What We’ve Built

Posted: Feb 15, 2014 12:01 AM
What We’ve Built

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.

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 isn’t 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 city’s 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 it’s easy for a government to do harm, it’s 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. Government’s 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 you’ve got a business, “you didn’t build that.” He purportedly meant that people hadn’t 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 doesn’t take it away.