People in the American Midwest are said to be on average more conservative and more libertarian than people who live on the East and West Coasts. And that in turn is because people in rural areas are said to be more strongly tied to the traditions of individualism and self-reliance than those in big cities such as New York, Los Angeles, Chicago—who politically are more statist and tend to see government as a first-responder to perceived economic and social problems.
We could go back and forth arguing with conflicting evidence on urbanity and ideology that depend on, for example, whether you use “Republican” and “Democrat” as proxies for “right-wing” and “left-wing,” whether you’re comparing states or counties, and so on. So for the sake of argument I will concede that in today’s United States “urban” means statist and “rural” means conservative and libertarian. Does it follow then that people who live in dense cities are necessarily more statist than people who live in lower-density rural areas, exurbs, and suburbs? I think not.
I believe the positive correlation between political conservatism and libertarianism and rural or “agricultural” living is an historical anomaly; that historically the countryside has been a great obstacle to liberty while cities have been the places where liberty and the fruits of liberty have flourished.
(I place “agricultural” in quotation marks because only about 2 percent of Americans actually live on farms.)
American Conservatism and the Libertarian Movement
There are at least two meanings attached to the word “conservative.” The more general meaning refers to someone who has an above-average attachment to certain ideas and ways of living that are considered traditional. Now, few people like change as such and everyone has an attachment to at least some ideas of the past, whether conservative or liberal, libertarian or statist. But on the whole, a conservative in this sense is more resistant to and less willing to tolerate political, economic, and cultural change.
The other meaning of conservative, and it’s perhaps a uniquely American meaning, is someone who has an above-average attachment to the traditional (purportedly American) values of limited constitutional government, the free market, and voluntary (often community-based) approaches to solving social and economic problems. This is the “libertarian” aspect of American conservatism. But American conservatives also tend to cherish a Judeo-Christian-based society in which citizens practice patriotism and traditional family values (though of course this is not true of all American conservatism).
A significant number of American conservatives—again, not all—also believe that while government should be limited in its powers, public authorities can legitimately expand political power to protect and defend those traditional values domestically and abroad. There are other characteristics of American conservatism, but I’ll stop here.
My thesis then is that American conservativism, insofar as it values the free market and suspects authority, is a historical anomaly because the free market and anti-authoritarianism just happened to be the prevailing tradition in the United States at the time rural communities of the Midwest and the Southwest were being established. Thus, those areas of the country, being agrarian the longest and relatively recently urbanized, have preserved the principles and norms of the free society of 19th century America better than the more urban areas of the United States because, well, that’s what conservatism does: it preserves traditional principles and norms almost no matter what they are.
Agrarian Societies Are Inherently Hostile to Liberty and Personal Autonomy
The historical track record of agrarian, land-based societies is not so good when it comes to personal liberty, trade, and individual independence. Compare, for instance, dynastic Egypt with the nearly contemporaneous dynastic Mesopotamia. The kingdom of dynastic Egypt was thinly populated with few large cities, an agrarian land-based economy with little trade, especially outside the kingdom. Dynastic Mesopotamia consisted of a network of city-states dominated at various times by the ruler of one city-state or another, with extensive trade both within and without the kingdom. (See the work of the noted anthropologist Guillermo Algaze. Moreover, dynastic Egypt, which managed to preserve itself across an astonishing 30 dynasties over more than two millennia, was characterized for the most part by a highly authoritarian central government, massive state projects, and pharaoh worship. Dynastic Mesopotamia, no libertarian utopia by any means, was nevertheless less authoritarian, and more culturally diverse and economically dynamic.
Historically, that is the rule, not the exception. The Belgian historian Henri Pirenne, whom I’ve mentioned in this column before when I wrote about the urban origins of liberty, has explained how the re-emergence of cities in Europe toward the end of the Middle Ages and the revival of trade and individual autonomy is not accidental, as suggested in the age-old phrase, “Stadtluft macht Frei” (City air sets you free).
And So It Remains Today
Modern cities continue to be the drivers of social and economic development, although their outward appearance constantly changes, e.g., from traditional downtowns to “edge cities.” And it’s the libertarian, not the conservative (in the general sense), element that is responsible for that development. Yes, cities may have been the birthplace of socialism. But the freedom of thought and association that enabled socialist movements to emerge and spread—which of course also enabled classical-liberal ideas to emerge and spread—were themselves founded on the classical liberal principles of privacy, free association and expression, and individual autonomy. Those principles necessarily evolved in cities, not the countryside.
Indeed, the practice, if not the doctrines, of authoritarianism and collectivism are ancient and predate the oldest cities, which have been around for fewer than 10,000 years.