Revisiting the Urban Classics: Political Order, Economic Development, and Social Justice
Grimshaw, William J., Policy Studies Journal
After languishing in the doldrums for two decades, "the lost world of municipal government" finally was rediscovered in the 1950s. Indeed, a dazzling array of studies created a "golden age" of urban studies. The seminal work of Norton Long (1958); that of Edward Banfield and his colleagues, Martin Meyerson (Meyerson & Banfield, 1955) and James Q. Wilson (Banfield & Wilson, 1963), on Chicago; Robert Dahl (1961) on New Haven; and Wallace Sayre and Herbert Kaufman (1960) on New York City renewed and reconstituted the study of urban politics. Down to this day, these classic studies exert a profound influence on the work being done by many urbanists.
The classic studies transformed the study of urban politics. They challenged the conjectural inquiries surfacing in sociology, overturned the arid formalism of conventional public administration studies, and rejected the idealistic normative orientation commonly found in political science analyses. They brought a new tone of tough-minded realism to the study of urban politics, earmarked by a combination of rigorous empirical description and pragmatic normative prescription. They were determined to study things as they actually were and as they feasibly could be--not as they were assumed to be or ideally ought to be.
The classic studies came to be understood as the work of the pluralist school, standing in opposition to the elitist school of urban analysis. Yet despite the once raging character of the debate between the pluralists and elitists, these lines of inquiry proved unproductive over the long run, and now survive only in the obligatory literature review sections of theses and dissertations. This is unfortunate because when the classics are viewed from outside the conventional pluralist-elitist framework, there is still much to be learned from them.
I therefore want to revisit the classic studies for the purpose of proposing a more fruitful way of making use of them. I want to argue that the classics employed distinct logical frameworks that linked description to prescription, the empirical to the normative, in a way that created two fundamentally different conceptions of the urban governance task. These two theoretical perspectives not only shaped our understanding of urban politics in logically distinct terms; they imposed narrow limits on our understanding of the possibilities of urban politics.
What above all distinguishes the logical frameworks of the two classic perspectives is their profoundly different conceptions of what constitutes the principal problem of urban governance. These distinct conceptions established the basic task of governance, which in turn imposed a stringent conception of what governance can and cannot be expected to accomplish. This is no small matter. As E. E. Schattschneider (1960, page 66) observed in a broader context, "the definition of the alternatives is the supreme instrument of power.... He who determines what politics is about runs the country."
One classic theoretical perspective argues that the principal problem of urban politics is conflict. Accordingly, the paramount task of urban governance must be creating and maintaining political order. Banfield and his collaborators, Meyerson and Wilson, established the logical nexus of the political order perspective (Meyerson & Banfield, 1955; Wilson, 1960; Banfield, 1961; Banfield &Wilson, 1963). In this view, conflict is regarded as pervasive, endemic, and thus inevitable, and it stems from various sources--notably class, ethnic, and racial differences; opposing conceptions of the public interest; and competing organizational interests. Conflict therefore is the elementary datum of urban analysis, and when it is left unchecked, conflict can transform cities into strife-torn states. Hence the normative prescription: Powerful regimes are therefore essential if political order is to be achieved.
The other classic theoretical perspective maintains that the principal problem of urban politics is underdevelopment, the misuse of scarce economic resources. Thus, the critical task of urban governance here is not maintaining political order, but fostering economic development. Robert Dahl's study of New Haven's politics, Who Governs? (Dahl, 1961), established the logical nexus of this economic development perspective. In this view, the great plight of the cities is their economic blight and mismanagement. The normative prescription here, then, does not call for the power to contain political conflict, but for the expertise to attain economic development. As Dahl (1961, page 62) put it, "The new men in local politics may very well prove to be the bureaucrats and experts--and politicians who know how to use them." Thus, in the same way that Banfield and his collaborators extolled Mayor Richard J. Daley and his political machine as the paragon of political order, Dahl hailed Mayor Richard Lee and his executive-centered coalition of experts as the paragon of economic development.
The enduring influence of these two classic theoretical perspectives can be seen in much of the leading work now being done in urban politics. Paul Peterson's sweeping and elegantly argued City Limits (1981) single-handedly reoriented much of the study of urban politics into the study of urban economic development, and so stands as an exemplar of the economic development perspective. Peterson's argument that development must be the paramount task of governance because it alone advances the city's vital economic interests is deeply rooted in Dahl's normative argument that governance principally must be the province of experts because they alone are committed to a "collective-benefits" politics of economic development.
The principal opposition to Peterson's argument on behalf of a unitary economic interest and the maximization of efficiency has been mounted by the urban regime school (Elkin, 1987; Stone, 1989; DeLeon, 1992). The central argument of the regime theorists is grounded in the logical nexus of the political order perspective. Conflict is understood to be the core problem of urban governance; in this formulation, the conflict stems from fundamentally opposed political and economic interests. Accordingly, if political order is to be achieved, powerful regimes must be assembled, which can bring the opposing interests into collective harness. Thus, Clarence Stone (1989, pages 212-213) made the insightful observation that despite all their apparent differences, a fundamental functional similarity existed between the biracial regimes ruling highly reformed Atlanta and the Daley machine that once ruled Chicago.
It is also important to recognize that the two perspectives not only establish the basic terms of governance; they narrowly delimit the possibilities of governance. Notwithstanding the profound differences between the two perspectives, their logic coincides on one fundamentally important implication. Urban governance is affected adversely by the pursuit of social justice. From the political order perspective efforts to achieve equity are understood to exacerbate conflict. From the economic development perspective, such efforts are understood to reduce efficiency.
Such dire consequences are not, of course, bound to occur; they are simply logical inferences. Theoretical perspectives contain assumptions that both illuminate and cast shadows. Thus, the political order perspective brightly illuminates the problem of conflict, but it sheds less light on the problems of underdevelopment and inequality. The economic development perspective proceeds in the same fashion, slighting the problems of conflict and inequality while it focuses on what it takes to be the far more critical problem of efficiently managing scarce …
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Revisiting the Urban Classics: Political Order, Economic Development, and Social Justice. Contributors: Grimshaw, William J. - Author. Journal title: Policy Studies Journal. Volume: 24. Issue: 2 Publication date: Summer 1996. Page number: 230+. © 1999 Policy Studies Organization. COPYRIGHT 1996 Gale Group.
This material is protected by copyright and, with the exception of fair use, may not be further copied, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means.