A Modest Proposal: Let’s just cut the big cities loose


Now before I get into it let me state that I love many big cities. Part of my family is from Manhattan. I continue to enjoy New York. It’s great in many ways. I enjoy the Village, and the art, and the street food, many things. I am also one of the few small government people one is likely to meet who really enjoys San Francisco. As dirty as the place can be it is also beautiful with a great mix of influences from around the world but particularly from across the Pacific. Anchor Steam is my favorite beer. I like cities, real, cab filled, bus honking, homeless sleeping, super busy, don’t look anyone in the eye on the subway cities. They can be great places to visit. Truly.

Saying this and acknowledging the great cultural contributions of many of our large cities I ask if it isn’t time to consider letting the cities go their own way. To carve them out of these United States.

OK, OK, I admit that I’m not serious. (Yet.) But for all the crap the cities give the rest of the country, it’s fair to consider what it would mean if New York, Washington, Chicago, LA etc. couldn’t count on the rest of the country. I submit that these cities would be in very bad shape. Much worse off than the suburbs and rural areas around them. (I am talking about the big cities proper.)

pop-map-ccThis is chiefly because the rest of the country acts as economic and psychological ballast for the cities which tend to be highly taxed, highly regulated, and just generally unsustainable. The suburbs for their blandness are the steady Eddies of America for the most part. The cities spend too much, are often systemically corrupt, are often hard to do business in (legally), and the schools always stink. Entrepreneurs (legal ones) are regulated to no end. Plus people in cities seem to be a little bit nuts. Sometimes this nuttiness is charming. Sometimes it’s really not.

My theory on cities is this, and it is by no means some profound observation. Humans have an ideal proximity to one another. There is a certain level of interaction that lends itself toward being friendly and being inclined to help other human beings. This is also the level of interaction at which humans are most likely to maximize their personal potential. There are of course variations. Some people are wired for more interaction, some for less, but I think my theory generally holds, and I sense that most big cities push the human machine beyond where it should be.

Pack people too tightly and the natural tendency to get along morphs into a psychological hardening (if not outright hostility) out of necessity. In the city one can’t say hello to everyone one sees on the street. There are obviously too many people. One may not even want to smile at a stranger in a doorway for fear that the exiting or entering person might be some kind of nut who then might follow one home. In order to survive people in cities often revert to being jerks. I have seen this in every urban area I’ve ever visited. It’s just the way it is. (Again I’ve  known many wonderful, friendly people from the city. They are usually more fun though once we get off the street.)

Unfortunately the people who choose to live in the city (or often who are trapped in the city*) let this “jerkiness” bleed into their politics. In an effort to deal with their fellow humans voters in cities often acquiesce to draconian regulations in order to keep order. They tacitly accept the rampant corruption endemic to 1 party municipalities (as most large cities in the US are). Voters often abdicate personal responsibility and place this responsibility with the government out of what some would argue is necessity.  Hey, let the cops figure it out. I’ve got things to do.

And unfortunately many people in cities think that the rest of us, those of us familiar with sunshine and quiet should be concerned with the same issues that they are. Don’t you want extensive (and expensive) government services? Don’t you want a massive welfare state? Aren’t you afraid that employers might use the wrong pronouns when referring to their employees? Don’t you want mass transit? And so on.

For most of America, at least in the geographical sense anyway, the answer is and has been – NO.

Of course this mystifies the urbanites. Clearly if the suburbs and the countryside don’t want these things they must then be a bunch of rubes. We of course know far better in the city.

And this is where the attitude which drives some people to refer to most of the United States as “flyover country” comes from. It’s a mix of affection, sensory overload (often unrecognized), and ignorance.

In contrast to the cities, in most of America, we in (most of) the burbs and in rural America just want to be left alone for the most part. Let us do our thing. Don’t tax us to death. Sure, some people will insist on trash pickup. But for most of us the tax outlay for a large government isn’t worth it. We’d rather just keep what we earn and put a pool in the back yard thank you very much.

For people who live in the canyons of urban America, who rarely swim in a pool, never mind in a lake or something like that, this is insanity. And they say so all the time. Spend 5 minutes watching MSNBC to see what I mean. Condescension from urban America abounds. It takes a village (or a city) you know. Why can’t people in Texas and Tennessee get this?

What many big government people do not understand is that the USA is not the Netherlands or England or Japan. We have room to spread out. Though muted the frontier spirit still lives in the USA. There are people who still know how to make a split rail fence in this country. The people smushed up against the coasts don’t get this. They want government to do everything for them like it does in Europe. And this is why the cities have gone headlong on the path they have in this country. That is toward unsustainable levels of government.

d-ruin-ccDetroit is the most famous example of the failed American urban experiment. Interestingly the city is one of the urban outposts in the US heartland and not on the coasts. But it had the same old viruses as much of the rest of urban America. And it was a mix of these viruses, union entitlement, and macroeconomic trends that turned the place into a ruin. Chicago is headed in a similar direction though it is hard to imagine the Windy City completely imploding like Detroit. So are many of the cities in California and in the Northeast. Anyone been to Providence or Bridgeport lately? They are beautiful.

And it’s just a matter of time before some of these cities, and their public unions, start to lobby in earnest for bailouts from the rest of the United States. You know from flyover country.

This is why I say we should consider what would happen if we just carved out the great urban archipelago.

The refrain from the urbanites would be that revenue streams would go down as much in taxes is generated in the cities. This is of course true. But the thing is, if one doesn’t want a lot of government “services” (bureaucracy and red tape) one doesn’t need a lot of revenue. The rest of America would be fine with a much smaller government footprint. In fact it would celebrate it. (Not to mention prosper.) 

But the cities wouldn’t be fine without the hinterlands. If the big spending and federal government reliant cities had to rely only on taxes generated within their borders, no revenue from the rednecks out in Nowheresville and the minivan drivers in the suburbs many cities would collapse. I could see New York surviving as a city- state. Maybe also San Francisco and Seattle. But even with those places it’d be tough. For most of the rest of urban America it would be a pretty quick ride down the road to insolvency and complete dysfunction. Big government cities are unsustainable systems fundamentally.

So urbanites, the next time you are tempted to say something derogatory about those of us who live where there are trees, and rivers, and sunshine, and privacy consider also that flyover country ultimately holds your fate in its hands.


*I have a Facebook friend with whom I correspond periodically. He explained how he’d like to leave Chicago but that he is trapped as crime rates and taxes have made his home unsalable.