Survival of the Fattest

In every pessimist, it has been said, there lies an unshakable if unspoken idealism. As the erosion of national domestic policy in Washington proceeds according to plan, I wonder whether in the heart of every conservative “realist” or “pragmatist” lies an unshakable and unspeakable naïveté. Daniel P. Moynihan once remarked to me that, in urban affairs, it costs more money to do nothing than to experiment. The more housing deteriorates through neglect, the more it costs to fix; the longer schools are allowed to decay and the children they house deprived of decent education, the harder and more expensive it becomes to repair the damage done; the longer civil rights are denied, the more complicated and painful does their restitution become.

Now, during the current ascendancy of the “hardheaded realists,” conservatives in both the Administration and Congress have concluded that the cure for the diseases of previous liberal action programs is “pragmatic” in-action. HEW has fired Leon Panetta, perhaps the most capable civil rights lawyer in the United States today; both HEW and the Justice Department have begun to take professional posts like that of Panetta out of the ranks of civil service and put them under patronage; the sheer volume of docile but loyal party hacks in supposedly professional jobs is much higher today in Washington than in the previous administration. The head of the National Institute of Mental Health has been forced out, as have similar activist professionals in other departments, including James Allen of the Office of Education. Moreover, the liberal pragmatists in Congress are trying to defeat Moynihan’s family allowance plan, a long overdue and necessary reform of the welfare structure.

What accounts for this new wave of tough-minded passivity? The reason one usually hears is either that “Middle America” wants to slow down the pace of social change or, more simply, that the bureaucrats in Washington themselves are mean-spirited and destructive men. Both of these explanations may be true, but do not in themselves account for what is happening. While a number of Administration people are callous men, this is by no means true of all.

One has rather to understand how men of various motives have come to believe in the idea of “benign neglect” because that idea makes sense to them; to confront the people now in power requires some understanding of the ideas, no matter how fragmentary, that guide their actions. And to understand the benign neglecter one can do no better, I believe, than to read The Unheavenly City, the recently published work by Edward Banfield. Professor Banfield, a man who sees himself as a courageous and outspoken conservative, is himself head of President Nixon’s Task Force on Model Cities. His book has been read eagerly and taken seriously by high government officials.

As you read this book you wonder immediately whether Professor Banfield lives in the same country as you do. It is not that he sees different issues: this is not a book about “urban systems analysis,” about the imperative need for “better communication” between urban executives; it is a book whose subject is the urban poor. Indeed, one of the things I do like about this book is that it clears away a lot of nonsense about several “crises” which are claimed to be besetting the city: that commuters from Westport have poor train service is, as Banfield points out, in no sense a crisis comparable to that of people starving in ghettos.

Professor Banfield seems to live in a different country because he looks at poor people as essentially a different race of beings from you and me. Indeed, he writes about them as if they were strange, puzzling creatures. That poor people are people is an idea that doubtless has entered his mind, but seems in this book not to have entered his feelings. As a result, his analysis of their problems becomes hopelessly abstract and beside the point. Let me try to give a sense of this by a simple, and I hope not unfair, device.

On page 103, Banfield is in the midst of arguing that we ought to abolish minimum wage laws. “The main beneficiaries,” he says, “would be the workers themselves.” To make his point, instead of referring to actual work he uses such abstract terms as “the job” or “low value work.” I shall reproduce the paragraph in question, but whenever Professor Banfield uses these terms, I shall substitute the words “dishwasher” and “being a dishwasher”—the job which seems closest to the kind of employment his proposal would affect.

The main beneficiaries, however, would be the dishwashers themselves. Being a dishwasher can be much more than a source of income. Being a dishwasher can be an opportunity to learn things, to test one’s ability to stand up to strains, to get out of the house and away from home, and to feel that one is a part, however small, of a worthwhile undertaking. Especially for a male, being a dishwasher (along with other things) helps establish one’s identity and support one’s self-respect. Obviously a dishwasher job that pays “peanuts” is no aid to self-respect; on the contrary, having such a job entails a loss of it. Other, non-monetary advantages accrue even from being a dishwasher, however, and if everyone were expected to work for what his work is worth, the lowest paid would have at least somewhat less cause for embarrassment than they have now.

Since Professor Banfield is by his own admission a hardheaded man, he must know that the proposal to abolish the minimum wage, despite all the benefits he is convinced it would bring, is not feasible at the moment—the unions, you know. So it is a never-never land he lives in, a place characterized by what seem to me the peculiar fantasies “pragmatic conservatives” in America today cherish about social class.

In the chapter, “The Imperatives of Class,” Banfield distinguishes four classes in America. These classes go from high to low on a psychological scale: people are separated by how much they orient themselves “toward providing for a more or less distant future.” You are upper-class if you deny yourself pleasures and amusements in the present so that you can achieve goals for yourself in the future, and, at the other end of the scale, you are lower-class if all your actions are centered around present pleasure with no thought for the morrow.

Banfield intends this to be a social definition: he means that each of these four levels has a culture corresponding to how future-oriented, how willing to sacrifice immediate satisfactions, its members are. To use motivation rather than income or education might provide an interesting and even radical definition of class, and Banfield initially follows this track:

As the term [class] is used here, a person who is poor, unschooled, and of low status may be upper class; indeed he is upper class if he is psychologically capable of providing for a distant future.

But the strain of such an interesting idea is too much: later in the same paragraph he tells us that there is “at least a rough correspondence” between being future-oriented and being upper-class in the usual sense of having money, a good education, and status. Indeed, as the book drags on, the psychology of class and the economics of it become inseparable.

It is tempting to imagine the poverty program that would follow from this insight, for it then becomes clear that once we say people who are mired in poverty have a “psychology,” according to which they live for the moment and do little for their futures, we are not far from declaring that poor people have what they are capable of having, that they get what they deserve. But this notion of class is worth closer attention, for it may indeed reveal something about the psychology of another class, the class of hard-headed, pragmatic Middle Americans.

The old American small-town myth, which Professor Banfield has put in fancy academic dress, is that if a man works hard, doesn’t throw away his life in sensuous momentary pleasures, but saves for the future, he is somehow going to get ahead to where the “best folks” live. The idea of a future orientation has often been associated in this country with the dream of a change in class. This myth, of course, even small-town America has trouble with now. In an age of credit cards, of vast and conspicuous consumption not for pleasure, present or future, but simply for maintaining one’s status; in an age of corporate and individual “image making” through the possession of big yachts, private jets, and lesser goods, a scrimping self-denial seems like the exercise of chastity in a whorehouse.

Thorstein Veblen first wrote, and numerous observers of the corporate scene have since confirmed, that the capacity to spend more and own more than one’s neighbor, right now, is the fuel that drives men to new competitive heights. Indeed, I find it inexplicable that Banfield takes not the slightest note of Veblen’s idea of conspicuous consumption; if one claims to be revealing new hard truths about class, surely one ought to deal with the intellectual figure who is the source of our present errors.

But the mythology of class that Professor Banfield depends on has another side. History also has a place in his scheme as the creator of patterns and relationships from which we have no escape. In his chapter on the “logic” of metropolitan growth, we are treated to a solid history of American urban life; we are shown how as upper-class groups moved out of the central city their places were taken by people of lesser means, and how, as these moved outward, the truly poor came to inhabit the housing that was left behind in the central city. This simple pattern is taken as a law of change; no matter that the history of other cities in Europe shows a contrary pattern, or that one finds now a totally different pattern of industrial urban growth, for example in India. History has become virtually a biological law, so that

The logic of growth does require that, in general, the lowest-income people live in the oldest, highest-density, most run-down housing.

If on the one hand it is the psychology of people that marks their class, the conditions of class are rigidly determined and the society helpless to change its own “laws of growth.” The implication for Banfield and for Americans sharing his state of mind is that we can’t change the social conditions of life in American cities, or in the society as a whole; what we can change is the way the individual tries to fit himself into the conditions. We cannot change the fact that poverty exists, but we can encourage individuals who show the “right” psychological traits to escape from the degradation of being poor.

It is here that I find the pragmatic mind at its most implausible and naïve. On the one hand we have the Forces of History, the Institutions of Society, weighty in their power, which only hopeless utopians would seek to change. But on the other hand, we have the “practical” notion that individuals, who I presume are in the grip of these mighty forces, can yet change, or that at least some—the fittest—can do so; that these lucky people can change their feelings and thus prepare to change their social status. It is indeed a strange world: the individuals of the lower class are vicious and pleasure-seeking, yet at the same time it is only their psychological motivations that are amenable to being changed.

This strange theory has an authentic American source. Professor Banfield’s idea reminds me strongly of Norman Vincent Peale’s advice—Good God! is he truly a harbinger of the new temper?—that in life you shouldn’t try to change trains but only where you sit on them. If I may ask Drs. Peale and Banfield, doesn’t it all boil down to the American formula: take care of Number One, and let others fend for themselves?

In Professor Banfield’s case this attitude is especially piquant in view of the reproaches he makes to the lower classes:

…[individuals of this class] are improvident, irresponsible, without strong attachments to family, friends, or community, and unable or unwilling either to control impulses or to put forth any effort at self-improvement.

And yet to get out of this morass a person is supposed to forget (lower-class) family, (lower-class) friends, and (lower-class) community, and go somewhere more healthy to live. But what sort of person would be so callous and so driven? What sort of person would pay the high human price? The person who most closely fits Professor Banfield’s model of the “potentially upwardly mobile person” is Sammy Glick.

It has evidently not occurred to Banfield that the ghetto is a web for all sorts of decent people—not just militants—whose sense of fraternity and concern for other people lead them to stay rather than to “put forth an effort of self-improvement” by deserting family, friends, and community. Indeed, the concept of fraternity, of the psychological base of society, is totally absent from this book. Unlike the noble conservatism of Edmund Burke, whose caution was born of his concern for the bonds between men, the passivity Banfield espouses is the product of an emotional deadness. Precisely because vulgar conservatives believe that emotions of whatever kind should be less compelling forces than appeals to the rational self-interest—to Banfield, this would be upward mobility—of individuals in isolation, they wind up thinking of men as chess pieces.

It should be no surprise therefore to find Professor Banfield puzzled by the fraternal movements of social change which have taken form in this country during the last ten years—a historical development in the very real sense of things changing from the way they were before. That men of talent and education could be moved by feelings of brotherhood and a desire to change the conditions of the life they share—such considerations have no place in rational schemes of self-interest, and at various points in the book Professor Banfield tries to makes sense of them by relating them to upper-class behavior. I do not mean to make light of Banfield’s bewilderment—far from it. Indeed, his lack of emotional comprehension is frightening, because he is, after all, head of President Nixon’s Task Force on Model Cities and the rest of us are, well, do-gooders.

Which brings us to the subject of blacks, which is also the subject of what’s benign about benign neglect. Here I think Banfield makes some strong points. He says he does not in any way equate lower-class status with being black, and I believe him. Attacks on this book as racist miss the point: it’s not blacks Banfield despises, it’s poor people, whether they be white, black, or brown. Banfield makes a useful distinction between Census Negroes and Statistical Negroes, showing that the black population, on a rigorous statistical base, is much more varied in its composition than appears on the surface, and that arguments equating problems of poverty with problems of race are distorted and “racist” in an exact sense of the term.

But unfortunately Banfield goes a step further. He says that conditions for blacks are getting better all the time, and that disparities between the races, statistically measured, are rapidly disappearing. It’s only because expectations are rising so much faster than change in demographic conditions can keep up with that there is all this grousing. If people would just wait for the logic of historical improvement to work itself out, racial problems would take care of themselves: that is, the black population will come to possess the same patterns of stratification and income enjoyed by whites.

Here then is the logic behind benign neglect. In racial matters, history is in the process of correcting differences between black and white, if only the “do-gooders” and “militants” don’t rock the boat. Now there is much evidence that can be used in support of the argument that statistical inequalities between the black and white populations are gradually disappearing. There is also much evidence against it. Banfield’s book slides slickly over the latter, and treats what is in fact a complicated matter as a clear-cut fact. Certainly, among the canons of scholarly responsibility, there should be a law that requires one to explore, rather than accept as given, the first principles of one’s argument.

Let me indicate a few of these complexities, currently much under discussion in the academic community, widely publicized in the journals, and almost entirely ignored by Banfield. Sar Levitan has recently released materials showing that Negro skilled and semiskilled workers made income gains at a higher rate over the period 1960-1969 than their white counterparts, thereby equalizing what started off as unequal salaries. Fine, but what are they to do with their money? As Christopher Jencks and David Riesman have pointed out, the resources, like better housing, better schools, that are the rewards in the white community for more income, are virtually unavailable to the black community. Making more money only means that a black family faces the painful facts of housing covenants and de facto segregated schools in an even more personal way. As things get materially better, the experience of racism, as opposed to the statistics of race, becomes greater. O. D. Duncan and P. M. Blau, in a modern sociological classic, The American Occupational Structure,1 present materials along the same lines. The more affluent black families become, the more can racial problems as such trouble their lives.

Banfield’s argument that expectations are “out of line” with the ability of the system to deliver is also a thorny one: he does not consider whether the system of rewards is performing too slowly in this country, in view of the immense importance attached here to social class. This problem is carefully explored in a recent book by S. M. Miller and Pamela Roby, The Future of Inequality,2 which shows that an exclusive concentration on income as the measure of poverty omits other and crucial considerations: chances for political participation, learning, and social mobility among them.

I hesitate to speculate on the reasons why a presumably responsible scholar like Banfield has ignored such work (as scholarly behavior his book is surely very lower-class), but it does seem that he must exclude everything that is contradictory if his shaky structure is to stand up at all. For given his assumption of a social process that is making things better all the time, proposals that the basic social conditions of this country need to be changed can be dismissed as illusions. He can then proceed to the business of saving worthy individuals from the morass.

Banfield’s ideas on the restitution of souls need not detain us, for they do not detain him long. He conducts a debate, for instance, on the relative merits of having the government and “private bidders” buy babies from poor families, over compulsory daycare clinics. There are also some dreamy reflections on the possibility of internment camps for potential hardcore criminals, the likelihood of their committing future crimes being calculated on a mathematical scale. But, as Banfield says, that which is acceptable is not feasible, and that which is feasible is not acceptable. The reader ends the book with a feeling that he’d be better off taking things as they are.

I believe Professor Banfield when he says he is not “an ill-tempered and mean-spirited fellow.” (See page vii.) I think he means well. His book is an almost classic case of that peculiar American phenomenon: the capacity of pragmatic people to do evil with the best of intentions. Banfield is, rather, an innocent, blind to the facts of class and race in America today, and taking refuge from the storms of modern events in an old-fashioned small-town mythology of class and the individual’s place in history. And from these dreams Banfield tries to make sense of the discontents of the nation’s poor by debating the relative merits of auctioning off its children. But his book has its uses: the reader, at least, should no longer be shocked by future schemes of the “pragmatic conservatives” now in control of our national domestic policy.

  1. 1

    Wiley, 1967.

  2. 2

    Basic Books, 1969.