17 proofs

“Give me your tired, your poor, the huddled masses, yearning to breathe free, blah blah,” sings the Statue of Liberty from her celebrated place gate keeping the harbour entrance to the land of gold and happiness, New York city.  This is the iconic vision of a million immigrants processed through the hall at Ellis Island and then shipped past the grand lady herself, holding their collective breath for what joy and blessing would shower them in their new lives in America.

In the 1972, a young Francis Ford Coppola took a stale Hollywood script about the power of a mafia clan and radically personalized it.  In a way, the Godfather marked a shift away from film by studio consensus and into a new paradigm of film by talented director’s vision.  It electrified the culture.  It so effectively saturated American life that it arguably became the dominant narrative of American immigrant life.

America is almost exclusively populated by immigrants many of whom were poor and dispossessed in their countries of origin.  It makes sense that they brought their politics on the boat with them; and set up their gangs and parishes to give order to harsh new realities confronted in the new world.

In 1954, Edward Banfield took his wife and children to live in an impoverished town in southern Italy.  Why, he asked himself, are towns like this one poorer than Italy’s northern towns and cities?  And he wrote his findings in a book called The Moral Basis of a Backward Society.

In chapter 5, Banfield establishes a hypothesis, that the poor town folk are motivated by a stifling principle: get what you can now for sake of family survival and be sure that everyone else in the village is doing the same:

The hypothesis is that the Montegranesi act as if they were following this rule:  Maximize the material, short-run advantage of the nuclear family; assume that all others will do likewise.

Then to defend his hypothesis, the author offers 17 proofs which sketch a scene of hopelessness, stagnation and despair.  Here are some of his observations:  no one will involve himself in public matters for fear of recrimination; no institutions develop because all citizens fear public engagement; as public service degrades, critical institutions like the law degrade; distrust of professions and leaders pervades; bribery and rumors of bribery run rampant; town folk vote against their best interest because there always exists the possibility a neighbor will prosper; commitment to long term political ideals blow away like so much chaff in the pursuit of quick profit.

Decide for yourself, is America – who for generations has welcomed the world’s children, and who still spins the myth of the old world gang as an idyll – anything like Banfield’s poor Italian town?

The proofs from chapter five of Banfield’s book:

1. In a society of amoral familists, no one will further the interest of the group or community except as it is to his private advantage to do so.

2. In a society of amoral familists only officials will concern themselves with public affairs, for only they are paid to do so.  For a private citizen to take a serious interest in a public problem will be regarded as abnormal and even improper.

3. In a society of amoral familists there will be few checks on officials, for checking on officials will be the business of other officials only.

4. In a society of amoral familists, oganization (i.e., deliberately concerted action) will be very difficult to achieve and maintain.  The inducements which lead people to contribute their activity to organizations are to an important degree unselfish (e. g., identification with the purpose of the organization) they are often non-material (e. g., the intrinsic interest of the activity as a “game”.)  Moreover it is a condition of successful organization that members have some trust in each other and some loyalty to the orgamzation. In an organization with high morale it is taken for granted that they will make some sacrifices, and perhaps even large ones, for the sake of the organization.

5. In a society of amoral familists, office-holders, feeling no identification with the purposes of the organization, will not work harder than is necessary to keep their places or (if such is within the realm of possibility) to earn promotion.  Similarly, professional people and educated people generally will lack a sense of mission or calling.  Indeed, official position and special training will be regarded by their possessors as weapons to be used against others for private advantage.

6. In a society of amoral familists , the law will be disregarded when there is no reason to fear punishment. Therefore individuals will not enter into agreements which depend upon legal processes for their enforcement unless it is likely that the law will be enforced and unless the cost of securing enforcement will not be so great as to make the undertaking unprofitable.

7. The amoral familist who is an office-holder will take bribes when he can get away with it. But whether he takes bribes or not, it will be assumed by the society of amoral familists that he does.

8. In a society of amoral familists the weak will favor a regime which will maintain order with a strong hand.

9. In a society of amoral familists, the claim of any person or institution to be inspired by zeal for public rather than private advantage will be regarded as fraud.

10.  In the society of amoral familists there will be no connection between abstract political principle (i.e., ideology) and concrete behavior in the ordinary relationships of every day life.

11. In a society of amoral familists there will be no leaders and no followers.  No one will take the initiative in outlining a course of action and persuading others to embark upon it (except as it may be to his private advantage to do so) and, if one did offer leadership , the group would refuse it out of distrust.

12. The amoral familist will use his ballot to secure the greatest material gain in the short run.  Although he may have decided views as to his long-run interest, his class interest, or the public interest, these will not effect his vote if the family’s short-run, material advange is in any way involved.

13. The amoral familist will value gains accruing to the community only in so far as he and his are likely to share them.  In fact, he will vote against measures which will help the community without helping him because, even though his position is unchanged in absolute terms, he considers himself worse off if his neighbors’ position changes for the better.  Thus it may happen that measures which are of decided general benefit will provoke a protest vote from those who feel that they have not shared in them or have not shared in them sufficiently.

14. In a society of amoral familists the voter will place little confidence in the promises of the parties.  He will be apt to use his ballot to pay for favors already received (assuming, of course , that more are in prospect) rather than for favors which are merely promised.

15. In a society of amoral familists it will be assumed that whatever group is in power is self-serving and corrupt.  Hardly will an election be over before the voters will conclude that the new officials are enriching themselves at their expense and that they have no intention of keeping the promises they have made.  Consequently, the self-serving voter will use his ballot to pay the incumbents not for benefits but for injuries, i.e., he will use it to administer punishment.

16. Despite the willingness of voters to sell their votes, there will be no strong or stable political machines in a society of amoral familists.  This will be true for at least three reasons: (a) the ballot being secret, the amoral voter cannot be depended upon to vote as he has been paid to vote; (b) there will not be enough short-run material gain from a machine to attract investment in it; and (c) for reasons explained above, it will be difficult to maintain formal organization of kind whatever.

17. In a society of amoral familists party workers will sell their services to the highest bidders.  Their tendency to change sides will make for sudden shifts in strength of the parties at the polls.

p 85-104, The Moral Basis of a Backward Society, Edward Banfield

pdf:  Edward-C-Banfield-The-Moral-Basis-of-a-Backward-Society


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