Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Let us praise city people!

On the 4th of July, an interesting article by Ed Glaeser on the relationship between cities and democracy.

As we celebrate our freedom at spacious suburban barbecues, we should remember that the road to freedom started on far more crowded city streets...

In the fight for freedom between dictatorship and democracy, dictatorship starts with a big edge.

Dictatorships have a small number of insiders who have strong incentives to fight for their regime. Because the benefits of democracy are so widely shared, no one has particularly strong incentives to fight to create or preserve representative government.

Democracies have a massive free-rider problem where all of us have a natural tendency to let someone else die for our liberty. Solving this free rider problem requires coordination and this is what urban density has done for millennia. Urban density connects citizens and enables them to meet and plan and talk. With enough talking, groups like the Sons of Liberty may even convince themselves that it is worth dying for a common cause. Monarchies flourished in our agricultural past, because effective democratic opposition was far more difficult to organize in a dispersed rural setting.

And some history I did not know

the true birthplace of modern democracy was the wool-trading towns of the Low Countries. In Bruges's market square, there is a statue of a butcher and a weaver, who are far more important in the history of freedom than their contemporary, the rural warlord William Wallace. In 1302, more than 450 years before our Tea Party, these two urban artisans coordinated their fellow guild members' surreptitious destruction of the French king's army occupying their town. Two months later, they led the urban militias from Bruges and Ghent that destroyed the elegantly armored French cavalry in the Battle of the Golden Spurs.

The Bruges revolt of 1302 was only one of a string of urban uprisings that bedeviled the autocratic overlords who tried to control the wealthy but troublesome cities of the Low Countries. In 1566, a great revolt began 40 miles from Bruges. For 80 years, urban rebels fought against their Hapsburg overlords, and eventually turned Europe's most urbanized area into the independent republic of the Netherlands. In 1581, the Dutch enacted an Act of Abjuration declaring that the King of Spain was unfit to lead them. It is the most direct ancestor of our own Declaration of Independence.