All Commentary
Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Cities and Emergent Order

By definition, cities are places where a lot of people want to live. So we thought it would be interesting to explore and celebrate them. 

Cities are, after all, like coral reefs, or maybe rainforests. That is, not only are cities emergent orders of the sort we often admire here at The Freeman, but we want to communicate the idea that human beings aren’t some sort of invasive species. We are a part of nature, of course, and cities are our version of termite mounds or anthills. They are complex. We also think they can be fascinating and beautiful. 

Cities are more than just the residue of people pursuing their lives, though. They’re more, in fact, than any one of us can really comprehend, whether we’re looking at them from the outside or hustling around in the streets. Order emerges somehow, and within it, each of us has to negotiate the endless tradeoffs (public or private, social or individual, desires or resources) that life brings and that city life presents with more variables. 

In his strange, dreamlike book Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino writes,
The people who move through the streets are all strangers. At each encounter, they imagine a thousand things about one another; meetings which could take place between them, conversations, surprises, caresses, bites. But no one greets anyone; eyes lock for a second, then dart away, seeking other eyes, never stopping . . . something runs among them, an exchange of glances like lines that connect one figure with another and draw arrows, stars, triangles, until all combinations are used up in a moment, and other characters come on to the scene. 

These lines that connect us are the real blueprints of cities. 

In our more robust interactions, we may actually contribute to the erecting of skyscrapers once locked in dreams. The architects busy themselves with creating the spaces that will help us live together more closely and more comfortably, defying the scarcity of space on the surface. Then we fill and connect and reconfigure the spaces, defining ourselves and our cities in the process. It can elevate us metaphorically and physically. 

And of course, none of this is possible without free exchange among consenting adults. Exchange of glances. Exchange of words. Exchange of ideas. Exchange of goods. Even the urban “planners” and municipal functionaries who feast like parasites on the extended order (while fancying they can design it) have to admit that Jane Jacobs is right when she writes, “There is a quality even meaner than outright ugliness or disorder, and this meaner quality is the dishonest mask of pretended order, achieved by ignoring or suppressing the real order that is struggling to exist and to be served.” 

Nothing this complex and ongoing can be simply beautiful, however, and the overall order that defines a city encompasses a lot of ugliness and disorder. These are parts of life; they’re particularly visible in cities, where so many lives are concentrated. But ugliness and disorder are the frequent results of actions taken by what Adam Smith called “the Man of Systems,” with all his grand visions, paternalistic instincts, and bureaucratic processes. 

Sometimes, though, ugliness is something dreary or unseemly that is really just in the process of becoming. And the beauty of it all can be glimpsed for a moment on a fire escape, behind a clothesline on the 27th floor—at least until the cigarette is spent.


In this month’s interview, we talk to Rod Lockwood, who’s trying to build an independent city to rescue Detroit—and all of the United States—from government-induced decline. 

The beauty of cities emerges from paradox, says Troy Camplin. Understanding this fact will make us as at home in them as we should be. 

Austin only seems weird, says Max Borders, because it’s so much more interesting—and tolerant—than most other places. 

The unemployment rate is determined by political realities as much as economic ones. Wendy McElroy has the count. 

Are intellectual property rights a government-created impediment to creativity, or is all property intellectual at root? In the debut of The Arena, our monthly debate feature, Adam Mossoff and Jeffrey Tucker duke it out. 

People usually think they have Thomas Malthus figured out. Ross Emmett introduces “Bob” Malthus, a friend of liberty and markets. 

Prohibition has driven the development of ever-stronger drugs, whereas a free market would see a proliferation of lighter options, says B. K. Marcus. 

Our columnists have been bustling like cities. Sandy Ikeda says what really makes a city is the order that emerges from the lives lived within it, and it’s too big for any one person to comprehend. Tom Bell says the key to keeping city streets safer is holding the government accountable in fair—that is, non-governmental—courts. Jeffrey Tucker says Atlanta’s school-cheating scandal is only what should be expected from the distorted incentives created by top-down impositions. Doug Bandow says the taxpayers can’t afford welfare for farmers, and farmers don’t need it. Sarah Skwire says a story of life in prewar Lodz, Poland, illustrates how much more complex human lives are than any philosophy or religion. And Michael Nolan says New York is home for reasons as ultimately resistant to explanation as the city itself. 

Dwight Lee reviews a book arguing that some things are too important to be dealt with via market mechanisms. 

—The Editors

  • The Freeman is the flagship publication of the Foundation for Economic Education and one of the oldest and most respected journals of liberty in America. For more than 50 years it has uncompromisingly defended the ideals of the free society.