Edward Banfield, an American anthropologist, did his foundational fieldwork in southern Italy in the mid-1950s. He gave the fictitious name ‘Montegrano’ to the village where he lived for nine months.

Banfield was drawn to Montegrano because it posed a puzzle. While the farmland wasn’t exactly rich, it was well capable of supporting a decent life for the three and a half thousand people in the area. But those who lived there were desperately poor. They knew what was needed to improve their lot—better schooling, better roads, and so on. But they seemed unable to take the steps together that would improve things, either by lobbying government elsewhere for help, or by solving the problems themselves. Banfield’s question was why. What accounted for the political incapacity of the village?

Banfield’s thesis was put forward in the title of his book; The Moral Basis of a Backward Society (1958). Montegranese society was “backward,” in a term that is questionable now, because of its moral basis. By that, he meant the moral code the Montegranese lived by, the ideas of what appropriate behaviour looks like. This was not the only impediment to the village’s development, but it was central. He argued that the people of Montegrano followed this rule: “Maximize the material, short-run advantage of the nuclear family; and assume that all others will do likewise.” Or, in more natural language: look out for your own. Banfield called someone who followed this rule, an “amoral familist”—loyal to their own, but amoral towards outsiders.

It is easy to see that amoral familists do not trust each other. And this was the heart of the problem facing the Montegranese. Because they did not trust each other, they did not cooperate, and this kept them poor.

Some examples: The half-employed stone masons in Montegrano did not help repair the crumbling walls of the local monastery, where nuns looked after the village’s orphans. This would involve giving your time and work away for free, and others might not contribute.

Because of this assumption, the only people who were expected to do anything that would benefit the village generally were the public officials—bureaucrats and elected politicians. But the same people were viewed with suspicion. “They get the office, and then they look after themselves,” one merchant said. “Some take office so as to be able to say, ‘I am the mayor.’ But really there isn’t much honour attached to an office; people here don’t even respect the President of the Republic. The mayor wants to be mayor so that he can keep the population down.”

As you would predict—in a context where public office was assumed not to be performed on the basis of public service—there was corruption. The principal businessman was trying to build a cinema. But he needed a permit to do so. “If I took an envelope with $160 and slipped it into the right pocket, I would have my permission right away,” he reported. “It’s the yellow envelope that gets things done.”