City Lights

City Politics

by Edward C. Banfield and 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…

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