Some years ago, individualist writer Jane Jacobs penned an insightful tome on the centrality of cities in the economic development of a society. For its time, it was a breakthrough: a genuine revelation about the processes by which the nations of the West had moved from sustenance economies to widespread prosperity. It was also a cautionary tract, in that it summarized, quite accurately, the ways in which cities could engineer their own degradation and decay.
Miss Jacobs was as insightful, and as foresightful, as she was because she focused on incentives and the processes they govern. Nevertheless, she was an optimist of sorts, in that she believed that some incentives could be resisted by those with sufficient perception, understanding, and will power. Among the tragedies of our age is the shortage of such persons in the governments of the cities of our time.
A successful city, like any other successful entity, will attract certain sorts of persons:
- The ambitious;
- The criminal;
- The parasite;
- The politician.
The future of a city is determined by the balance of power among those four groups.
The ambitious man sees the wealth of a successful city as a launching pad for his own visions of enterprise. He must, of course, believe he "has what it takes." He must also feel he's equal to the competition he'll face. Not least, he must accept that only a few of his sort will succeed as he hopes to succeed...and that he might not be numbered among the winners.
The criminal, the parasite, and the politician all see the city in essentially the same way: as a source of nourishment upon which to feed. They are not allies, except in some incidental cross-couplings that are not guaranteed to persist. But in their pursuit of their aspirations, they work toward a common end: the deterioration of the city.
I hope I need not elaborate on why groups 2, 3, and 4 gravitate toward a successful city. If it isn't clear that the predatory and the parasitic among men will always seek out concentrations of wealth and opportunities for power, I can't imagine how to make it so. My question this morning is whether they are guaranteed to prevail over the enterprising and energetic by the dynamics inherent in urban environments. In these years of the Internet and its effects on the tendencies of our time, the question strikes me as an important one.
One could say many things about the American city of the year of Our Lord 2012. Most of those would be open to dispute, as in nearly all discussions of demographics and socio-economics. However, among the contentions that would be difficult to refute is that, compared to the suburban, exurban, and rural regions of the United States, they are less safe.
A city is nearly always the densest concentration of persons for some miles around. An increase in density does entail an increase in certain hazards, above and apart from those that arise from criminality. However, it is significant to observe that from about the end of the Civil War to the beginning of the New Deal, American cities were widely regarded as safer overall than the less dense regions around them:
- The supports of life were more easily available and less likely to run out;
- Emergency services were more plentiful and quicker to reach (or to get to where they were needed);
- A certain measure of protection, whether from assault, accident, or illness, arises from being surrounded by persons of good will.
There are still some American cities about which all those statements remain true. With only a few exceptions, the larger cities -- the megalopolises, with populations of a million or more -- are not among them. Density effects and the convergence of the three predator groups enumerated in the segment above have undone them. This is part of the reason such cities are no longer attractive to the ambitious and the energetic.
What is unattractive to new energy will also dishearten old energy. Those whose enterprise and insight have helped to make a city glitter will feel an intensifying impulse to abandon it when it turns hostile to them and their sort. If they succeed in relocating on acceptable terms, their departure will leave the city poorer, less dynamic, and less able to resist further incursions by the predators. The process is difficult to retard or reverse, though, as we have seen with the fortunes of New York City under Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, exceptions have occurred. However, there may be a "point of no return," after which the only thing that can be done for a city involves wholesale demolition. Detroit compels us to admit that possibility.
The great Phyllis Dorothy James, in her masterpiece The Children of Men, noted another effect to which we must give attention. As a people ages, it becomes ever more urgent that it be concentrated, so that the needs of the elderly can be met in a timely fashion and at a bearable cost. Of course, in Baroness James's novel, the population of the world was aging at exactly one year per year, as there were no children being born anywhere on Earth. Our lot in America isn't nearly that extreme, but it is trending that way, at least in certain demographic cohorts.
This has particular import for Middle-Class America, which is experiencing both net negative population growth and increasing individual longevity. The number of septuagenarians and octogenarians among us is rising steadily. Such persons, with rare exceptions, need to be looked after, which is far harder and more costly when they're dispersed than when they're concentrated. There will be both economic and political pressures to compel such a concentration: to pull the elderly into urban and quasi-urban centers "for their own good." Considering both the pre-existent hazards of our contemporary cities and the new attractions to predation manifested by large concentrations of oldsters -- for some decades now, the richest cohort of Americans by a considerable margin -- the "invitees" aren't likely to like it much.
Science fiction writer and futurist Robert A. Heinlein opined that a planet that had developed cities of more than one million persons was "approaching critical mass." He foresaw rampant civil unrest and the common political responses to it as pervasive characteristics of such a world. Given the dynamics outlined here, and the concentration of so great a fraction of the world's population into large, dense, dangerous cities, it appears he was correct.
Note that this is not an argument that Earth is "overpopulated." The notion that Mankind has reached or exceeded Earth's biophysical "carrying capacity" is entirely a fantasy of the Left, which sees population control as a convenient avenue toward totalitarian control of all of human life. However, we might have reached Terra's political carrying capacity: the point at which the proportion of predatory types among us makes it imperative that we disperse, whether to the less populated parts of our own planet, or to other worlds entirely.
Getting any significant fraction of Mankind off this ball of rock remains technologically extremely challenging. Getting them to a place where there's air they can breathe and soil that will produce food they can eat is an even tougher problem. For the near term, dispersal here on Earth is the only approach available, but it will be opposed by the political class for all the reasons examined here. If political machinations succeed in discouraging dispersal or advancing hyper-urbanization, the decline of our cities and the fortunes of those who live in them will deepen. More cities will approach the "point of no return." Some will pass it.
Food for thought.