Regions Apart: Markets, Mandates, and the Future of Cities

“CITY” by Jesse Zhao, F uture, WYSTAN 陈威延, SPECTRO 菱视 is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

First published in Social Policy Magazine in 2003.

It may be an exaggeration to say that a butterfly’s wings can produce a tidal wave across the world, but if we amplify this premise then we must discern the implications of our relationships with others.

Our fates are linked — urban and suburban, first world and third, indigenous people and colonizer. In Peter Dreier, John Mollenkopf and Todd Swanstrom’s Place Matters: Metropolitics for the Twenty-first Century and David T. Beito, Peter Gordon and Alexander Tabarrok’s edited volume The Voluntary City: Choice, Community and Civil Society, we have the opportunity to contrast progressive and neoliberal perspectives on this linkage.

Place Matters advances an economic argument for using federally-supported regional cooperation to combat both sprawl and poverty, while the Voluntary City uses a series of historical case studies to describe how a broadly conceived free market can more efficiently provide public goods than government. Facing both books is the taut thread of humanity’s history of persistent inequality in the midst of interdependence. These two books are necessary reading for social justice organizers that care about the future of cities.

Place Matters is located in the “smart growth + equity” movement that is today’s flavor in progressive policy institutes and national foundations. The book outlines a series of premises that start by pointing out that “[W]where we live makes a big difference in the quality of our lives, and how the places in which we live function has a big impact on the quality of our society.” (Dreier, et.al., 1) The argument continues as “…the residential concentration of poverty at the core undermines the entire regional economy’s economic efficiency and ability to innovate. Greater regional cooperation, aimed at less economic segregation and sprawl, would benefit the whole society.” (ibid, 25)

Place Matters makes a refreshing point of arguing against economic segregation using an economic argument, recognizing moral and spiritual rationales for eliminating inequality but engaging the debate squarely in their detractor’s home territory. They make the case that economic segregation is bad for society because poverty makes society less economically efficient. The authors point to the benefits of increased productivity, creativity, and innovation when poverty is reduced and metropolitan economic cooperation increased. They also make the case that concentrated affluence (a highly under-researched topic) has hurt regional economies through the sprawling movement of the affluent away from those of different incomes and races.

Completing the book is a two-part strategy to create a coalition of urban and suburban Democrats in Congress that will institute a federal metropolitan policy agenda. The authors of Place Matters say that “we urgently need a federal metropolitan policy agenda that will improve economic, social, and environmental conditions in our urban areas and can marshal sufficient political support from voters in a majority of congressional districts.”

I honestly feel bad for progressive writers whose books were written and published just prior to September 11, 2001 and the subsequent Republican victory in the midterm election of 2002. Not only is the prospect of a Democratic federal government is now at least two years away, we must not forget that it was the Democrats that gave us welfare reform as now know it and NAFTA. The authors’ national strategy requires a coalition of urban and suburban congressional Democrats with a metropolitan agenda, class based appeals to whites and people of color (with racial justice subsumed under economic justice), an avoidance of wedge issues that would split this multi-racial electoral constituency, and a reliance on the enlightened actions of the Democratic Party.

Place Matters’ policy agenda is focused on leveling the metropolitan playing field — removing incentives for bidding wars and economic fights between municipalities, restructuring federal programs to be administered on a regional basis, and promoting regional governance. In the mix are also standard progressive ideas — strengthening public schools, deconcentrating poverty (moving 1.4 million low-income households across metropolitan areas to better distribute incomes), redistricting in favor of mixed urban/suburban districts, reforming labor law to better protect union organizing drives, and making work pay with strategies that include an increase in the Earned Income Tax Credit, raising the minimum wage above the poverty level, and expanding health insurance and child care.

The Voluntary City takes a very different tack to discuss the workings of cities and regions. The book is a collection of fifteen essays that use historical cases to argue for the private provision of roads, schools, neighborhood planning, industrial parks, police, law, welfare, and government. There are two good reasons why it would be dangerously myopic to dismiss these authors as simple apologists for the reactionary Right. First, they offer a stimulating perspective on interdependence, mutual aid, and voluntarism that is sorely lacking in the progressive movement’s insistence on government provision as the answer to inequity. Second, to the despair of Dreier and friends, it is their guys who currently run the federal government and we must understand their arguments if we are to argue for an alternative.

The authors all use the voluntary city framework laid out by Beito, Gordon and Tabarrok in the first essay “Toward a Rebirth of Civil Society.” They believe that a broadly conceived free market, encompassing civil society non-profit and voluntary sectors, can provide more effective and economically efficient public goods than the government. Resting on the case studies in the volume, the editors locate their argument solidly in liberal economic theory. Their logic says that markets create economic efficiency, efficiency is good, and therefore we should let markets arise in the provision of public goods if we want their most efficient delivery.

Of the several examples in the Voluntary City, Daniel Klein’s addition, “The Voluntary Provision of Public Goods? The Turnpike Companies of Early America,” appears to offer a compelling argument. At the end of the 18th Century, local public systems “feebly cared for the roads” (Klein, 77). As American cities began to expand their reach and economies, the business community had a direct self-interest in the creation of decent roads that connected economic centers or expanded their reach. The apparent failure of government to provide this public good led to the creation of private turnpike companies. The first private turnpike opened in 1794 to connect Philadelphia and Lancaster, and by 1840 turnpike companies had built more than 10,000 miles of roads across New England and the Mid-Atlantic states (Klein, 82). According to Klein, these companies provided a high quality public good in the face of government failure and the widespread unprofitability of turnpike companies. He describes how private industry stepped in to build and maintain roads because it was in their direct economic and social (public recognition and esteem) self-interests. Klein sums up the Voluntary Cities’ principal argument that

The ability of voluntary association to provide infrastructure, education, security, and poor relief depends on the exercise and spontaneous development of certain institutions, activities, and sentiments. Since governmental bodies dominate these services it is no surprise that our faculties of association remain degenerate. When a problem arises, government is expected to deal with it. Participation does not become a personal responsibility, and organizing leadership does not become a source of social esteem. Thus there is a lesson in the broader circumstances of early America, which bred effective voluntary forces, as well as in the specific ways those forces established turnpikes. (Klein, 92–3)

Other chapters make a similar case for the private provision of public goods. Of particular interest is David G. Green’s “Medical Care through Mutual Aid: The Friendly Societies of Great Britain” which describe the organized power of working class associations to provide a minimal level of economic security to their members. For example, over 9 million people in Britain were covered by such social insurance in 1911. These democratically organized “friendly” societies provided strong leadership development for the working classes, with some expecting that every member will “go through the chairs,” meaning that every member is expected to eventually rotate through every major and minor leadership position. Imagine the renewed depth of democracy that would result if our modern social justice organizations adopted a similar expectation.

To be sure, there are gems among the rough in the Voluntary City, but there is a great deal of rough. The book holds tightly to the idea that the citizens of the voluntary city have capital and the ability to exercise it as they wish. As with other books in this vein, the unspoken reference point for the good life and average person is the white middle (or upper) middle class. The editors, in their opening essay, state that “…the most remarkable political events of the twentieth century were the fall of the Berlin Wall and the demise of socialism….” (Beito, et.al., 1) Obviously, a social justice perspective might choose dramatically different historical reference points in the twentieth century. Robert C. Arne, in “Entrepreneurial City Planning: Chicago’s Central Manufacturing District,” coincidentally referencing John Mollenkopf’s The Contested City (1983), sums up a truism that most readers will accept, that “…the concentrated resources and information of minorities will tend to overwhelm and overtax the resources of unorganized majorities.” (Arne, 114–15) They know this and we know this. That’s why we organize.

In addition to the tension between inequality and interdependence, these two books offer us differing perspectives on the historical tension between governance and interdependence. On the one hand, Place Matters argues for federal intervention to ensure regional cooperation and greater economic equality, while the Voluntary City would relegate such initiative to the vagaries of the market. In some ways they represent forward thinking in their respective Democratic and Republican parties although they could likely benefit from cross pollination (Dreier and friends might want to look at the advent of private turnpikes as the real beginning of sprawl — not the invention of the trolley!). In the end, however, both deliver less than they could to the debate on the future of the metropolis.

Simply put, the whole world simply cannot aspire to be the American white middle class. The real solution to Place Matters’ proposal to deconcentrate poverty is to deconcentrate wealth. It is not the poor that need to be moved (only 140,000 household per year for ten years according to Dreier!) but wealth out of the hands of the rich. The American middle class is not a sustainable reference point for solutions to inequity. The solution also certainly does not lie in the direction of the Voluntary City’s pay-to-play society, because there are hundreds of millions of people in this country and world that just can’t pay. Compounding the implications of the voluntary city is the eventual unprofitability of privately maintaining turnpikes and municipal infrastructure (which were transferred to government as profits waned). In effect, private industry dragged government into the provision of public goods on a metropolitan scale. The result was the racial and economic segregation and sprawl described in Place Matters.

I work and live in Jose Serrano’s infamous 16th Congressional District (poorest in the nation in 1990) that is highlighted in the beginning and end of Place Matters. At face value, most community residents would ask both sets of authors where the R is in Place? Race and racism are treated minimally at best in the Voluntary City, and subsumed under class in Place Matters. Place Matters proposes that “[F]further investment in the housing, economic development, and infrastructure of the South Bronx would encourage middle class people to move in.” The people who live in the Bronx have been waiting a long time for investment and they certainly don’t want it to arrive just as they are being shunted off somewhere else. This process may in fact deconcentrate the power of low-income people to form relationships and organizations that could create sustainable solutions to inequality.

The point is that institutional racism plays a strong role in the market and must be addressed if we are truly working for equality, in recognition of our interdependence. Place Matters and the Voluntary City deserve recognition for strong contributions to this metropolitan debate.

Books Discussed:

Dreier, P., Mollenkopf, J., and Swanstrom, T. Place Matters: Metropolitics for the Twenty-first Century. University Press of Kansas, 2001, 349 pp.

Beito, D.T., Gordon, P. Tabarrok, A. The Voluntary City: Choice, Community, and Civil Society. University of Michigan Press, 2002, 462 pp.

All opinions here are my own. I tell my kids I have superpowers, but they don’t work around children. I also serve as the Campaigns Director for Greenpeace USA.

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