All Commentary
Thursday, November 1, 2001

The Paradox of the Illiberal Cities

Alexander Moseley is currently between university appointments and working on two academic books and a novel.

Cities have often been the bastions of enlightened living that abolish the prejudices which taint rural life. But while urban residents may be free from the invasive gossip and restrictive social codes of conduct that characterize small towns and villages, that does not mean that they are imbued with the philosophy of freedom or the will to defend it. In fact the opposite is increasingly becoming the case as city populations expand economically and demographically.

The clash between the liberal (libertarian) countryside and the illiberal city has come to a head in my country, England, where an urban majority seeks to give urban ramblers “freedom to roam” at will over private land at the same time as it seeks the abolition of hunting (with fishing next on the agenda).

Urban populations typically vote for greater government control and hence more interference than rural populations do. The paradox is that city people are less restrained, yet they seek political interference in their own and others’ lives.

A superficial resolution of this paradox comes from public-choice theory in economics, in which people’s voting habits are examined from the perspective of the costs and benefits accruing from the various political programs that they vote for. City life brings greater and more visible opportunities for public works: from public transport, water and sewage systems, roads and bypasses to schools, hospitals, and fire and police stations.

Urban populations, so relatively cramped together, perceive the benefits of a uniform infrastructure, which they can all use at marginally little extra cost. This is particularly so, however, when the cities and towns are subsidized by the central government or by business taxes, and the full cost of such programs does not fall on the voter. Businesses notably are milked as cash cows, for their owners do not receive more votes than other citizens for the greater amount they pay in taxes. Thus socialized systems will flourish in urban environments, and politically, therefore, urban groups are more likely to seek government intervention as the panacea for all their concerns.

On the other hand, the urban world is morally liberating, and throughout the ages cities have often been seen as possessing more “lax” values than their rural counterparts. Individualists of various political and religious hues sought freedom in the famed cities of old, fleeing the authoritarian prejudices of the village or the control of the pastor or governing families, or escaping the lack of opportunity or poverty in a farming life.

In the modern world, people have fled to Paris, Florence, Rome, Amsterdam, Vienna, London, and of course, last century, to New York. Once in the urban melting pot, whichever country they find themselves in, the new migrants adapt slowly to city ways, dropping traditional customs that are no longer useful in vastly populated and built-up areas. City populations evolve a more liberal and tolerant culture concerning different creeds, races, sexual conduct, marriage, and so on.

The grounds of paradox are thus complete. City people strive for moral freedom coupled with political and economic interference. The two never sit well together of course, for as a man’s pocket is taxed, the less free he is to spend his money as he sees fit and thus less free to pursue the lifestyle of his choosing. Ultimately, the expansion of urban controls drives people to freer cities.

But then another problem arises for urban people. In the anonymity of the city, criminals may flourish, thereby stimulating demands for intervention in personal lives and draconian measures about what neighbors may or may not do. In many English cities, the police watch over the shopping malls and streets with video cameras to catch and deter thieves and muggers. To combat the hidden criminal, urban police authorities are calling for mandatory DNA banks and for an expansion in the use of cameras—especially on the roads—to clock passing license plates.

The relative lack of crime in the villages could not economically warrant the network of cameras one sees in the cities. But as the technology improves and the costs fall, the possibility should not be written off.

Recent television programs also reflect the urban desire to demolish any last barriers to privacy and to open the lid on the intimate lives of neighbors filmed in a house or on an island. An Englishman’s home was once his castle, but the advent of camcorders and live soaps has begun to remove any proper cultural notion of privacy (and intimacy) that country people would fight to defend.

Another damaging urban development thereby arises: the once anonymous life of the urban dweller is opened up by technology, and the last bastion of freedom, the right to privacy, is chipped away at—in the case of the city populations by their very own sanction!

Yet when we consider the problem a little more, we can see where the paradoxes arise.

Division of Labor

Cities are certainly liberating. The vast division and specialization of labor characteristic of cities reduce the burden of daily chores and thus free more people, women especially, to work, and more people overall into possibly a more intensive and enjoyable life than the countryside could ever provide.

Herein lies the rub, as Hamlet said. Rural life keeps man closer to nature and closer to his own nature. Cities remove consumers from production processes that rural inhabitants would normally have been aware of; a visit to any pioneer village amply demonstrates the fascination of visitors with seeing something made from start to finish. Today’s urban consumers—several generations removed from their rural ancestors—are ignorant of where their food comes from or how it is processed. In part this is because markets are so exceedingly good at resource distribution. One does not have to be a butcher to enjoy a rack of lamb’s ribs, nor does one have to be aware of the abattoir, of the farmer that raised the lamb, or even of the lambs themselves in the field.

The success of the market system in bringing food to the table year-round with few visible shortages is thoroughly to be applauded. Never has the threat of widespread famine diminished so much in man’s history.

However, urbanites are increasingly in danger of severing all comprehension of the causal connections between the food they eat and the complex production process it entails. We all hear stories of inner-city kids who grow up without seeing a cow or a forest. Our reaction to their plight is one of pity and of a desire to educate them—to take them out to the farms to pet the animals or to show them conservation in action.

But why should we care? Surely, if the children can eat their burgers and never have to suffer from starvation because the market system ensures that supermarkets and convenience stores are continually stocked, then we should have no concerns at all.

Roots Are Severed

But this is when we bring together the strands of the argument: cities produce thoroughly artificial environments, in which man’s roots to the natural world are severed. Camping in the nation’s natural parks may give the city family a tiny glimpse of the natural world, but that cannot replace an understanding of what life is like for those who live full-time “in the woods.”

The danger looms that the city folk will become offended by rural ways—the slaughtering of animals (for the meat they eat), the cutting down of forests (for the paper they use), the hunting of wild animals (for food and for conservation)—and that their offense will turn to a desire to intervene politically to abolish those ways, which city folk neither understand nor participate in. An urban gay student of mine, for example, wishes to ban hunting and does not see any hypocrisy in his opinions with regards to his own rights.

England is a densely populated nation: over 40 million live in an area that would easily fit into Oregon. It is intensely urban, and in recent years it has become increasingly divided between the city and the countryside. The city dwellers typically vote for economic intervention, and since more voters live in the cities, we face the real prospect of “countrycide,” the death of the country and of its ways, because they are morally offensive to urbanites.

Hunting with hounds, for example, is deemed cruel and barbaric by many city folk and in the last UK Parliament they came within a hair’s breadth of abolishing it. Indeed, it looks as if the Prime Minister may even use the Parliament Act to overrule any second-chamber dissension on the matter. Such MPs who will vote for hunting’s abolition, and the voting urban population behind them, are driven by foolhardy opinions on animal rights and a strong media presentation of animals as “little furry people.” Urbanites’ view of the countryside is often through car windows or through edited and politically biased television news. (The UK government indirectly controls three of the five main land stations.) Their knowledge is rarely from close-up or from talking to rural people, never mind actually experiencing a hunt.

The protracted violation of rural liberties is of course as reprehensible as rural people’s demanding the prohibition of city lifestyles: freedom ought not to be curtailed as long as it does not violate another human being’s rights. The increasing alienation of city life from the complexities of rural life does not augur well either for rural liberties or for liberties in general.

A lack of understanding of market processes parallels the lack of understanding of rural ways, particularly those that seem harsh to cosseted urbanites, whose activists take up the war against “free-market forces” one day and “hunting with dogs” another. They are essentially ignorant of the foundations on which their own freedoms to complain are built. Increasingly in my country, it is those conservative rural ways—of the red-coated huntsman with his hounds—that are becoming the symbols of freedom.