Skip to comments.What We’ve Built
Posted on 02/15/2014 9:10:26 AM PST by Kaslin
In the mid-1980s the reconstituted band Starship (formerly Jefferson Starship, formerly Jefferson Airplane) enjoyed a number one hit with We Built This City (on Rock and Roll). Turns out they were on to something. About the city, if not the rock and roll.
People have been coming together to live in close proximity since before recorded time. As such, cities have helped humans flourish and make modern life possible. Cities Are Good For You, as the title of a recent book by British historian Leo Hollis asserts.
The city was born out of trade and developed agricultural sciences such as irrigation and crop selection to support this exchange, Hollis writes. It was the innovations of the city that produced a surplus to feed the citizens who did not work the soil. Those innovations were spread as people moved from place to place, and thus city to city.
The first city was a place filled with workshops where an ordinary object -- a bowl, horn or hide -- was worked into a desirable product, Hollis writes. So cities became places where men who worked with their hands rather than the soil were able to trade for sustenance, exchanging goods for food. Thats truly the key to modern life.
The dawn of cities also meant the dawn of government. People needed to coordinate for protection from outsiders (a military) and insiders (a police force). This mattered, and differed from place to place. How any city looks economically depends in no small part on how it is governed, Angelo Codevilla notes in The Character of Nations. Even the least economically intrusive governments tilt the playing field in economically vital ways.
In the U.S., for example, our governments tended to be local, and small. The Framers aimed to keep power close to the people, away from the national government and on to state and local governments. The Constitution gave only limited power to Congress.
As recently as the 19th Century, 90 percent of Americans lived on farms. Today, less than one percent of Americans are farmers, yet that handful of people grow enough food to feed a continent. So much food that we think we can afford to burn 40 percent of it, but thats a different story.
Even as the U.S. became more urban, in most of America, local government remained largely Tocquevillean through the 1950s, Codevilla writes. By that he means small and local. A commuter to a job with a large corporation could still be a volunteer fireman and a power on the school board or town council in his suburb. But in the decades since, he writes, states and the federal government have taken steps to consolidate power in capital cities. This has created a new, centralized regime, removed from the common man.
Central planning has been tried many places, but it isnt likely to work. For example, Hollis describes a model city under construction in China. Purportedly carbon emissions will be slashed, water use will be limited and there will be 12 square meters of green space per person. Impressive. Except
In London, today, carbon emissions are less than the Chinese citys target. Water use per person is less. There are 105 square meters of green space for each person. And London grew on its own, without central planning.
The danger of centralized government is that, while its easy for a government to do harm, its often difficult for it to accomplish much. Consider the ongoing scandal about the George Washington Bridge. It was easy for a government functionary to slow up traffic. One e-mail closed a lane, and presto. Governments power to block is limitless.
But, as David French wondered on National Review, what if the official had sent a note ordering that traffic flow more smoothly? He might have commissioned a study, or assembled a blue-ribbon panel. But the traffic tie-ups would have continued, month in and month out, while a nearly powerless government watched, building little and accomplishing nothing.
In this, government power is like the construction business. One man with a bulldozer can raze a 50-year-old home in one morning, but it takes a team of skilled craftsmen months to assemble a new dwelling on the same lot. Likewise ObamaCare: It takes almost no time to destroy the existing insurance system. Building a new one, as Barack Obama realized in November, is difficult.
The president had earlier made headlines with his 2012 comment that if youve got a business, you didnt build that. He purportedly meant that people hadnt built their businesses without help from others. But what he could have been talking about was cities, and the entire American governing structure.
The Constitution, as Franklin said, gave us a republic. We should be careful that centralized government doesnt take it away.
Cities allow people to focus on what they are good at.
A potter can make superior bowls and jugs to anything a person unskilled in working with clay and kilns can make between trying to be a carpenter, a farmer a weaver, a shepherd, a doctor a plumber, a trapper, a hunter, a well digger, a stone mason, a blacksmith, a butcher, a baker and a candlestick maker...
I think you’ve better described “markets” than “cities”.
I got this same lecture from a person I respect not long ago, who referred me to “Cities and the Wealth of Nations” by Jane Jacobs, that seems to be accepted dogma in this field. I bought a copy but haven’t read the book yet.
I’m going to try to do so with an open mind, all the while firmly convinced that the pinnacle of human knowledge had not been reached in 1984, and has not yet.
Division of labor. Something cities facilitate by having enough customers to justify throwing pots all day every day for someone. Or getting really good at spinning yarn, or hewing iron.
Wait, now ... hewing iron?
Eisenhower (Iron Hewer) literally the beater of iron.
Hitler was trapped between the hammer of the “Iron Hewer” and the Stalin (Steel) anvil of Russia.
The bastard didn’t stand a chance...