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.” That’s 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 that’s a different story.