citycountry[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

It’s clear to me that one of the primary things people (in the United States, certainly, but also elsewhere) think about when trying to understand the differences between large cities and small ones–perhaps not as primary as such immediate issues as economic prospects, proximity to family, personal security, transportation accessibility, and educational resources, but then again, often lurking in the background of all of the above–is the scope and style of the city’s government, and what kind of freedom that government’s approach allows. How that “freedom” is measured depends on the person making the distinctions: it could be tied up in questions of property and business regulations, or it could be a matter of tax burdens, or it could a concern over social or lifestyle expectations and support, or it could be all of the above. But however it is appropriated in any given conversation about urban life, worries about how much of a “hassle” a city and its may institutions present, or hopes for the “opportunities” the city might make available, seem to be constantly entwined with all of the above, more mundane concerns.

The long history of Western thought includes both pro-urban and its anti-urban partisans when it comes to human liberty. The pro-urban side basically follows the argument that, in rural environments or small towns, because of the homogeneity of the population and the comparative slowness of the economy (perhaps because it is still mostly tied to agriculture, or because the population is mostly unchanging), the communitarian traditions and norms are all-encompassing and oppressive, and too easily backed up with the force of law, thus squelching aspirations, limiting choice, and undermining creativity. Stephen Schneck expressed this view well:

[C]onsider a line between “city” and “village.” The line is drawn well by that apocryphal 15th century peasant who claims that “Die Stadtluft macht frei!” Consider the tension revealed here between the qualities perceived in village life and those anticipated in the city. Village represents a smothering community. An homogeneity of tastes, styles and desires is inscribed on each villager’s soul by an intrusive familiarity that begins in the cradle. The village represents a life lived with intimate, ubiquitous authorities wherein all is public. City, for our peasant, offers the heterogeneity of anonymity and the possibility of private spaces resistant to intrusive, public scrutiny found in village life. In the peasant’s ideal of the city there is room for private space and authority is formal, not intimate or personal….Consider Athens on the eve of Alexander’s empire; note the distance between the experiences of its occupants and the polis of Aristotle’s Politics. For the 75,000 people who left their villages and communities for the Stadtluft of Athens’s Piraeus the appeal of city life was not corporate hierarchy and communal place. The city was not sought for its public space so much as for its private space. They saw city life as desirable for the space it offered that was relatively free from the suffocating presence of community as experienced in their village living.

What the city–the larger the better, presumably–offers, then, in its busyness and anonymity, is a kind of freedom by way of privacy. The government, lacking the capability to track and intervene in all the lives of the myriad individuals to congregate together, instead retreats to distant and neutral rules, thus opening up a public space wherein individuals may truly live their lives in their own diverse ways.

But there is, of course, another stream of Western thought, an anti-urban one, usually (but not always) associated with republican ideas which present “freedom” mostly in terms of belonging and the morally–if not necessarily empirically–liberating civic virtue which the responsibilities of self-government and community membership allow one to develop. This, of course, was the position taken by Jefferson, or in a populist manner by William Jennings Bryan, who saw in large urban areas the inevitable dominance of financial interests over those who performed socially ennobling productive work, and hence the need, in the name genuine independence, to resist them. The philosophical ideals of republicanism or populism are far away from the minds of most who are trying to work out in their heads what is, or is not, appealing about cities of a certain size–but those anti-urban traditions nonetheless inform, I think, those who note how the economically-induced complexity of extensive urbanization contrasts with the kind of genuine freedom from interference which less developed, smaller, more rural areas provide. James C. Scott puts it this way:

The first thing to notice is that since the Industrial Revolution and headlong urbanization, a vastly increasing share of the population has become propertyless and dependent on large, hierarchical organizations for their livelihood. The household economy of the small peasant-farmer or shopkeeper may have been just as poverty-stricken and insecure as that of the proletarian. It was, however, decidedly less subject to the quotidian, direct discipline of managers, bosses, and foremen. Even the tenant farmer, subject to the caprice of his landlord, or the small-holder, deeply in debt to the bank or moneylenders, was in control of his working day: when to plant, how to cultivate, when to harvest and sell, and so forth. Compare this to the factory worker tied to the rhythm of the machine, and closely monitored personally and electronically. Even in the service industries the pace, regulation, and monitoring of work are far beyond what the independent shopkeeper experienced in terms of minute supervision.

(Add to the above the comments of famed, early-20th-century sociologist Louis Wirth: “[T]he masses of men in the city are subject to manipulation by symbols and stereotypes managed by individuals working from afar or operating invisibly behind the scenes through their controls of the instruments of community. Self-government…under these circumstances [is] reduced to a mere figure of speech…”)

There are many ways in which someone might attempt to reconcile these contrasting views. The effort to turn the priorities of classical, agrarian republicanism in the direction of a theory of “non-domination” could potentially be read as an attempt to make republicanism fit for our heavily urbanized world. Similarly, populist arguments might be presented as aligning importantly with the conservation of community norms, thus contextualize its devotion to one (agrarian) type of community above all others. However one approaches the problem, though, it remains a puzzling difficulty that city life–which describes the life which, on level or another, over 80% of the American population lives–can be (and is) understood as both a venue of and a threat to freedom by Americans of diverse ideological preferences, which makes any productive democratic rethinking of the future of our (strongly urbanized) common life rather complicated.

One possible way to reframe this whole disagreement, though, can be found in some of the most recent literature on cities, which focuses on the curious fact that, almost without exception, cities–whether gigantic or tiny, whether wealthy metropolitan financial centers or undeveloped micropolitan backwaters–are not sovereign. That is, whatever jurisdictional claims that the authorities and elites which govern urban areas make, they are nearly all made without any formal constitutional or federal legitimacy. States and provinces and the like are seen, in our general understanding of what counts as “political” and what doesn’t, as having a fully recognized legal standing in terms of wielding executive authority; cities, by contrast, while obviously having within their sphere of influence a wide range of governmental powers, are nonetheless almost never understood as being rooted in any consented-to constitutional framework. In the United States, for example, there are national offices (the presidency) and state offices (governors); there are national offices determined by state-wide elections (senators), and national offices determined by constitutionally mandated and state-designed population-based districts (congressional representatives); and you also have state offices determined through additional state-designed population-based or county-based districts (state senators and representatives)–and the boundaries of those counties are themselves functions of state administration. In almost none of these cases are the territorial ranges, fluctuating populations, or economic health of the communities in which people actually live formally taken into consideration in terms of laying the particulars of the social contract.

This is a point which was made long ago in the writings of Max Weber–that is, that the sort of ordering of commercial life or industrial development or anything else that emerges in the city is a kind of “non-legitimate domination.” For Weber, this was a fairly unique historical development, a signpost on the way towards the rationalization made possible by the modern bureaucratic state. But for many scholars who have taken up this topic lately–Benjamin Barber, Loren King, Warren Magnusson, and others–the fact that the city has developed politically as a distinctly non-sovereign entity is a vitally important (and mostly positive) resource for reflection. Sovereignty, at least in the classic post-Westphalian sense, has been in trouble for a good while now (certainly since the post-Cold War explosion in globalization, perhaps since the post-WWII rise in global institutions, maybe even longer than that), but amidst all the talk of changing definitions of what it means to be “sovereign,” the idea of actually investing our political self-understanding in polities that are essentially interdependent, and which were never constituted in light of sovereign preoccupations in the first place, still strikes most political thinkers and actors as strange. It would seem to these nationally and internationally inclined individuals to be limiting, or downright even anarchic, to trust one’s liberty to the polis alone, absent the liberating and/or security-providing apparatus of a constitutionally-defined state.

For myself, the accusation that a focus on the liberty as something to be developed “non-sovereignly” would involve too many city-specific limits from outset doesn’t trouble me too much; broadly speaking I think modern life has been too dismissive of too many limits for too long, anyway. As for anarchy, getting away from a statist focus allows us to see the anarchic order of city life (which Jane Jacobs, Richard Sennett, and many others have discussed) as a potentially important place to start thinking anew. What exactly constitutes the sort of reliable civil society which allows most (if not all) cities to function as sites of sustainable “disorderly order”? Years ago, Lyn H. Lofland argued that cities originally made it possible for residents to freely and peacefully interact with each other because of “apprearential ordering”: that is, before industrialization and economic development leveled out much of the physically obvious role- and class-based distinctions between persons, our sense of security and trust arose from being able to literally recognize something about one another, even if we were just two strangers bumping into each other on the street. She then claimed that as wealth, democratization, and diversification following industrial (and post-industrial) development undermined the reliability of that kind of recognition, a different kind of order–a “spatial” one, dependent upon neighborhoods, districts, and other time-and-place demarcations, took its place. In other words, we co-exist in relative anarchy with one another because we know who is supposed to live and work where, and thus know where we should be and go, and where we shouldn’t.

There are, I realize, all sorts of problems with that argument–but it opens the door to the sort of thinking about liberty which I think a proper assessment of cities and city size might really benefit from. For example, might it not be the case that in smaller urban clusters, with a smaller set of population types, apprearential ordering might endure longer? Or, then again, might it be the case that as the dominant urban model of public ordering–even in small cities–became more clearly premised upon spatial recognition, that the demand for sovereign governments, and a consequent change in how we think about freedom, grew overwhelming? Magnusson and some others imply that the abiding emphasis on sovereignty and territoriality and borders may be significantly a rural creation: with all that uninhabited land, the imperative need was for a sovereign government to provide, in essence, “eyes on the land,” since obviously out in the country there aren’t enough crowded streets and productive neighborhoods to supply those eyes, that spatial recognition of who belongs where. If there is anything to this speculation, it wouldn’t be the first time that republican and agrarian principles were found to be, at least in terms of personal freedom, contributing to their own undermining.

No definite answers here; just more questions. We’re always thinking about our freedom, even while we’re thinking about much else, and it haunts the way we talk about and campaign for and condemn our government(s). In the meantime we move from country to city, from smaller cities to larger cities (and, though only rarely, in the other direction too); our polities, the places we live, thereby expand and change. We need to be conscious of these changes, because whether we realize it or not, it matters very much for how we understand what we’re looking for in the first place.

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  1. The anomic basis of city air gives both freedom and frustration (perhaps frustration is a necessary companion of freedom?). For myself, being packed in with hordes of anonymous fellow human beings leads to a claustrophobia which demands flight back to the country where I was raised. (Barefoot boy with cheek, etc.) Cities are nice for the amenities (bookstores, theatres, restaurants) but only in small and tolerable doses.
    Ah well, back to my front porch wing and observing the traffic whiz by on the old Interstate.

  2. “you also have state offices determined through additional state-designed population-based or county-based districts (state senators and representatives)”
    No. You used to have county-based districts, but not any more since the abomination that was/is “one man, one vote”. Yet we retain (well, 49 of the 50 states do) bicameral legislatures that make no sense given that both houses now must represent only urban interests.

    Similarly, we retain local governing units long after they’ve been stripped of nearly all their power. New York still has governments at the level of the town, the village/city, the county, etc. The powers that be in Albany are trying to abolish as much of this as possible, which has a sort of logic in that all authority has effectively been seized by the state anyway. The people aren’t in general so hot on the idea. Most attempts at consolidation of school districts and local governance are voted down. Recently there was a truly bizarre editorial in the Syracuse newspaper (representing urban interests fine with consolidation) stating that these votes against consolidating local governments shows the hypocrisy of small-government types, since clearly merging several local governments into one regional government results in smaller government, right? After all, one is less than many. How is one to even have a conversation about what government should do and how it should do it in this sort of world? It’s as pointless as me trying to convince the squirrels to stop eating my strawberries.

  3. If you believe in limited government and property rights, you should be for it at all levels. The most local governments often seek to control land use to export “undesirable uses” to the next jurisdiction. So you need a metro wide government to constrain (not replace) these local governments and allocate to them their share of LULUs (Locally Undesirable Land Uses) A completely libertarian land owner decided system of land use would solve the Hayekian problem of information on what land uses are needed, but no one seem so want that.

  4. BTW our research has found that small American towns are far more tolerant of esthetic diversity and eccentricity than suburbs are. Anybody who writes on this has to deal with that fact. A suburb and a small town are very different. Suburbs are obsessed with controlling their neighbor (except “in the bedroom” except you need a permit to build the bedroom in the first place, and the government tells you how many people can reside in that bedroom permanently) small towns may be less tolerant on some things, (mainly sexual) but far more so about others.

  5. Howard,

    [M]ost local governments often seek to control land use to export “undesirable uses” to the next jurisdiction. So you need a metro wide government to constrain (not replace) these local governments and allocate to them their share of LULUs (Locally Undesirable Land Uses)

    I agree, though obviously the creation of a metropolitan government invites problems all their own. This is an aspect of the headache I talked about in a subsequent post of mine; as I put it there, “urban localities can become genuinely unlovely if they cannot work out ways to balance conservative sensibilities with something a little more trusting in the face of inevitable change.” By conservative sensibilities I mean preserving the communitarian structures that allow for genuine affection, and the reason why “inevitable change” threatens that is not so much that people and capital travel elsewhere, but rather than because they so travel, localities too often are beset by a transient mentality, and rather than embracing their totality, they try to contain the “good” populations/land uses, and outsource the others.

    [O]ur research has found that small American towns are far more tolerant of esthetic diversity and eccentricity than suburbs are. Anybody who writes on this has to deal with that fact.

    Could you forward some of that research to me? I’m genuinely interested; I don’t know how relevant it will be to my project on mid-sized cities in the long-term, but right now I want to collect as much information as I can.

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