

The intractability of urban problems had some identifiable causes in Banfield’s estimation. Some were driven by macro factors: demography, technology, and economics. Hence, growth of the young male population, whether due to migration or rising birth rates, led inexorably to more crime. Improved transportation technologies enabled more affluent citizens to move out of city centers, leaving a higher concentration of poor inhabitants. (Cincinnati and other cities grappled with this issue in the nineteenth century, long before “white flight” became a national concern.) As demand to live in cities rises, businesses that employ low-income workers leave for more affordable locations near or outside the metropolitan periphery, leading to angst about the hollowing out of the city center. Policymakers have few good tools to address such developments.

Another factor was class, a term Banfield used with nuance. Class was not only a socioeconomic indicator but also a perspective on life. Banfield labeled individuals as “lower class” if they tended to live in the present at the expense of future happiness. Thus, even among the rich one can find lower-class individuals: wastrel children who flunk out of the best schools, refuse to work, and squander the family fortune.

The affluent lower-class individual, meantime, is rarely of interest to policymakers, who tend to focus their efforts on the impoverished lower-class individuals whose troubles create spillover costs for society in the form of crime, unwanted pregnancies, and the like. The millions of dollars spent on government programs to lift up the lower class yielded disappointing results, but Banfield argued that we should not have been surprised. Expanded job opportunities, new education programs, and incentives that reward good behavior are mostly lost on an individual who lives for the present. Demographic data can show a particular neighborhood to be highly impoverished, but it can’t tell policymakers what percentage of the population has the working-class or middle-class perspectives that would allow them to benefit from aid.

The pluralistic nature of American government and politics presented an additional hurdle to solving urban problems. The American federal system gives the national government little direct control over the cities. Washington can put money on the stump and demand certain conditions, but it can do little more. Teacher, police, transportation, and construction union leaders inevitably have a say over urban reforms, as do interest groups and local power brokers inside and outside of government.

In Banfield’s time, for instance, education reformers were vexed by urban students’ high school dropout rates. Banfield suggested that it might be asking too much to expect every child to stay in school until he is 18. Some kids are just not interested in learning geometry or literature or suited for sitting still for eight hours a day, five days a week. Why not solve the dropout problem by letting individuals leave school at 16 and helping them find work—preferably in jobs that would pay them at the end of each day, so as to satisfy their desire for short-term rewards?

Academia and the political class scoffed at these ideas, leading Banfield grimly to conclude that the incentives of the political system tend to run against the most rational solutions and toward the preferences of the most politically active.

My own experience, along with plenty of evidence, suggests that The Unheavenly City took too dour a perspective on the possibility of improving cities. When I arrived in New York in 1993, the city was out of control. Squatters had taken over buildings not far from my East Village digs, using and dealing drugs openly. Times Square was squalid and dangerous, and in many parts of the city, it felt as if the police had simply turned over the streets to anarchy. By the late 1990s, things had improved dramatically, in part because of improved policing and welfare reform. The Big Apple came back.

Today, we find ourselves in another era of urban crisis, with crime rising and thousands of Americans taking to the streets, sometimes violently, to call for justice and government action. Commentators are divided over whether these are laudable protests or riots. Had they read The Unheavenly City, they might have avoided this false choice altogether and tempered their hopes for what government action can accomplish.

Photo by Three Lions/Getty Images

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