The City and the State

I am a libertarian, as well as an urbanist. What does this mean? Contrary to the distorted and ignorant rantings of the Left, libertarianism is not an ideology that prescribes for-profit corporations as the solution to everything and to Hell with workers’ rights, the environment and everything else that stands between the CEO and his bonus. On the contrary, libertarisnism is an ideology based on the idea that human relationships should be voluntary — that the use of force or fraud to acheive a goal, moral, economic or political is illegitimate.

For example, as a libertarian I hold that the aquisition of property by individuals, so long as it does not involve force or fraud, is legitimate and they then have an inherent right to put their property to any purpose that does not involve the initation of force or fraud, whether that be the pursuit of profit or not. For example, someone might want to build a steel mill on their property and that’d be fine. But running that mill, without making provisions for the pollution it would produce, would be wrong because you’d be forcing your pollution on your neighbors.

For some libertarians, the state and its monopoly on force is a neccesarry evil. It would be limited to defense, record-keeping and other public goods. Others, including myself, view the state as an unneccesarry evil and believe that the things it can provide that voluntary associations cannot are not worth having. As one might imagine, the existence of a state has important consequences for cities.

In the United States and to a greater or lesser degree elsewhere, cities derive their self-government and police powers from a higher government. For example, in most states there are two tiers of government: the state government, which is mostly sovereign, and the county government, which is created by the state to execute certain functions at the local level, such as law enforcement, healthcare, welfare and so on. Depending on the state the county could also be in charge of education, although in many states there’s a further level of state-created government called a township that executes very local functions. In most states a city is a municipal corporation chartered by the state, but with more significant local government powers.

(There are also in-between entities in the Northeast, such as burroughs in Pennsylvania, villages in New York and New England and the New England Town in New England.)

If one believes that some government is fine, one doesn’t have to worry about it — but how does a city work without force and fraud?

There are three options that I can think of: full anarchy, a mutual city and a cooperative city. The anarchic city would have no organization at all. All contracts and services would be between individuals. In a mutual city, the city government would be a mutual company owned by the people who paid into it and a cooperative city would have city services run as cooperatives. They aren’t incompatable, although there could be a situation where the mutual city owns all the city land, which would allow it to reproduce a great deal of current city functions. Hong Kong and Singapore are like that. The only freehold land in Hong Kong that doesn’t belong to the government is the Anglican cathedral.

I think history demonstrates that most people prefer some formal organization for their communities. One of the tragedies of the 19th century is that the nationalists forgot that a nation was not identical with the nation-state. A nation is a group of people with a shared history and traditions, but like the difference between a language and a dialect, there’s no real firm boundry. The division of the Carolingian Empire into France and Germany was due to political and dynastic reasons more than cultural or linguistic ones. By identifying the nation with the state we hid the role of the city, even if colloquially we remembered — hence we have citizenship, civic and civil wars and make metonyms out of national capitals — but instead of being the masters of states, cities became their creatures.

In the ancient world, the way cities like Athens and Rome governed themselves was exported to other cities and eventually territories. In the modern world, cities were seen as neccesarry evils at best until recently. They were viewed as breeding grounds for poverty and crime, or they were considered chaotic erruptions that needed to be brought to order with planning. Nation-states weakened themselves with such schemes and worse (like at Lvov after the dissolution of the Austrian Empire or what’s going on in Aleppo).

The city must live. The city must lead. The city must be free.

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