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City Lights

City Politics

by Edward C. Banfield, by James C. Wilson
Harvard, 362 pp., $6.95

In the last few years Professors Banfield and Wilson, who were earlier at Chicago and are now at Harvard, have written some excellent studies of city politics and problems. Their books have avoided both the triviality and the abstract formality that are so often to be found in academic writing. In Politics, Planning and the Public Interest Professor Banfield wrote, with Martin Meyerson, a vivid and sobering story of the conflict over the location of Chicago’s public (i.e., Negro) housing. And in his book on Political Influence there are the richest possible accounts of how big public enterprises are launched and carried out in Chicago. (If only we could have as good a study of the making of Lincoln Center, or the New York World’s Fair! But Chicago has always been more blessed in its social scientists than New York.) As for Professor Wilson, he has, in just a few years, written an excellent book on Negro politics, and a first-class account of the reform Democratic movements in Manhattan, Chicago, and Southern California.

Now the two have collaborated on what must unquestionably become an indispensable study of politics in the American city. It is based on enormous and detailed research—a good part of it done by Professor Banfield’s students, who were sent out to collect the kind of information that every good city editor presumably has but never writes down. The material is presented in a controlled and disciplined no-nonsense style. The only thing one could object to in this book is the prevailing and almost absolute cynicism of its description and analysis of city politics.

One obvious reason for this cynicism is that the formal study of municipal affairs in this country has always been dominated by reformers and professors. They once argued that the problems of the cities were caused by corrupt and self-seeking political machines whose support came from the immigrant masses. More recently they have talked of massive social changes which have outrun the capacity of the old political system to maintain decent services in the city. But in both periods the professors and reformers and civic associations have proposed remedies that are essentially formal: they have been for city managers, planning commissions, civil service systems, proportional representation, stronger mayors and most recently metropolitan government. The aim of most of these proposals has been to make the city more like a neutral modern corporation which could provide services efficently: Political disagreement would be irrelevant to its main problems.

For Banfield and Wilson this is nonsense. They agree in passing that some of these measures might increase the efficiency and honesty of city government in certain situations. But they insist that such reforms are urged out of selfinterest—just as they are opposed out of self-interest. Someone is going to be hurt by reformist measures—just as someone is going to gain—and the issue can never be argued abstractly in terms like efficiency and honesty. No really meaningful “expert decision” can be made on where to place a housing project or a hospital, except in those relatively homogeneous communities composed of people who share more or less the same interests. For the most part, those questions can only be settled by political battles which end by ruining the plans of the planners and the city experts—and this, according to Banfield and Wilson, is often no more than they deserve.

Banfield and Wilson, in short, do not believe in the “public interest” that reformers in American cities have been talking about for so long. Instead they find that these words generally serve to disguise the interests of the middle classes in having good, clean, well-maintained neighborhoods, and lower taxes—interests which directly conflict with the desires of the lower classes for more social services, more opportunities to make money in illegal or quasi-legal ways, and more access to living space in choice downtown areas. This conflict of interests is to be found everywhere in the city. Even the apparently “disinterested” civic organizations are involved, for, as the authors ingeniously point out, their interest is in gathering “program material”—issues to keep their well-to-do and liberal backers happy. And the general conflict is made all the more complicated by the American tendency to disperse civic power among many oddly related agencies—executives, legislators, subempires of bureaucrats, private organizations and individuals, etc. In this situation, as Banfield and Wilson show, it is necessary for some men to accumulate large amounts of influence if anything is to get done:

Bits and pieces of many governments are scattered around the local scene. To make any one of the governments work, it is necessary for someone to gather up the bits and string them into a working relation with each other…[The Mayor of Chicago is] a broker in the business (so to speak) of buying and selling political power. He performs an entrepreneurial function by overcoming the decentralization of authority that prevents anything from being done, and his role is very like that of a real estate broker who assembles land for a large development by buying up parcels here and there. Much of what the political broker gathers up is speculation: he does not know exactly how it will be used, but he is confident that someone will need a large block of power.

Only one theme in this book is capable of modifying the prevailing cynicism of the authors (by which I mean simply that they consistently attribute selfish motives to actions taken for allegedly unselfish reasons). This is their attempt to show that two very different kinds of “political ethos’ can be discerned in the confused clash of urban interests. The first ethos is described as “private-regarding” and is characteristic of the working class immigrant populations which once dominated the central cities. Here the individual is mainly aware of politics and politicians as they affect him personally and bear directly on his daily life and that of his family. This ethos is naturally favorable to the local boss who offers friendship, favors, jobs.

The second is “public regarding” and is characteristic of the middle classes of professional and white collar workers, largely of Anglo-Saxon, Protestant origins. The political aim of these people is efficient, impersonal service from the city bureaucracy, and they seek neither camaraderie nor personal favors from politicians As the immigrants and their children move into middle-class jobs and suburbs, they tend to abandon the first ethos and adopt the second. The Jews have been particularly successful in doing this, and other groups are following the same pattern. But the Negroes are the last major lower-class group to enter the central city and they will suffer more and more acutely from the dominance of the second ethos in the metropolitan areas.

But if the authors show that the two kinds of ethos help to modify and define the clash of interests in the city, they also argue that there is nothing to choose between them from the point of view of justice and good government. The middle-class ethos is as much a possession of the middle classes as their homes and neighborhoods; by imposing it they do not advance any abstract good—which cannot be defined in a community of opposed interest groups—but simply assert their power over the lower classes. And what does this triumph mean for city government?

If in the old days there was waste and lack of coordination for want of technically trained supervisory personnel, now there is waste and lack of coordination because of the very profusion of such personnel. If in the old days city administration was biased in favor of the tastes of the lower class as made known by ward politicians, now it is biased in favor of the tastes of the middle class as made known by newspapers, civic associations, and, especially, professionals in various bureaucracies. If in the old days authority was overly decentralized because great numbers of politicians clung to their separate scraps of it, now it is too decentralized because great numbers of bureaucrats cling to their separate scraps of it. If in the old days specific material inducements were illegally given as bribes to favored individuals, now much bigger ones are legally given to a different class of favored individuals, and, in addition, general inducements are proffered in packages to every large group in the electorate and to tiny but intensely moved minorities as well.

This view of the new style in urban government is familiar enough, but is it the whole story? Has nothing been gained? As they contrast the past and the present, I find that Banfield and Wilson sometimes fail to give sufficient credit—not only to the good will of many of the bureaucrats, but also to their actual accomplishments and the possbiilities of their doing better in the future. For example, the authors contend that:

the spread of the doctrine that there ought to be “grass roots” participation has largely coincided with a reduction in real opportunities for ordinary citizens to exercise influence in matters of importance to them: for example opportunity to “participate” in planning urban renewal projects has taken the place of opportunity to “fix” traffic tickets.

But I do not think that the opportunity to fix traffic tickets was so widespread and important; nor do I think—having watched several urban renewal projects at close quarters—that the opportunity to participate in urban renewal is so great a fraud; nor that it is so irrelevant to the real interests of those involved. Another example:

The politician…may…offer the voters of his city a new sewage disposal plant which is to be paid for by the federal government—that is, by taxpayers who cannot vote against him. The need of most local politicians to offer inducements of this kind accounts in large measure for the steady enlargement of the federal…government’s role in local affairs.

They have a point; but doesn’t the growth of the cities, their need for new capital investment, their weak taxing power, and the desire of the people (yes, the public) for a better city life have more to do with it?

Indeed the peculiar impact of growth on urban affairs is surprisingly slighted in this book. I think it can be argued that the enormous growth of cities in recent years is more responsible for their difficulties in dealing with their problems than any changes in the internal structure of their politics or in their political ethos. Of course Banfield and Wilson are aware of the impact of urban growth and of the fact that some of the modern, bureaucratized services and amenities in the cities have indeed proved a benefit to the “public”—or at least a good part of it. But one gets very little sense of these things from their text.

In the end, good as this book is, I would prefer that it had more of the quality of the famous study on The Governing of New York by Wallace Sayre and Herbert Kaufman. One saw every mean interest of urban life displayed in that work but at the same time one was made aware of the grandeur of the city—even of its government.

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