Why Public Opinion Is Perverse

Tuesday, July 13th, 2010

Edward Banfield explains why public opinion is perverse:

An answer sometimes given is that in matters such as these it is generally dominated by the opinion of the well-educated and well-off. These people (so the argument runs) are indifferent to or downright hostile to the interest of the less well-off and the poor. In short, the “masses” are against the recommended measures because they have been misled by an elite that is looking after its own interests.

The trouble with this theory is that with respect to most measures it runs counter to the facts. The well-off are not benefited by an increase in the minimum wage or by any other measures that price low-value labor out of the market and onto the welfare rolls. They are not benefited by laws that keep children who cannot or will not learn in schools that they (the well-off) must support. They are not benefited by the making of sweeping charges about “white racism” or by crisis-mongering of any kind.

Public opinion is indeed decisively influenced in many matters by the opinion of the well-educated and well-off. But this opinion, which reflects the “service” ideal of the upper class, tends to be altruistic. And it is precisely this altruistic bias that accounts for its pervisity.

The American political style was formed largely in the upper classes and, within those classes, mainly by people of dissenting-Protestant and Jewish traditions. Accordinaly, it is oriented toward the future and toward moral and material progress, for the individual and for the society as a whole. The American is confident that with a sufficient effort all difficulties can be overcome and all problems solved, and he feels a strong obligation to try to improve not only himself but everything else: his community, his society, the whole world.

Ever since the days of Cotton Mather, whole Bonifacius was a how-to-do-it book on the doing of good, service has been the American motto. To be sure, practice has seldom entirely corresponded to principles. The principles, however, have always been influential and they have sometimes been decisive. They can be summarized in two very simple rules: first, Don’t just sit there. Do something! and second, Do good!

These two rules contribute to the perversity that characterizes the choice of measures for dealing with the urban “crisis.” From the President on down everyone (almost everyone) enjoys the feeling of exhilaration when a bold step is taken, and that enjoyment is no less when, as it almost always must be, the step is taken blindfold.

Believing that any problem can be solved if only we try hard enough, we do not hesitate to attempt what we do not have the least idea of how to do and what, in some instances, reason and experience both tell us cannot be done. Not recognizing any bounds to what is feasible, we are not reconciled to — indeed, we do not even perceive — the necessity, so frequently arising, of choosing the least objectionable among courses of action that are all very unsatisfactory.

That some children simply cannot be taught much in school is one example of a fact that the American mind will not entertain. Our cultural ideal requires that we give every child a good education whether he want it or not and whether he is capable of receiving it or not. If at first we don’t succeed, we must try, try again. And if in the end we don’t succeed, we must feel guilty for our failure. To lower the school-leaving age would be, in the terms of this secular religion, a shirking of the task for which we were chosen.

(From The Unheavenly City Revisited.)


  1. Foseti says:

    I’ve really got to start reading Banfield.

    Thanks for all the excerpts.

  2. Isegoria says:

    You’re quite welcome, Foseti — but you should thank Devin Finbarr for mentioning Banfield in a comment over at Aretae’s.

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