Claim: liberals love cities due to “snobbery, graft, and politics”

Glenn Reynolds argues liberals like cities for self-serving reasons:

The snobbery comes from the fact that most media are headquartered in big cities and the people who work there are the kind of people who like big cities — often people who, as one of Taylor Swift’s songs has it, move to a “big ole city” in part as revenge on the places they come from. As Kotkin notes, the writers, pundits and academic types who write on the subject of cities tend to live in big cities; suburban and rural people are treated as losers, or just ignored, despite the fact that most people don’t live in big cities. And there’s a class thing going on, too. As Robert Bruegmann noted in his book, Sprawl: A Compact History, nobody minds when rich people build houses in the country. It’s when the middle class does it that we get complaints.

The graft is probably more important still: Big developments mean lots of permissions, many regulatory interactions and, of course, big budgets — all of which lend themselves to facilitating the transfer of money from developers to politicians. Frequently they’re government subsidized, which allows that money to come, ultimately but almost invisibly, from the pockets of taxpayers…

Finally, there’s politics. Politicians like to pursue policies that encourage their political enemies to leave, while encouraging those who remain to vote for them. (This is known as “the Curley effect” after James Michael Curley, a former mayor of Boston.)  People who have children, or plan to, tend to be more conservative, or at least more bourgeois, than those who do not. By encouraging high density and mass transit, urban politicians (who are almost always on the left) encourage people who might oppose them to “vote with their feet” and move to the suburbs.

This isn’t necessarily good for the cities they rule. Curley’s approach, which involved “wasteful redistribution to his poor Irish constituents and incendiary rhetoric to encourage richer citizens to emigrate from Boston,” as David Henderson wrote on the EconLog, shaped the electorate to his benefit. Result: “Boston as a consequence stagnated, but Curley kept winning elections.”

A quick response to each of these claims:

  1. I think there is indeed some urban snobbery among academics. Comparatively, there is little attention paid to suburbs even though a majority of Americans live there. Yes, it is convenient to study cities as many research schools are in large cities but to look down on other areas – usually viewed as conservative, backward, and less cosmopolitan – is not good.
  2. Cities do indeed have a lot of regulations. This is almost inevitable given their complexity. Think of cities with power laws rather than linear relationships; doubling the population doesn’t simply create twice the complexity but rather four times. As conservatives have pointed out recently, pretty much all major American cities are run by Democrats and there corruption scandals keep emerging. Yet, conservatives are not immune to such city scandals – see the example of Big Bill Thompson in Chicago. How about a different explanation: big government invites opportunities for malfeasance for all (and Democrats happen to be in charge of most big cities today)?
  3. This is an interesting argument as much as has been made in recent decades about the negative effects of white flight as well as efforts by many cities to attract younger, wealthier residents. Did big city mayors really try to keep conservatives out of cities? Take Chicago again as an example. The mayors and residents did as much as they could to stem the movement of non-whites into certain parts of the city and were fairly successful for decades. But, when their tools disappeared and demographics changed, many left. Did Mayor Richard J. Daley want this? At the same time, Daley made deals with black South Side politicians to have a reliable voting bloc. Perhaps this isn’t exactly the argument; cities really don’t want suburbanites or suburban living. Yet, David Rusk has argued for years that elastic cities – those that have been able to capture suburban growth (mostly in the South and West) – are more successful ones. So, are cities spiting themselves simply to keep a party in power?

Of course, these three reasons ignore other reasons for liking cities: economic opportunities (which both cities and suburbs can benefit from), diverse neighborhoods and public spaces, people watching, and physical and social features not found elsewhere (from skyscrapers to symphony orchestras). Even though suburbia may be more self-sustaining that many give it credit for, imagining a world of suburbs where Americans can live free without having any major cities is very difficult to imagine.

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