The Culture of Cities (1938)


Editor’s Note: We stand on the shoulders of giants. So we have decided to revisit some of these giants for you to experience anew in our new “Vintage” feature. Some of these writings are great little gems from lesser-known classical liberals, while others are digestible pieces from the greats in our tradition. Think of it as akin to finding a great record in the attic, dusting it off, and letting it spin.


Territory and City in the late Middle Ages

From the beginning of the Middle Ages two powers had been jockeying for leadership in Western Europe: one was royal, the other municipal. Even in the great days of the Free Cities there were parts of Europe where the royal power had consolidated more swiftly and had kept the cities themselves in a state of feudal vassalage: England, Aquitaine, Sicily, Austria. Where royal and imperial power was weakest, as in Northern Italy, the city achieved its fullest independence as a political entity.

But even where it was strong, as in Aragon, royal power was far from absolute: witness the oath sworn by the subjects of the King of Aragon: "We, who are as good as you, swear to you, who are not better than we, to accept you as our king and sovereign lord, provided that you observe all our liberties and laws; but if not, then not."

The consolidation of dispersed feudal estates and the creation of continuous fields of political administration within a clearly defined frame was important for the welfare of the communities concerned. The real question was whether this consolidation was to be undertaken on behalf of a small privileged class, or whether it was to be achieved through a free union of cities and regions. Unfortunately the cities themselves, as we have seen, were not immune to the temptations of a predatory and parasitic life, made possible by the command of military weapons; they undertook exploitation by force both in home territories and in more distant imperialistic ventures: alternately repeating the political mistakes of the Spartans and the Athenians.

The more powerful cities often sought to conquer their weaker neighbors, if for no better purpose than to suppress a rival market: and in times of war, from the end of the twelfth century on, they would in Italy transfer a great measure of executive power to a special officer, the Podesta, who in the emergency was released from the bondage of law.

In short, to achieve despotic power over their neighbors, the cities consented to the loss of their own internal freedom: What is more, they lost the moral case against other forms of despotism. As I have already pointed out, the only part of Europe where the civic corporations and the territorial state were unified without loss of civic liberty was the Swiss Cantonal Confederation.

In the early Middle Ages, the great feudal lords had succeeded in feeding their retainers, collecting their rents and securing a modicum of peace and order in their domains only by being in continual movement from one estate to another. The court was a mobile camp: vigilance and movement were the price of power. This held for kings as well as lesser nobles. The royal ministers, the royal judges, the whole apparatus of government and fiscal control, was essentially a mobile one: authority was maintained by personal supervision. During the fourteenth century in the great monarchies of England and France, this process came to an actual halt. The records of the courts, the rolls, the registers, the archives, the correspondence, not to mention the officials themselves, had become too numerous and bulky to move. As population and territory increased in size, direct personal supervision became impossible: impersonal administration and delegated authority became necessary.

Though the popular movement for parliamentary control did not maintain itself very successfully except in England, the modern state began to shape itself in the fourteenth century. Its marks are a permanent bureaucracy, permanent court of justice, permanent archives and records, and permanent buildings, more or less centrally located, for conducting the official business….

Mark that the capital city had a social as well as a political role to play. In the capital, provincial habits, customs, and dialects were melted down and recast in the image of the royal court: the so-called national image, national by prescription rather than in origin. Centuries were needed to effect a unification even in such extra-personal activities as the regulation of weights and measures: it was not until 1665 that Colbert proposed to "bring the whole of his majesty's kingdom within the same statutes and within the same system of weights and measures." Even security of life and property did not follow very swiftly in every corner of the new national realm: as late as 1553 in the Guides des Chemins de France there were notations in the open spaces between towns of "brigandage" or "Dangerous Forest."

The consolidation of power in the political capital was accompanied by a loss of power and initiative in the local centers: national prestige meant the death of local municipal freedom. The national territory itself became the connecting link between diverse groups, corporations, cities: the nation was an all-embracing society one entered at birth. The new theorists of law, as Gierke pointed out, were driven to deny that local communities and corporate bodies had an existence of their own: The family was the sole group outside the state, whose existence was looked upon as self-validated, the only group that did not need the gracious permission of the sovereign to exercise its natural functions….

The Baroque City and the Rise of the Territorial Central State

"The prince," according to Castiglione, who wrote the classic treatise on the Courtier, "ought to be very generous and splendid, and give to all men without reserve, because God, as the saying runs, is the treasurer of generous princes." Fortune's cornucopia must indeed be inexhaustible at the rate it was drained at court: Avenel reports that one of the great ballets at Versailles, in which one hundred and fifty people took part, came to a hundred thousand francs.

This demand for unlimited funds infected every rank in society; and it was the key to the economic policies of the absolute state. When taxation did not supply sufficient means for the prince and his favorites, he resorted to pillage: distant kingdoms in the case of Philip of Spain, or nearer monasteries for Henry VIII: when these did not suffice, he robbed the poor man of his pennies in order to bestow gold on those already rich. Hence the whole policy of licenses and patents: one needed a special permission, to be obtained at a price, even to build a house.

The growth of a bureaucracy to superintend these exactions and further the distribution of privilege added to the burden on the community: the Circumlocution Office was a convenient means of taking care of retainers and their younger sons: from St. Petersburg to Whitehall it was an inevitable appanage of upper-class society. “Never was bureaucracy carried to such a point of exaggeration, extravagance, and tiresomeness,” wrote Mercier: “Never did business so drag since the creation of this army of clerks who are in business what footmen are in service. References, regulations, registrations, formalities of all kinds have multiplied with such profusion and so little discernment.”

It finally came down to this: a whole country was run for the benefit of a few dozen families, or a few hundred, who owned a good share of the land—almost half of France in the eighteenth century—and who battened on the unearned increments from industry, trade, and urban rents….

The Modern City and the Dominance of the State Capital

During the paleotechnic period, when great fortunes were being made in steel and coal and oil and machinery, money would be amassed in the back country, at the expense of local resources and the local population, and then spent, if not completely dispersed, in cities far remote. The very means of luxurious expenditure were often wanting in the industrial towns. Beginning in the third quarter of the nineteenth century, the center of gravity shifted from the producing towns to the capital cities: free competition, which was the dominant catchword of the early nineteenth century, if never the universal practice, gave way to the effort to achieve practical monopoly or quasi-monopoly.

This movement broke down the partition between the various classes in society that had hitherto been relatively isolated. A coalition of land, industry, finance, and officialdom was formed in almost every country in order to effect the maximum amount of pecuniary exploitation. The agents of power, the aristocracy, the political bureaucracy, and the army began to direct "national interests" toward the service of the industrialist: they sought raw materials and markets capable of absorbing his excess production: hence the partition of Africa, Asia, and similar "backward" sections of the world. The industrialist, in turn, abandoning his naïve belief in laissez-faire and free enterprise, came to rely upon his imperialistic allies to help stabilize industry and to give it monopoly advantages: hence protective tariffs, subsidies, export subventions.

This coalition of economic interests was in good part responsible for the continuous increase of population in the great capitals during the nineteenth century, and for the building up of new metropolitan centers. The overgrown city, instead of appearing as an isolated phenomenon, an emblem of purely political concentration, became the dominant type: Coketown, the pure industrial city, was the recessive form after 1890….

The basis for metropolitan agglomeration lay in the tremendous increase in population that took place during the nineteenth century: People of European stock multiplied from about two hundred million at the outbreak of the Napoleonic Wars to about six hundred million at the outbreak of the World War. This stock, which accounted for only about one-sixth of the population of the earth in Malthus’s day, rose to about a third of it in a little over a century. In 1800 not a city in the Western World had over a million in population: London, the biggest, had only 959,310, while Paris had a little more than half a million, and Wien about half of that. By 1850 London had over two million and Paris over a million inhabitants: they were still without serious rivals. But by 1900 eleven metropolises with more than a million inhabitants had come into existence, including Berlin, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, Moscow, St. Petersburg, Wien, Tokyo, and Calcutta. Thirty years later, as a result of this feverish concentration of capital and the military and mechanical means of exploitation, there were twenty-seven cities with more than a million population, headed by New York and grading down to Birmingham, including metropolises on every continent, even Australia. The rise of cities with a population of over a hundred thousand was equally marked: likewise the spread of vast suburban rings around the central districts of all these cities. Nearly one-half of the population of the United States at the time of the 1930 census lived within a radius of from twenty to fifty miles of cities with over a hundred thousand inhabitants. The mere alteration of scale and extent resulted in qualitative changes in these centers….

The Megalopolis and the Tentacular Bureaucracy

The means of agglomeration were the continental railroad lines and the worldwide lanes of ocean commerce: means which brought an endless flow of raw materials and foods into the metropolis: all roads led to the capital. But the civic force was the centralization of the organs of administration in the great capitals, and the growing dependence of every type of enterprise, political, educational, economic, upon the process of administration itself.

Once the means of instantaneous communication were available, there was a fresh incentive to concentrate the organs of administration: production could be controlled, the shipment of goods routed, orders given and canceled, credits extended and the exchanges of goods and drafts cleared, on a single spot. Remote control, first embodied in the separation of staff and line in the army, spread to business operations. With the manufacture of the typewriter in the seventies, and the coincident spread of high speed stenography, more and more business could be conducted on paper. Mechanical means of communication: mechanical means of making and manifolding the permanent record: mechanical systems of audit and control—all these devices aided the rise of a vast commercial bureaucracy, capable of selling in ever remoter territories….

The word bureaucracy had indeed become a discouraging by-word for inefficiency, by the middle of the nineteenth century: Dickens needed no special powers of invention to create Sir Tite Barnacle and the Circumlocution Office. Everyone experienced, throughout the financial and political world, the difficulty of getting things done by direct action. The simplest civil act required legal sanctions, documents, verifications. From the searching of a deed up to the establishment of civil rights in marriage, no one could move without the aid of special functionaries. Lawyers, who knew the prescribed forms and technicalities, formed a large part of the growing professional population: their services were needed in the observance, and even more in the tactful breach, of the law.

In all this development, the political bureaucracy served as a special target for chronic disparagement: it was supposed to have a monopoly of roundabout methods and a finicking attention to form. But the businessman’s self-righteous indignation about the monstrous growth of political bureaucracy was extremely humorless. Such an attitude overlooked the fact that the greatest development of bureaucracy during the last century took place within the realm of business itself: this development put to shame the punier additions to the governmental bureaucracy. Plainly, no great corporate enterprise with a worldwide network of agents, correspondents, market outlets, factories, and investors could exist without relying upon the services of an army of patient clerkly routineers in the metropolis: stenographers, filing clerks, and bookkeepers, office managers, sales managers, and their varied assistants, right up to the fifth vice-president whose name or o.k. sets the final seal of responsibility upon an action. The housing of this bureaucracy in office buildings and tenements and residential suburbs constituted one of the major tasks of metropolitan expansion: their transportation back and forth to work, within a limited time-span, raised one of the difficult technical problems that confronted the city planner and the engineer….

A new trinity dominated the metropolitan scene: finance, insurance, advertising. By means of these agents, the metropolis extended its rule over subordinate regions, both within its own political territory and in outlying domains: directly or indirectly, they expedited the flow of tribute back into the big centers. Economic enterprise, political power, social authority, once divided over the length and breadth of the land, now concentrated in the seven Romes. To obtain money, one must go to the metropolis: to exercise influence, one must achieve a prominent financial position in the metropolis. Here and there a lone wolf, like Henry Ford, would temporarily remain outside the system. But such isolation would be largely an illusion: mark how Ford himself, who once manufactured a car adapted to popular needs and rural life, finally succumbed to the lure of metropolitan style in the outer design of his car.

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