The Contrarian Economist: The Life and Legacy of Edward C. Banfield

Edward C. Banfield was a cultural anthropologist and political scientist who made significant contributions to the study of urbanization and social stratification. He was a contrarian economist, a scholar who challenged the conventional wisdom of his time, and his work helped to shape the intellectual landscape of the post-World War II era. Over the course of his long and illustrious career, Banfield earned a reputation for being one of the most insightful and provocative thinkers in his field. In this article, we will explore the life and legacy of this remarkable thinker, and examine some of his most important contributions to the field of economics.

Born in 1916 in Bloomfield, Connecticut, Edward C. Banfield was the son of a carpenter who instilled in him a love of learning from a young age. Banfield excelled academically, and was awarded a scholarship to attend Furman University in South Carolina, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in history. After completing his undergraduate studies, Banfield went on to earn a master’s degree in political science from the University of Illinois, and then went on to study at the University of Chicago, where he earned a PhD in anthropology.

Banfield began his academic career as an instructor at the University of Chicago, and later accepted a teaching position at the University of Pennsylvania. In 1949, he joined the faculty of the University of Chicago, where he would spend the rest of his career. A prolific writer, Banfield authored numerous books and articles over the course of his career, and was awarded the National Medal of Science in 1988.

One of Banfield’s most important contributions to the field of economics was his theory of the “unintended consequences” of government policies. Banfield argued that many government programs, such as welfare and public housing initiatives, were well-intentioned, but ultimately failed to achieve their goals. He believed that these programs often created unintended consequences, such as disincentivizing work and encouraging dependence on government assistance. Banfield’s work challenged the conventional wisdom of his time, and helped to shape the debate on social welfare policies in the United States.

Another important contribution that Banfield made to the field of economics was his research on social stratification. Banfield conducted extensive field research in Italy in the 1950s and 1960s, studying the social structures and cultural dynamics of rural villages. His research led him to develop a theory of social stratification, which he called “amoral familism.” According to this theory, individuals in closely-knit communities are primarily motivated by the interests of their immediate family, rather than by broader societal concerns. Banfield believed that this kind of behavior could exacerbate social inequalities, and that policymakers needed to be aware of these dynamics when designing social policies.

In addition to his research on social stratification and the unintended consequences of government policies, Banfield was also an important voice in the debates on urbanization and urban development. His work on the topic emphasized the importance of planning for sustainable, livable cities, and he was critical of the tendency of policymakers to focus solely on economic growth and development. Banfield believed that urban planning needed to take into account the needs and preferences of the people who lived in cities, and that successful urban development required a collaborative, participatory approach.

Throughout his career, Edward C. Banfield remained committed to the idea of intellectual independence, and was unafraid to challenge the conventional wisdom of his time. His work on unintended consequences, social stratification, and urbanization helped to shape the intellectual landscape of the post-World War II era, and continues to be relevant today. Banfield passed away in 1999, but his legacy lives on in the work of the many scholars who have built on his ideas and insights.

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