Independence Day for us, but not our cities

Today is the anniversary of the day when thirteen colonies, their representatives meeting in Philadelphia, declared themselves an indepedent nation, with no allegience to the British crown or any other. It was a pivotal moment in history for the colonies — a few decades earlier and they wouldn’t have had the military strength to fight off Britain and there would have been more people dependent on British purchases of the natural resources they were producing, reducing popular support for independence.

By July 1776, however, American industries were sufficiently well-developed that British policies were hindering production and trade. John Hancock, the Boston merchant who presided over the Continental Congress that declared independence, was the richest man in the colonies thanks to smuggling.

Unfortunately for our subsequent history, one failing shared by almost all the Founding Fathers was a distrust of cities. Thomas Jefferson famously believed that the United States ought to be a civilization of self-sufficient yeomen farmers and eschew cities as corrupt and full of bankers. Most of the Southern delegates owned plantations and therefore owed their wealth to agriculture, while other delegates were land speculators or professionals from rural areas.

But even the Founders who were from cities, like John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, didn’t think about them at all. Alexander Hamilton thought they were important for trade, manufacturing and banking, but his analysis seems more aimed at exploiting natural resources and competing with other countries than on cities as causes of economic growth.

As a result of this oversight, cities in America were ignored politically. The future, everyone believed, was in the West with its seemingly limitless land for farmers and mountains full of valuable ores, minerals and metals. In a way, being ignored at a national level was a good thing — it allowed cities to develop without much interference — but it also resulted in political arrangements that could hinder city growth.

Many American cities today are chaffing under the control of the states. Their influence is diluted in Washington by the continual increase of average populations in Congressional districts, so indivual representatives increasingly represent suburbaniteas as well as city residents — and their interests frequently diverge. State legislatures suffer from problems. Moreover, because cities are where most wealth is created, they frequently have to subsidize less productive regions of the state and state laws often conflict with needs and responsibilities.

For example, residents of New York City pay taxes to New York City for services they need and want, but they also pay taxes to New York State for services people in the rest of the state need and want but cannot pay for. Meanwhile New York State has overruled the City on congestion charges, set up unnecesarry agencies like the Empire State Development Corporation and through a system of public benefit corporations allowed Robert Moses essentially unlimited capability to build highways, bridges, tunnels and other things through New York City, displacing businesses and residents and carving up neighborhoods.

In Massachusetts the concern among residents of the central and western parts of the state is that the legislature and governor only care about the Boston region, which is the most populous and wealthy. Of course, Boston residents frequently find themselves burdended by the Commonwealth’s buraeucracy, especially the Transportation Department and the neccessity of “home-rule” petitions to the legislature to make or ammend certain city-level laws.

It seems to me that, right from the start, the Constitution should have included a provision where cities that became too powerful for their states should be allowed to seccede from their states (in a manner easier than the process for creating new states from parts of existing ones), with part of their regions and become constituent members of the United States. Instead of being federal subjects like territories or the District of Columbia, these “federal cities” would be like states, capable of ratifying Constitutional ammendments and being self-governing. Perhaps they could be like SWiss half-cantons and only entitled to one senator.

It’s one thing to be independent of Great Britain and another thing to be independent of onbe’s own capital.

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