The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism


A city is, in its simplest definition, an urban settlement of more than a specific population. The size is ultimately arbitrary, but reflects the reality that a true city has features and qualities that smaller urban settlements lack. Legally, the concept usually implies that the entity has self-governing status, but this feature is not universal or necessary; there have been cities that have lacked this political status. Cities are an essential feature of human civilization. Indeed, the term civilization etymologically connotes the art of living in cities, rather than in other commoner forms of human settlement, such as the small town or village. The appearance and growth of cities is therefore perhaps the central element in the narrative of human economic, cultural, and intellectual development. For thinkers throughout the ages, the city has been a contested aspect of human life, for some the source of fine living and elevated thought and culture, for others the seat of moral and social corruption and danger. Those who embrace either side of this argument link cities to trade, wealth, and lavish consumption or “luxury,” but differ in how these should be evaluated. Although there is a minority agrarian tradition within libertarianism, most libertarians have come to support the view that city and its role are beneficent. In the contemporary world, cities and urban planning are a major political issue in several countries, particularly in the United States, and libertarians have a distinctive position on these questions.

Cities first appeared during the so-called Neolithic revolution, which saw the appearance of agriculture and trade as well as large permanent settlements. The first cities appeared in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East some 8,000 years ago. Later on, cities also appeared in the Indus valley and northern China. The traditional view was that cities were a consequence of the development of agriculture because these urban centers could only exist once there was a storable food surplus produced by farming. However, Jane Jacobs attacked this notion in her 1969 work, The Economy of Cities. She argued that, in fact, cities preceded agriculture and that farming and cultivation were first developed within urban settlements and then exported to the surrounding rural areas. In Jacobs’s model, trade preceded large-scale agriculture and led to the appearance of large permanent settlements, which in turn encouraged agriculture. When this thesis was first put forward, it was treated with skepticism, but archaeological research has tended to confirm Jacobs’s conclusions, and they now command wide support.

Jacobs went on to develop her argument in a later work, Cities and the Wealth of Nations. She argued that historically it is cities that are the source of economic growth and development and technological innovation due to a process of import substitution, by which the urban community discovers ways of reducing its dependence on its hinterland. She also argued that the true fundamental unit of economic analysis was the city region, consisting of a city and its hinterland, rather than the nation, and that the world or international economy is built up via the growth of trading links between such city regions. This thesis remains controversial, but again commands increasing support as an account of both the historic position and role of cities and as a way of thinking about the current world economy. (In this way of thinking, it makes more sense to think of the “U.S. economy” as actually consisting of some 200 city region economies, some of which have closer links to other parts of the world than they do to the rest of North America.)

Historically, cities have been and continue to be strongly associated with a number of other phenomena. Some are apparent, such as trade, commerce, and manufacture. In fact, although trade has always been associated with cities, a great deal of manufacturing in the past took place in rural areas, under the so-called putting-out system. The almost total domination of manufacturing by urban areas only really comes about during the last 200 years. Cities also are associated with phenomena such as government and administration, intellectual life, heresy and free thinking, elaborate and lavish consumption, fashion and style, the arts and high culture, ethnic and religious diversity and pluralism, and bohemianism or “experiments in living.”

These various social phenomena all occur in cities to a much greater extent than outside them because of the essential features of city life, particularly of the great urban agglomerations. The presence of a large number of people in a relatively confined space creates all kinds of opportunities for human interaction at relatively lower costs in terms of time and effort, where the opportunity for economic specialization and enhanced division of labor is much greater. Thus, social life and human relations are more complex and varied, and ways of living can flourish that are not possible in a smaller community simply because of the lack of people with specific interests or tastes within a reachable geographical area. The proximity of large numbers of people with varied skills and tastes not only enhances productive specialization and output and the creation of a much denser and richer civil society, but also makes possible a much more diverse and varied pattern of consumption inasmuch as the costs of meeting peculiar or minority tastes are much less. The wealth and opportunities brought about by city life and the trade relations that connect flourishing cities to other, often distant, parts of the world mean that they are able to attract incomers from a wide range of ethnic, geographical, and religious backgrounds and have a diverse and varied population. (One of the signs of a city’s decline is that its population becomes more and more homogenous—both a cause and an effect of that decline.) Most strikingly, the city offers something that is absent from life in smaller rural communities. It provides privacy and anonymity—the possibility of maintaining a substantially private and personal area of life that is not known to or is accessible to all of one’s neighbors.

Historically, these qualities have brought both condemnation and praise, and they continue to do so. For some, the city is the locus of freedom and individualism, economic and cultural progress and innovation, and social and political diversity and independence. There is, however, a long tradition that sees the city as the source of impiety, moral and social corruption and breakdown, crime and disorder, and dangerous innovation. The city is here contrasted to the simple, pure, and secure life of the country. This kind of debate has gone on in the world’s major civilizations since cities first appeared, as the Greek fable of the town and the country mouse shows. There is a close connection between this kind of antiurbanism and the antimodern and antiliberal ideologies over the last 300 years, which is still the case today.

Ever since the first cities appeared, their role has been varied. Frequently, one of its key functions has been to act as the central location for the apparatus of political power that extracts wealth from both the rural population and the commercial life of the city. Cities seen this way are the seat of government and administration, of religious hierarchy, and of royal and imperial courts. As a consequence of their intimate connection with the center of political institution, in certain cases cities may not even produce much. Examples of these cities are many and varied, including Rome, Constantinople, Delhi, Beijing, Baghdad, Moscow, Berlin, Paris, Madrid, London, and Washington, D.C. However, many of these cities also serve as examples of the other historic role of cities—as centers of trade, commerce, and investment. Here, in addition to Constantinople/Istanbul, London, and Baghdad, we might add Alexandria, Venice, Amsterdam, New York, Shanghai, Chicago, Tokyo, Mumbai, Cairo, Singapore, and Hong Kong. Until the 19th century, urban populations never constituted more than 20% of the population of any significant area. Before the great breakthrough in the productivity of agricultural labor in the early 19th century, no society could produce enough food to feed itself unless about 80% of its population was engaged in agriculture, and this constraint imposed fundamental limits on urban growth. Another constraint on the urban population was the difficulty of feeding more than a few large urban centers before the invention of the railroad and the internal combustion engine. In addition, the main drawback of city life before the 19th century was its lack of adequate sanitation and potable water. The result was that death rates, particularly for infants, were significantly higher in towns and cities than in rural areas.

All of these demographic considerations changed in the course of the 19th century with important breakthroughs in technology and medical knowledge leading to dramatic improvements in urban sanitation. A key event was the formulation of the germ theory of disease and the demonstration by John Snow of the way that diseases such as cholera were spread by contaminated water. The result was an explosive growth in both the absolute and, more important, the relative size of urban populations. In 1851, Britain became the first society in human history to have a majority of its population living in cities and large towns. This process has spread to other parts of the world and still continues. Indeed, rapid urbanization is one of the central phenomena of the modern world. Because of the profound differences between urban and rural life, this change constituted a social revolution as much as an economic one.

The libertarian view of the city is generally positive, and the move toward a predominantly urban life is generally welcomed. Historically, periods and episodes when cities were vibrant and influential, such as Ancient Greece, Song China, the Umayyad Middle East, medieval and Renaissance Italy, 17th-century Dutch Republic, and 19th-century Britain, are regarded with admiration by libertarians. The mercantile city-state and leagues of cities are often seen as the best kind of polity and as distinctly superior to the territorial state or empire. This preference for cities reflects the kinds of real-life connections and associations that promote a variety of voluntary interactions. For libertarians, the city and city life display the kinds of phenomena that they find admirable and worthy of encouragement. There is an older tradition of libertarian thought, however, that is hostile to the city and sees the independent farmer as the bedrock of a free society, with the city cast as the locus of corrupting political power. This notion goes back to the 18th century and earlier and the tradition of classical republican thought—“country” ideology as it came to be called—with its opposition to the court and royal power and government extravagance, both associated with the great metropolis. Later, with the French Revolution, the city became the scene of revolution and dangerous collectivist politics. This kind of agrarian libertarianism, with its republican antecedents, has effectively died out in Europe, but persists as a minority tradition within the United States, where it is articulated by authors such as Victor Davis Hanson, due to the continuing influence of Jeffersonian thought and ideas.

In contemporary intellectual and political debates about the city and urbanism, libertarians tend to adopt an unambiguous position with regard to two topics. The first is the historical and contemporary debate over the nature and consequences of urban growth during the revolutionary move from a predominantly rural society to one that has a city-dwelling majority. The orthodox view of this process as experienced in the 19th century regards it as a chaotic and disorderly development with significant market failure and the creation of massive slums and attendant social problems, which were only resolved by direct government action and the appearance of contemporary urban planning and zoning regulation. Libertarian historians argue that, in fact, the problems were much less severe than assumed, and that urban growth in places such as 19th-century Britain was a phenomenon of spontaneous order, with an orderly pattern of urban growth produced by the sophisticated use of property rights and contracts, above all the use of covenants. In the contemporary world, the massive growth of cities in places such as Mexico, Brazil, and parts of Asia and Africa is often thought of as both a social disaster and a chaotic phenomenon that requires massive action by government. The contrary view, put by authors such as the libertarian social commentator Hernando De Soto, is that the problems that do exist in such population centers are caused mainly by government action and above all by the lack of clear and transferable property rights for the inhabitants of areas, such as the favelas of Brazil. De Soto describes in detail the ways in which the conditions of urban life described earlier make possible the appearance of a wealth of voluntary institutions and private solutions to urban problems, which are held back by government regulations and inadequate property rights.

Similarly, the libertarian position on the nature of urban growth in the contemporary United States—and in Canada and Australia—opposes the planned and controlled development of cities. This approach has been a central part of the ideology and practice of the modern managerial state. Indeed, because the idea of the planned city appears at the foundation of the modern state in the Baroque Era, this approach is the earliest example of this kind of politics. A persistent theme in libertarian argument has been resistance to both the theory and practice of urban planning. A crucial event in this connection was the publication in 1961 of Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities, written partly as a rejoinder to the policies of New York’s urban planning supremo, Robert Moses. In this work, Jacobs put forward the view that the city and its neighborhoods were living spontaneous orders produced by the voluntary interaction of individual inhabitants, as opposed to the model of top-down rationalist planning as typified by Moses. Although Jacobs would not have defined herself as a libertarian, her ideas and analysis had a great impact on libertarian social critics. An early example was Martin Anderson, whose attack on 1960s “urban renewal” in The Federal Bulldozer pointed to the fact that contemporary urban planning and zoning regulations persistently and inevitably favored the rich and powerful over the poor and powerless.

More recently, libertarians have become involved in the debates over the nature of urban development in North America. Much contemporary literature has lamented the phenomenon of “urban sprawl” and the growth of suburbia. For many contemporary authors, the appearance of this kind of extensive, low-density urban environment has marked the crisis or even death of the city as historically understood and has been seen as a major threat to the natural environment, whereas the lifestyle of suburbia has been subjected to severe criticism as soulless and alienating. The libertarian response to this theory has been mixed. One frequent rejoinder has been to agree with much of the criticism, but to put the blame primarily on government and regulation. In particular, zoning laws are blamed for mandating extensive low-density housing, for creating socially homogenous neighborhoods by preventing low-cost housing alongside the more expensive variety, and for geographically separating different activities. The federally funded Interstate Highway System and government funding of highways in general are blamed for urban sprawl because of the enormous hidden subsidy they represent to commuting and developers. The other response has been to welcome or defend many aspects of contemporary urban development. Many follow Joel Garreau’s identification and defense of the “edge” city as the new form of spontaneously evolving city development and defend suburban life against its critics. One scholar whose work has become particularly influential for contemporary libertarians is Robert Nelson. He focuses on a phenomenon that libertarians welcome, the growth of privately governed communities or homeowner associations. Nelson points out that these communities make up the overwhelming majority of new housing in the United States and predicts a future in which these essentially private bodies have taken over most of the functions of local and even state government. This possible future is generally welcomed by libertarians, but sharply criticized by others.

The historical role of the city is generally seen by libertarians as positive, and most of them favor urban life over the alternatives. In the contemporary world, the analyses of scholars such as Jacobs and Nelson are leading libertarians to both articulate a distinctive position in current debates and envisage a future in which the city, reinvented as a congeries of self-governing private communities, is increasingly the main unit of both economic and political life.


Further Readings

Beito, David T., Peter Gordon, and Alexander Tabarrok, eds. The Voluntary City: Choice, Community and Civil Society. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002.

Garreau, Joel. Edge City: Life on the New Frontier. New York: Anchor Books, 1992.

Jackson, Kenneth T. Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Jacobs, Jane. Cities and the Wealth of Nations. New York: Vintage, 1970.

———. The Death and Life of Great American Cities. New York: Vintage, 1992 [1st ed., 1961].

———. The Economy of Cities. New York: Vintage, 1970 [1st ed., 1966].

Mackenzie, Evan. Privatopia: Homeowner Associations and the Rise of Residential Private Government. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996.

Mumford, Lewis. The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations and Its Prospects. London: Harvest Books, 1968.

———. The Culture of Cities. London: Harvest Books, 1970. Nelson, Robert H. Private Neighbourhoods and the Transformation of Local Government. Washington, DC: Urban Institute Press, 2005.

Sassen, Saskia. Cities in a World Economy. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press, 2006.

———. The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001 [1st ed., 1991].

Weber, Max. The City. New York: Free Press, 1966.

Originally published .