Video of Edward C. Banfield discussing the common good and statesmanship at an American Enterprise Institute conference, November 30, 1987

Here, Banfield reminds fellow attendees of the conference on Democracy and the Constitution that the American Founders conceived of two forms of happiness, individual and national happiness, and that the earliest Americans imagined humans as selfish yet also expected those who served in office as statesmen to rise above their selfishness in pursuit of the common good. Banfield notes this dualism raises interesting questions, such as whether we can judge the motives of voters who cast ballots self-interestedly.

Banfield speaks for several minutes starting at 37:32:

This event also featured Robert A. Goldwin (American Enterprise Institute), Professor Benjamin R. Barber (Rutgers University), Professor Terrence Marshall (University of Paris), Judge Abner J. Mikva (U.S. Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit), Edwin Yoder (Washington Post), and a young Charles Krauthammer (Syndicated Columnist).

Banfield apparently first collaborated with Robert Goldwin in 1957, when Goldwin edited a series of didactic short stories for the American Foundation for Continuing Education. Banfield wrote three stories for them.

Goldwin (1922-2010), it must be noted, was the editor and author of many books on governance issues, including AEI Press “constitutional studies” volumes like as How Federal Is the Constitution? (1982) and Separation of Powers: Does It Still Work? Tributes to Goldwin may be found here.

Thomas Sowell on The Unheavenly City

Thomas Sowell has a short essay in the Fall 2020 issue of the Claremont Review of Books titled “The Unheavenly City at 50.” Sowell, who turned 90 years old this past June, is the Rose and Milton Friedman Senior Fellow on Public Policy at the Hoover Institution.

He writes:

“Somewhere Winston Churchill said that all wisdom is not new wisdom. That is certainly true of Edward C. Banfield’s landmark book, The Unheavenly City, published 50 years ago. Many, if not most, of the people discussing urban problems today have not yet caught up to what Banfield said half a century ago.”

Riffing off Banfield’s observations on dropouts, Dr. Sowell also add this personal note:

“While many people today may simply dismiss what Banfield said, it is impossible for me to dismiss it. As a personal note, I happen to have dropped out of high school at age 16, and took a full-time job as a messenger delivering telegrams for the Western Union telegraph company. But the law required me to also spend some time in what was called a ‘continuation school.’

“It was a time-wasting farce. I informed the teacher that the law could force me to be there, but it could not force me to participate, and I had no intention of participating. I was indeed angry ‘at the stupidity and hypocrisy of a system’ that used me like this. Fortunately, Western Union had its own continuation school for its messengers, and I transferred there, where I learned to type, a skill that would be of some value to me in later years—instead of being used to justify some teacher’s job in a public school.’

You may read the essay at

50th Anniversary of The Unheavenly City

By Kevin R. Kosar

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…. (Read more)

Christopher DeMuth describes meeting Edward C. Banfield and learning from him

In this interview with Bill Kristol, Chris DeMuth, the former president of the American Enterprise Institute, describes why he shifted right. One factor was:

“stumbling into a friendship with a professor at Harvard named Edward C. Banfield. I first encountered Banfield in the form of a pamphlet published by the American Enterprise Institute, which one of my professors had assigned, I think as an example. They were trying to bow toward diversity of intellectual opinion. And he had written a piece on foreign aid. It challenged every doctrine, every precept, every pro-foreign aid argument, root and branch. And I remember being astounded by this publication.”

You can read the transcript and keyword search it for “Banfield” at

Edward C. Banfield on the two types of welfare and poverty (1966)

The Harvard Law Forum hosted a discussion titled “$50 billion for what? The federal welfare program” on December 9, 1966. Banfield spoke third, after Dr. Ellen Winston and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who recently had returned to Harvard from government service.

The moderator describes Banfield as “another popular entertainer form the harvard community,” which elicits audience laughs, and notes that Banfield has “more auditors than people taking his courses.”

Banfield’s acidic opening remark notes that federal government housing policies have harmed inner city Blacks but benefited Harvard. Here Banfield was referring to the destructive effects of federal urban redevelopment efforts, which including bulldozing poor neighborhoods and relocating residents to massive low income complexes. He wrote of these policies in his second and fourth books, Politics, Planning, and the Public Interest (1955) and Government and Housing in Metropolitan Areas (1958).

So what was the Harvard connection? Well, these aggressive federal policies sparked the establishment of the Joint Center for Urban Studies at Harvard and MIT, with which Banfield and Moynihan both were affiliated.

Banfield directs most his remarks at this event to discussing two types of welfare problems: helping the “money poor” (the old, disabled, etc.) and the “culturally poor” (who lack money but also live according to “low” standards.) This distinction was one Banfield explicated at length in his book, The Moral Basis of a Backward Society (1958), and developed further in The Unheavenly City (1970). Play the above video to hear the rest of his thoughts.

Edward C. Banfield on “The City and the Revolutionary Tradition”


Not quite 50 years ago, the American Enterprise Institute hosted a series of lectures in honor of the American Bicentennial that were given by top thinkers, including Irving Kristol, Martin Diamond, Gordon Wood, Seymor Martin Lipset, and, appropriately, Edward C. Banfield.

Banfield delivered a speech on The City and the Revolutionary Tradition at Franklin Hall, Franklin Institute, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The video of the speech is above, and AEI published Banfield’s remarks here.

He begins in his typically blunt manner:

“It would be very pleasant on such an occasion as this to say that the American city has been and is a unique and unqualified success-and to be able to show that its successes all derive from adherence to principles established and given institutional form in the American Revolution, whose bicentennial we are here to commemorate. Unfortunately, it is all too evident that even if this were the Fourth of July I would not have license for that-sort of oratory.”

America’s cities, he explains,

“were built by that often ludicrous and sometimes contemptible fellow-the Worshipper of the Almighty Dollar, the Go-Getter, the Businessman-Booster-Speculator-an upstart, a nobody, but shrewd, his eye on the main chance, always ready to risk his own and (preferably) someone else’s money.”

They were a distinctly bottom up enterprise, and their governance system and politics were not quite what the Founders sought. Governing authority in cities is severely fragmented, and getting things done necessitated the rise of power-broker politicians, who operated through bribery and appeals to individuals’ and factions’ self-interest.

The fragmentation of authority has not only permitted but also encouraged its informal centralization by means-notably the machine and the boss-that were corrupt. If, as [Lincoln] Steffens said, businessmen gave bribes because they had to-because it was impossible
to operate a street railroad without doing so-it is also true that politicians took them because they had to-because, to centralize enough power to get things done, they had in one way or another to ‘purchase’ pieces of authority from voters and others. Without this easy access to power on the local scene, the Go-Getter would not have had the opportunity to ‘go get.’ As it was, he could extend the grids of nonexistent cities into the hinterland confident that he could induce some public body to build the canal, railroad, highway, arsenal, or whatever that would send land values up. Even the new immigrant’s ethnic ties had a political value that
could be converted into the small amount of capital he needed to get started.

Dispersed governing power in cities also produced a consequence for federal governance: governing nationally demands federal leaders cultivate local support. Achieving that made political parties indispensable. But these parties could not be ideological or uniform: “[R]ather they are shifting coalitions of those who, by winning elections or otherwise, have assembled enough pieces of local authority to count.”

Hence, on this bicentennial, Banfield impishly told his audience:

“One of the great ironies of history is to be found in these developments, for it was a centralized system like the Canadian, not a fragmented one like the American, that the principal figures among the Founding Fathers thought they were creating.”

The Founders wanted a governance system that was informed by the public but capable of resisting it and societies various factions. Leaders were to be trustees for voters. Instead, America by 1830 had something else—a system whose leaders were wheeler-dealers whose primary duty was to “accommodate competing and more or less parochial interests, not to deliberate about (much less enforce) an idea of the common good.”

So, Banfield concludes, hurrah for the 200th anniversary of our Founding, but let us remember the cities and nation we got veered from the revolutionary tradition. And let us not overlook that a system so firmly directed by majoritarian impulses tends to prefer expediency to justice.

Protestors shut down Banfield talk in Chicago, 1974

Ziomek protestors Banfield 03-21-1974
Source: Thomas Lanctot

Edward C. Banfield left the University of Chicago in 1959 to take a position at Harvard. (Leo Strauss, by the way, delivered remarks at Banfield’s farewell gathering.

When he returned to the University of Chicgo in 1974 to give a speech on his text, The Unheavenly City, leftist radicals wrecked the event. As the above news story relates: “When Banfield was introduced inside the hall, about 10 members of the audience rushed the podium, knocking it over, and began calling Banfield a racist.” The protestors chanted for a hour, and Banfield left without ever getting the chance to speak.

Daniel DiSalvo, “Banfield Revisited,” National Affairs, Summer 2017

Edward C BanfieldDaniel DiSalvo, Associate Professor of Political Science at the City College of New York, has written a fine essay that gives an overview of Edward C. Banfield’s views of politics and governance.

Central to the piece is the notion that the public increasingly expects far to much of politicians and far too much from government, and that we harm ourselves in the process.

“…Americans have come to firmly believe that we should have social policies — that government should do something to improve material and moral conditions. The problem is that such expectations lead to demands that government do what cannot be done, which threatens democratic institutions. Obama worship and Trump’s demagoguery are the most visible signs of such corrosive attitudes.

“In such an overheated situation, it is useful to revisit the work of Edward Banfield. On nearly all of the issues that comprise the contemporary policy debate — social class, race, employment, the minimum wage, education, crime, immigration, and housing — Banfield’s work still illuminates a great deal.

“Reflection on Banfield’s insights into human nature and the importance of culture provides one with an appreciation of the limits and pitfalls of political and policy reform. It also affords us the opportunity to gain insight into contemporary expectations of and dissatisfaction with American government. In particular, his thought offers a powerful case for why we should moderate our hopes and our fears about the trajectory of American politics and society.

A refresher course is therefore useful; however, such a course is unlikely to please liberals and may please only a few conservatives. Banfield delighted in debunking others’ arguments and assumptions. As James Q. Wilson said at the memorial of his mentor and frequent collaborator, “[G]etting a fuzzy thought past Ed was like throwing a lamb chop past a wolf.” This applied to liberal and conservative ideas alike. Rereading Banfield is a little like taking a cold shower — not something you want to do every day, but it’s periodically good for you….”


How an Idyllic Italian Village Was Crippled by Family-Centrism

Photograph by Edward C. Banfield. Copyright Laura H. Banfield.

Zocalo Public Square has published an essay of mine on Banfield’s classic text, The Moral Basis of a Backward Society (1958).

More than 60 years ago, an American family arrived in a seemingly idyllic town in Southern Italy. Stone buildings resembled “a white beehive against the top of a mountain.” Donkeys and pigs idled in the ancient, winding streets. A town crier tooting a brass horn announced “fish for sale in the piazza at 100 lire per kilo.” There were two churches, two bars, and a movie theater. Shops offered locally made shoes and olive oil, and locally-sourced meat. Nearly everyone farmed and tended animals and knew one another, at least by name or reputation.

Yet Chiaromonte’s 3400 residents were anything but content. They were crushingly poor and simmered with resentment. Why? In great part, as the Americans learned during their stay, because they were too family-focused.

Political scientist Edward C. Banfield went to Italy in 1954 to better understand poverty. Researchers then tended to assume people were poor due to lack of education or because they were victimized by the government or capitalism. Banfield himself had been a reporter and had traveled across the United States during the Great Depression, so he knew the reality was more complex. In order to understand why people are as they are and do what they do, Banfield believed one needed to learn how they viewed the world and their place within it.

This may sound self-evident, but it cut against the academic grain of the day. The University of Chicago, where Banfield earned his doctorate and had a teaching appointment, was known for its shoe-leather sociological research. Its Prof. William Foote Whyte, for example, wrote Street Corner Society in 1943 after four years studying a slum in Boston’s North End.

In 1956, Banfield and his wife Laura (who spoke Italian) spent nine months in Chiaromonte and interviewed dozens of residents. They pored over census data and official records, enlisted some residents to keep diaries, and conducted psychological surveys on others. Two years later, The Moral Basis of a Backward Society described what they had found and concluded that Chiaromonte’s poverty and grim melancholia (la miseria) were rooted in its people’s “amoral familism.”