On a clear day, you can see past the borders

Lawrence Solomon
The Next City
September 1, 1995

Where do I live? Depending on who’s asking and why, I might name my neighborhood. Or I might say “Toronto“. Or “Canada,” if I were visiting a foreign country. Besides being a Torontonian and a Canadian, I’m an Ontarian for some purposes (like buying licence plates for my car), a resident of the Western world when our standard of living is compared with that of people in Third World countries, even a member of Planet Earth when reminded of it by a telecast from space or a canvasser from Greenpeace.

But increasingly I — and probably you — will be thinking of ourselves less as citizens of our country, less as citizens of our states and provinces, and more as citizens of our metropolises and of the world. For although we do live in political jurisdictions called cities, provinces and countries, jurisdictions tend to come and go with changes in the political landscape. Planet Earth, in contrast, has a status independent of politicians — it is not a political entity but a physical place. As are metropolises, whose residents pay little attention to the artificial boundaries imposed on them by politicians. Ask people who live in suburban Markham, Canada’s 23rd-largest city, or Mississauga, our eighth-largest, where they reside and they’re as likely as not to say “Toronto,” the metropolis to which they relate and around which so much of their economic and political lives revolve, even though they vote for no one on a City of Toronto ballot. Unlike countries and provinces, which have but one boundary, an official political boundary that precisely delineates the jurisdictions, metropolises have two boundaries, the political boundary and the one that really counts — its unofficial boundary, as defined by its citizenry.

Like most large cities, Toronto expanded bit by bit, spreading out in all directions as it grew. Sometimes adjacent communities decided to tie the knot and officially join the city. Sometimes they remained politically distinct. Politicians created something called the Municipality of Metropolitan Toronto in the 1950s, and something else called the Greater Toronto Area in the 1980s. But these political designations, though often costly, are mere distractions. The political boundary decides taxes, voting jurisdictions, monopoly franchises. It defines a political monopoly over a geographic area. But it doesn’t override the facts on the ground: In a metropolis, people don’t worry which side of a city line they live or work on.

The citizenry draws the border of the metropolis, and redraws it continually. And a metropolis (or any city) tends to have more staying power than a country, which breaks more often than bends. While ever-evolving, unofficial metropolitan boundaries ceaselessly expand or contract in small increments through natural growth or decay, official political boundaries change by fits and starts, with wars, purchases of territory, secessions or other political arrangements. Take Toronto, once a town in Upper Canada; it became part of a relatively vast Province of Canada in 1841, when Upper and Lower Canada merged to form an expanded political entity. In 1867, this city found itself in the Dominion of Canada, which extended to the Atlantic. Today, the Dominion (although we no longer call it that) spreads from sea to sea to sea.

A Methuselah born in Toronto’s Upper Canada phase would have saluted different national flags over the past two centuries, but remained a Torontonian throughout. In the next 100 years, which might see Canada’s breakup following the departure of Quebec, he might salute the Stars and Stripes (if Toronto found itself in the United States) or a flag of New Upper Canada (if the Western provinces went their own way, and Toronto became capital of a sovereign Ontario). Or the Toronto metropolis could become a state of its own. Methuselah’s passport could change in any number of ways. A Methuselah in a European city, with a much longer history of jockeying between rival states, would have paid tribute to many more national capitals.

Unlike cities, which coalesce where people congregate for mundane reasons — this is where they find customers for their labors, suppliers for their needs — countries often get constituted for loftier reasons, among them to protect religious, linguistic or other group characteristics, to satisfy the territorial ambitions of their leaders or their citizens, or to escape exploitation at the hands of a remote despot. Nations, which, like religions, can inspire great passion and allegiance, can also stoke instability. The peoples who at some point in history saw merit in joining together may at another point see merit in splitting apart. Or, through tradition or force of habit, these disparate entities may remain under central rule long after the defining purposes of their combining have passed.

Governments have a monopoly over rule-making within their borders, which historically they have used to create commercial monopolies in the thousands. These monopolies, which in one form or another have footholds in almost every sector of commercial life, become, to greater or lesser degrees, dependent upon government favors. Most major firms now have government-relations departments to protect or further their interests with governments; from this springs the lobbying industry, and a growing government bureaucracy to deal with its corporate counterparts.

From this monopoly-dispensing power of government springs so much of the government’s own power, a power that is now on the wane. For monopolies are manmade, rooted not in nature but in the ideologies or whims of the governments that created them. And being manmade, they can be overtaken by events, as recently they have been, in growing numbers. Due to communications and other decentralizing technologies, due to free trade, governments worldwide are losing the ability to patrol their political boundaries, to set tariffs and to otherwise control trade. They are losing their ability to enforce monopolies.

As political boundaries fade in importance, so do national and provincial governments, whose powers overwhelmingly derive from their ability to enforce monopolies. And as monopolies break down, companies close their lobbying offices in Ottawa or Washington and turn more energy to courting their customers, their suppliers, their employees. Their orientation turns toward their local community.

The more remote levels of government relinquish control, the more decision-making devolves to local governments and citizens. As monopolies disappear, people become freer to live and work where they choose. The real economy, the real country and the real city emerge.

As a byproduct of the curbing of monopolies and the creation of a freer citizenry, the primary activity of the modern state — the wholesale redistribution of wealth — is being stymied.

Without the ability to carve up a country into franchise territories, as do fast-food franchisers in extracting their due, governments can’t reward (and be rewarded by) favored industries or favored players within industries. Without the quotas and other means that governments employ to keep out cars and textiles from neighboring countries, beer and construction workers from neighboring provinces, taxicabs and power lines from neighboring municipalities, the industries that once enjoyed protection can no longer charge customers more than they would be willing to pay in a competitive marketplace. And without such excess business profits coerced from consumers, business becomes unable and unwilling to finance the social and economic programs that promised so much, cost so much, yet more often than not, failed so much.

Stripped of their cut of the monopoly profits, and unable to borrow any more, stripped of the levers that, with good intentions but counter-productively, manipulated society, governments lose the ability to redistribute income to those it favors from those it doesn’t. Without such patronage payments — from citizen to corporation, region to region, old to young, aboriginal to white man, industrial worker to farmer, uncultured to cultured, immigrant to native-born, city to suburb, and the flurry of other payments flying to and from virtually everyone and every thing in our society — the vast sums so squandered on pork-barrel politics are freed for more productive and more humanitarian uses, particularly for those less well-off, who typically fall by the wayside in the subsidy shuffle. Without the function of patronage, remote governments, and to a lesser extent local governments, become less ambitious, more limited. The citizenry becomes less limited, more ambitious.

The map of the world, as seen from space, shows no countries, no provinces, no states with their straight, precise borders. Instead, the view from space reveals the brilliant blues of our lakes and oceans, the deep greens of our tropical forests, the icy whites of our mountain peaks and polar regions. And here and there, sprinkled among nature’s vast marvels, are human habitats — wonders called cities — the natural homes of man, the places where most of us have chosen to work and to live. Orbiting on a clear day 200 miles above sea level, we can focus on the actual, and forget the illusory.

As artificial boundaries and other monopolies that constrain us fade, they reveal the natural structures governing our lives, not the imagined world of our planners and political masters but the real and surprising world that somehow survives beneath the obfuscation and ephemera. The NEXT CITY’s mission is to peer through the fog; to illuminate details as they come into view; to scrutinize problems that bedevil society, taking inquiry where it leads us; and to point to solutions where they present themselves.

This entry was posted in City states, Nation states, Political reforms. Bookmark the permalink.

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