City Life

2005-03-27

Some weeks ago I read An Empire of Wealth: The Epic History of American Economic Power by John Steele Gordon. In recounting the rise of New York City as the center of American economic power, Gordon explains the crucial importance of the Erie Canal as the first "interstate highway" enabling easy trade with the hinterland, and the significance of New York City as the terminus of that highway. Now, I'm no Hamiltonian, but I recognize that the Erie Canal was a government project (gasp!) that enabled the production of great wealth and the rise of the greatest city in human history (yes, I am a Gothamite by nature), which leads me question some of my libertarian or anarcho-capitalist assumptions (public libraries and parks move me to similar questioning). In fact, I am just boring enough that I sometimes watch Denver city council meetings on my local public access cable channel, and I enjoy reading things like Denver's "master plans" for revitalization of major city thoroughfares such as Colfax Avenue. Normally, the mere mention of a "master plan" raises the hackles of any good libertarian, but local governments are at least productive of value in ways that (I think) state and especially central governments are not (at least city governments build infrastructure and such). I'm certainly open to the argument that everything could be done voluntarily, and in general I think that voluntary solutions are best, that "that government governs best which governs least", and that government power (if any) needs to be as local as possible. Unfortunately from my perspective, most people (especially those in public service) are way too quick to pass legislation and create regulations instead of doing the hard work of building consensus and forging voluntary agreements. And yet, I make use of public roads and utilities and libraries and parks and bike trails every day of the week; is it not a form of the "stolen concept" for me to happily use all those services while ostensibly advocating a fully voluntary society? I'm not sure; but it's something I need to think about further. (And here are some books I need to read on the subject, which in all likelihood I will request from the Denver Public Library: The Death and Life of Great American Cities and The Economy of Cities by Jane Jacobs, as well as the recent anthology The Voluntary City: Choice, Community, and Civil Society.)


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