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.…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.