Sunday, September 26, 2021

Three Cheers for Cities

The opening session of the Center for Practical and Professional Ethics 16th Annual Fall Ethics Symposium is coming up this Wednesday. This year's theme is Ethics & the City. Cities are underrated engines of well-being. But in many ways their performance is handicapped by policy affected by ignorance, inertia, racism, and other forms of inequity. Can the creative and cooperative forces driving cities be made to outpace the effects of such policies? What sort of policies effectively rectify the handicapping forces and encourage the creative forces? Our five invited speakers will take up these and related questions from different disciplinary and ideological perspectives. The full schedule, abstracts of the talks and Zoom registration links are available now at the Ethics Center website.

Ryan Muldoon (September 29) will argue that cities that adopt tolerant civic institutions increase the range and value of people's real choices, so the diversity and proximity that characterizes cities is a feature rather than a bug. Eric van Holm (October 5) will analyze the incentives that make the process of neighborhood gentrification harmful and suggest ways we might avoid these effects. Paola Suarez (October 7) will argue that the technologies that make the gig economy possible has been a boon to women, in particular, since women tend to favor work that provides for greater time flexibility. Jesus Hernandez (October 12) uncovers the pernicious effects of city planning efforts on racial minorities. And, Rob Wassmer (October 13) will show how state and local policy line up with California homeowners' NIMBYism and led to the current affordable housing crisis.

A broader issue that connects with many of these topics is a long-standing debate between city- vs. country-living. Adam Smith addressed this debate in the opening chapters of Book III of the Wealth of Nations. 

First, Smith emphasizes, as you would expect him to, the finely grained division of labor evident in cities, which leads to significant efficiencies in production. Production processes are sub-divided into smaller and smaller tasks as work becomes more and more specialized. Cities just have more people in closer proximity. Smith argues that the division of labor is limited by the extent of the market, and the extent of the market is a function of efficiency in transportation. This means that cities will be more natural hosts to the markets where finer divisions of labor happen. And this is why, for example, there are more general practice doctors in rural areas, but you go to the city to get the expertise of, say, a pediatric gastroenterologist. Additionally, city folk “have a much wider range, and may draw [their subsistence] from the most remote corners of the world…. A city might in this manner grow up to great wealth and splendor, while not only the country in its neighborhood, but all those to which it traded, were in poverty and wretchedness.”

But curiously, Smith also argues that, assuming equal profitability, most would choose the country life of, say, landed gentry over a life of trade or manufacture in the city. He cites the greater independence of country life and the degree to which a life of commerce is subject to uncertainty and processes that escape one’s direct control. He adds, 

“The beauty of the country besides, the pleasures of a country life, the tranquillity of mind which it promises, and wherever the injustice of human laws does not disturb it, the independency which it really affords, have charms that more or less attract everybody; and as to cultivate the ground was the original destination of man, so in every stage of his existence he seems to retain a predilection for this primitive employment.”

We vote with our feet about this, though, and Smith recognized that, despite these natural attractions (and attractions of nature) people more go for growth, innovation, convenience and progress. Today 83% of the US population lives in urban areas, despite many (27% in one recent poll) saying they’d prefer to be in a rural area. 

I think Smith is mostly just wrong about country-living. First, his theological argument (about our “original destination”) is just mistaken. The cultural mandate Smith references in Genesis 1:28 wasn’t simply to cultivate the ground, but to subdue the earth. God would have been disappointed with humanity if, even absent a fall, the Garden stayed a mere garden. Revelation 21 suggests that Smith (and Joni Mitchell) were wrong. We don’t “got to get ourselves back to the garden;” rather, the picture of Eden restored is unequivocally a city.

Second, I’m inclined to chalk up most of his paeans to country-living as simple expressions of nostalgia (or even a kind of false consciousness!). In my case at least, its so-called charms are short-lived. I’m ok on a camping trip for a few days at the most. After that, I feel like I’ve spent enough money playing poverty and living like our great-great-great grandparents had to (being cold, sleeping in one room, cooking on an open fire). I’m glad I only have to do this to have a moderately interesting Facebook feed, and not in order to survive.


  1. Kyle, country living today in the United States requires a bit more self-reliance than city living, but it's nothing like what was required in the past, unless you are really talking about off grid living, which is really for a select group of weirdos. Today city, suburban, exurban and rural life all afford distinctive benefits and downsides, depending on your financial resources.

    There are plenty of people like me who have experienced both ends of the spectrum and prefer one or the other. But as you get older, it's hard to even know what your preference is. I've lived in the country since 88 and I probably prefer it here just because it's home. I think of the city the way you think of the country. A fun place to visit, but a place I tire of quickly.

    But I also think I'm apt to exaggerate the benefits of country life and diminish the difficulties. I know lots of people don't develop strong attachments to their homes. But for those who do I think that tends to be a much greater consideration than where it is located. And I think we are clearly very poor at predicting the conditions of our happiness in this regard. I know people who have lived in the country all of their lives, swore they could never live anywhere else, and are now as happy as they've ever been living in a retirement community.

    My kids were raised in the country and they both now have a strong preference for the city. But I think they would also say it's more a stage of life thing.

  2. Certainly the Mayes family knows how to do country living. I agree with everything you say here. I’ve lived many places and either I have very adaptive preferences, or places get more awesome whenever I’m around. I like your first point a lot and Smith makes a related point in these chapters: countryside and city developed in ways they became more dependent on each other, which increased the productivity and wealth of both.