A Nearly Forgotten Classic Study in Public Administration: Edward C. Banfield's Government Project
Article first published online: 24 AUG 2009
Copyright © 2009 The American Society for Public Administration
Public Administration Review
Volume 69, Issue 5, pages 993–997, September/October 2009
How to Cite
Kosar, K. R. (2009), A Nearly Forgotten Classic Study in Public Administration: Edward C. Banfield's Government Project. Public Administration Review, 69: 993–997. doi: 10.1111/j.1540-6210.2009.02053.x
- Issue published online: 24 AUG 2009
- Article first published online: 24 AUG 2009
Government Project ( Glencoe, IL : Free Press , 1951 ). 272 pp. Available at http://www.kevinrkosar.com/Edward-C-Banfield/ ., with a foreword by ,
Writing in the pages of this journal, Larry S. Luton said of Herbert Kaufman's The Forest Ranger,“It is regularly described as one of the classics [in public administration] and remains one of the most frequently cited case studies in public administration…. A recent Google Scholar search produced almost 200 legitimate hits for ‘Herbert Kaufman forest ranger” (2007, 167).
Would that the same could be said of Edward C. Banfield's marvelous case study Government Project (1951). Like Casa Grande Valley Farms, Inc., the New Deal experiment that is its subject, Government Project is little remembered. My Google Scholar search for “Edward C. Banfield government project” produced a measly five hits, not all of which were legitimate, and the most recent was from a book published in 1981. The only other recent mentions of Government Project that I could locate were in James Q. Wilson's short but superlative 2002 biography of Banfield, and Brian Q. Cannon's 1995 book on the New Deal resettlement of the West.
I suppose none of this should surprise me. In the scholarly and public policy communities, Banfield is usually associated with urban studies and poverty research. This is understandable; he wrote and edited more than a half dozen books on metropolitan areas and their denizens. Banfield's big-selling and very controversial text, The Unheavenly City (1970), continues to drive readers to distraction. The writer of a recent New York Times Magazine article seemed confounded that despite being “widely seen as retrograde,”The Unheavenly City remained influential (Rosenberg 2008, 48).
Government Project’s obscurity is a pity. Initially, it received favorable scholarly attention in publications such as the Journal of Farm Economics, the American Political Science Review, and the American Journal of Sociology. The New York Times found it worthy of brief mention in its June 2, 1951, copy.
It is unclear why Government Project slipped from view. James Q. Wilson, a Banfield student and collaborator, has suggested to me that Government Project appeared after the New Deal was over, and that its readership may have been limited by the misperception that it was a book about farm policy. Martha Derthick, another of Banfield's renowned students and collaborators, ventured that Government Project was overshadowed by The Moral Basis of a Backward Society (1958), which was published in 1958 and is assigned in university classes today. It also may be the case that Government Project slid into obscurity because it is difficult to categorize. The book is a blend of political science, public administration, sociology, and political theory. This makes it an unlikely candidate for adoption by professors of any particular discipline.
Regardless, Government Project is a very good book. One can see in it the seeds from which most, if not all, of Banfield's subsequent research grew. Government Project, as Wilson points out, is about the problem of human cooperation, a subject to which Banfield devoted his scholarly life over the next four decades. (Banfield died in 1999.)
Government Project is also unbelievably well written, deftly unspooling both a narrative and an analysis. (Banfield was a newspaper writer and government information specialist before he earned his doctorate at the University of Chicago.)
Most important, though, is the book's topic. It is not a book merely about farm policy; Government Project addresses the enterprise of public administration itself.
The most characteristic feature of modern society, perhaps, is the great and increasing role of formal organizations of all kinds. Primitive societies were (and are) held together chiefly by the nonlogical bounds of custom and tradition; in modern society the relations of individuals are to a large extent consciously and deliberately organized by the use of intelligence, and the rules of logic…. This attempt to organize society along rational lines is a stupendous experiment. Nothing in history promises that it will succeed. But like Faust we are bound by our bargain, and so the study of formal organization and planning—of the techniques by which control may be exerted deliberately and intelligently—is a matter of profound importance. If it is placed in the widest possible framework, then, Government Project may be regarded as a study of one of mankind's countless recent efforts to take command of his destiny. (Banfield 1951, 16)
In doing this, the book illustrates some of the perennial challenges of public administration that are rooted in the finitude and balkiness of human beings. As Rexford Tugwell, head of the New Deal agency that birthed the Casa Grande farm, wrote in the foreword to Government Project,“[H]ere is the full case history. We can see in it many lessons if we will” (1951, 13).
On May 1, 1935, Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 7027 to establish the Resettlement Administration. The agency was authorized to “administer approved projects involving [the] resettlement of destitute or low-income families from rural and urban areas, including the establishment, maintenance, and operation, in such connection, of communities in rural and suburban areas.” The order named Rexford Tugwell as the agency's head.
The Resettlement Administration was one response to the Grapes of Wrath problem—the dying off of family farms and their replacement by mechanized mega-farms that paid subsistence wages to armies of seasonal workers. The Resettlement Administration sought to lift migrant workers out of destitution by starting farms that would provide steady wages year around. This would enable the much-maligned “Okies” to set down roots and work out of their poverty trap.
The Resettlement Administration was succeeded by the Farm Security Administration (FSA) in 1937, and Tugwell stayed at the helm. By 1938, the FSA was overseeing 195 agrarian projects, 191 of which provided individual farmers with a plot of land to tend. The remaining four projects were cooperative farming ventures, and included the experiment in Casa Grande, Arizona.
Casa Grande Valley Farms, Inc., was a quasi-governmental entity. The FSA recruited four impoverished farmers and incorporated a cooperative association in their names under Arizona state law. The federal government then loaned the cooperative association the funds to lease the 5,000 acres of land that became the Casa Grande project. The Works Progress Administration built roads, homes, and farm buildings on the land, and the FSA recruited 60 families to live on the project. (Photographs of the Casa Grande farm and other FSA projects are available on the Library of Congress's Web site at http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/fsahtml/.)
Between 1937 and 1942, the government project at Casa Grande went from nothing to being a lush farm producing alfalfa, cotton, grain, cattle, hogs, chickens, and sheep for markets as far away as Los Angeles. In today's dollars, the farm's assets were valued at $4.2 million, and its annual profit reached nearly $500,000. The settlers' equity in the project was a little shy of $1 million. The farm offered “freedom, opportunity, and the stabilizing influence of property” to the settlers (Banfield 1951, 42). The settlers, for the most part, had never had it better. They had gone from shacks and tents to, in the FSA's words, “completely modern” houses, with “bathrooms, running hot and cold water, electric wiring and fixtures, and a garage attached to the house” (1951, 27).
Barely two years later, Casa Grande Valley Farms had entered legal liquidation, and the farms' settlers began to go their separate ways.
What went wrong? Banfield was skeptical of the utility of using hard science methodologies for studying political and organizational behavior. Six years after publishing Government Project, he wrote in Public Administration Review,“Very rarely is it possible to isolate the particular effect under study from other, disturbing factors operating within the organization…. If one cannot study important matters under controlled conditions, one must either seek out unimportant ones which can be scientifically studied or reconcile oneself to relying on common sense (meaning here judgment which does not rest entirely upon logical or nonarbitrary grounds)” (1957, 280).
In this instance, Banfield employed the “life study method,” which Charles H. Cooley described as “a descriptive technique” that aims to depict “the essential functional behavior” of individuals and groups in “as much of its dramatic reality as possible.” This method “involves the judicious selection of those events that are essential, that reveal the critical functions, the high spots as it were” (Cooley 1930, 335). To this end, Banfield drew on FSA records and interview notes conducted by social scientists from the Bureau of Agricultural Economics. Banfield also interviewed FSA officials and visited Casa Grande twice.
Banfield's interpretive methodology enabled him to make vivid for the reader the defining incidents in the rise and fall of Casa Grande. His answer to the riddle of the Casa Grande farm's collapse was blunt: “The settlers were unable to cooperate because they were involved in a ceaseless struggle for power” (1951, 231).
Despite the measurable indications of success (high productivity and profitability), the farm was a disputatious place. The community center was not much used, and settlers feuded with one another. Some individuals viewed themselves as superior to others, while others felt inferior and scorned. Families were given the chance to earn more pay by having their women and children pick cotton. Most families refused—they now viewed such work as beneath them. Perversely, to get the crop in, the cooperative hired Okies and forced them to live in shanties at the farm's perimeter.
The families resented the FSA, and they were annoyed that local FSA officials and those in Washington often disagreed about policies that affected the lives of the settlers. Members complained about the sort of work they were assigned to do, they frequently demanded higher wages, and a few even threatened to strike. Over time, the families demanded more say in the operation of the farm. This complaint was not baseless—the whole point of being in a cooperative, as opposed to, say, to being an employee, is that members of a cooperative have the right to choose their leadership through regular elections.
The settlers were not greedy or vicious; according to Banfield, they were terribly confused. Most had little education, and had either grown up on family farms or worked as seasonal laborers. Nothing in their experience had prepared them to be part of a cooperative. They did not understand what their roles were or where they stood with respect to one another or the FSA. Many of the settlers wanted their own farms, but had agreed to join the cooperative because they did not have any better options.
“The settlers' need to seek status and power,” Banfield observes, “was accentuated by the undefined and fluid nature of the project” (1951, 233). Casa Grande was rife with contradictions. As members of a cooperative, the farmers were supposed to be in charge of their community and the farm. Yet the FSA refused to give the settlers much discretion because they had no management experience. Casa Grande's members were supposed to be equals, but the FSA designated some individuals as foremen and paid them higher wages. The families lived in homes and earned wages tilling the soil and fattening the animals. Yet they individually owned neither their homes, nor the land, nor the livestock. An abstract legal entity, the cooperative merely leased these assets. The enterprise was inherently muddled—was the farm a private enterprise that aimed to make a profit efficiently, or was it a government project that was obliged to make work for as many persons as possible?
Ultimately, “[i]t was impossible for the project to satisfy all the claims to status and power that were made upon it” (1951, 233). When the FSA offered to sell the entire Casa Grande project to the settlers, a long-running feud exploded. A faction convinced a majority of Casa Grande's members that they would be better off selling all of the cooperative's assets, paying off the loan to the government, and sharing the remaining funds.
This did not go very well. Much of the farm's equity was spent on legal fees related to the liquidation, and each family walked away with between $13,000 to $26,000 (in today's dollars). Many settlers regretted it afterward, as they were forced to return to serving as seasonal farm workers. One of them, Charles McCormick, later groused, “We not only killed the goose that laid the golden egg, we even threw the goddam egg away!” (Banfield 1951, 217).
So, what does Government Project offer to today's public administration practitioner or scholar? Regarding human beings, it suggests the following:
- •Over the long term, few people are motivated primarily by the opportunity for financial gain and material improvement. Rather, individuals have diverse motivations that are produced by their particular experiences. So, although most individuals may aspire to be better off, in their daily lives, they spend much of their time on activities that do not materially improve their condition, such as enjoying the company of friends and family, attending worship services, and engaging in leisure activities.
- •Most individuals suffer from present-mindedness and short-term thinking that inhibits their ability to engage in the rational pursuit of their long-term interests.
- •Individuals' experiences create dispositions in them that inhibit their abilities to adapt to new circumstances.
- •No matter how similar individuals may appear, when put together, they tend to divide themselves into higher and lower classes. The former seek validation of their status, while the latter may feel resentment at their lot. Hence, some individuals inevitably will seek to grab power in an attempt to show or improve their status. To this end, they form factions.
- •People need shared understandings of the rules of their environment and the roles they are to play in a group; they crave order.
Regarding government programs, Government Project illustrates the following:
- •Government programs are the product of politics, hence they usually have multiple and conflicting objectives. Accordingly, these programs produce optimal results only rarely, and sometimes they are doomed to fail by one measure or another.
- •A series of rational steps by a government administrator can produce an irrational result.
- •When possible, an administrator should implement a government program with an eye toward the capabilities, general character, and worldviews of the affected individuals.
- •The success of a community or organization depends on its cooperation. Cooperation among individuals is not the norm, but the exception. It is produced through a variety of circumstances that are not readily available to public administrators—shared religious zeal, or shared racial or cultural identity among persons. Absent these forces, one needs an inspirational leader to help members develop a shared vision for who they are and what they should do.
- •Government bureaucrats tend to find it difficult to work with nonbureaucrats. The former are disposed toward rule following and process, while the latter usually want immediate solutions to their individual problems.
- •Washington-based agency heads and local bureaucrats will frequently disagree over the proper courses of action because they operate in different realms and they answer to different stakeholders.
All of these notions might strike the reader as commonsensical. Banfield would have agreed—but he might have added that being reminded is helpful, as common sense and humility are often in short supply.
The author wishes to thank Laura Banfield Hoguet, who permitted me to digitize many of her father's books for free distribution on the World Wide Web.
- 1951. Government Project.Glencoe, IL: Free Press. .
- 1957. The Decision-Making Schema. Public Administration Review 17(4): 278–85. .
- 1958. The Moral Basis of a Backward Society.Glencoe, IL: Free Press. .
- 1970. The Unheavenly City: The Nature and Future of Our Urban Crisis.Boston: Little, Brown. .
- 1996. Remaking the Agrarian Dream: New Deal Rural Resettlement in the Mountain West.Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press. .
- 1930. Sociological Theory and Social Research. New York: Henry Holt. .
- 1960. The Forest Ranger: A Study in Administrative Behavior.Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. .
- 2007. Digging Deeply 47 Years Later: Herbert Kaufman's The Forest Ranger. Public Administration Review 67(1): 165–68. .
- 2008. A Payoff Out of Poverty? New York Times Magazine, December 28, 47–51. .
- 2002. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court: A Biography. In Edward C. Banfield: An Appreciation, edited by Charles R.Kesler, 31–80, Claremont, CA: Henry Salvatori Center for the Study of Individual Freedom in the Modern World. .