The World Needs More Free Cities (The Political Argument)

by | May 27, 2024 | Blog

The World Needs More Free Cities (The Political Argument)

by | May 27, 2024 | Blog

Though we live in the world of nation-states today, this was not always the case. In fact, the modern nation-state is a fairly recent invention. For most of recorded history, the world was ruled by a slew of differently structured powers and systems. One of those models, surprisingly common throughout all this time, was the city-state.

Although the city-state was likely never the dominant political structure in the world, today it is very much at the margins. City-states do exist today, the most quintessential ones being Singapore and Monaco, as well as some micro-states, such as Liechtenstein or San Marino. These are, however, often seen as relics of the past, and as funny quirks that do not really belong in today’s world. Simply put, they are not seen as ‘proper’ political entities when compared to nation-states.

In my view, this assessment of city-states is not doing them justice by any means. Instead, a case should be made in defence of the idea of modern and future city-states. Not only that, however. Cities can exist on different levels of autonomy from nearby sovereign states. What we call Free Cities encompasses existing and potential cities almost anywhere along this scale.

The argument for (and the main potential of) Free Cities comes from several different angles – economic, political, and social. In each of these spheres, a Free City can offer us something that the system of today’s nation-states is not delivering. Even though Free Cities do not represent any kind of utopia, they can offer a much-needed alternative to the status quo.


The Economic Argument

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The Political Argument

While at least acceptable economic policies might be a necessary condition for good living standards, social and other policies might actually be the most important factors for most people when deciding where they would like to live or what defines the character of a city or country. Looking at the effects of Free Cities on the world from a non-economic perspective is therefore crucial as well.

When there are few political units in a region or in the world, the competitive pressures they exert on one another remain weak. This means that the few states that exist have more of a free hand to deal with their subjects, the individuals and businesses living in their jurisdictions, as they please, with them having virtually no recourse. It means that states can even oppress and exploit the countries and people they rule over while the consequences range from minimal to non-existent.

This is the world we live in now. Over centuries, humanity has tried to mitigate the situation in several ways, such as via constitutionalization or democratization. In my opinion, there methods have only been successful to quite a limited extent. The only promising path that can have far-reaching effects is making the governance industry more competitive. In a competitive market, consumers are kings and service providers stand to lose everything from behaving abusively.

In a world of many Free Cities and city-states, all governments will be incentivized and pushed by their competition to provide a better service in a much more substantive way than today. The more political units there are, the more competition there will be. The proliferation of Free Cities would lead to many of the atrocities and injustices committed at the hands of governments today being virtually eliminated.

In addition, discovering the policies most conducive to creating prosperity and the best possible standard of living is a difficult journey that includes extensive research as well as the process of simple trial and error. In addition, different policies are suitable for different contexts, be it climate, geography, regional politics, as well as people’s ever-shifting preferences. Therefore, a world in which small political units such as Free Cities can constantly experiment with new policies will make this knowledge-finding process much faster and more productive. It will also be less risky than today, as potential negative effects will be limited to a small area or population for which disassociation from local politics will be much easier.

The same principle is actually part of the ethos behind the federation of formerly sovereign states that is the United States. The idea of such a ‘laboratory’ for discovering the best policies can be taken further than just states within the US, though. Its positive effects could be maximized in a world full of Free Cities.

Over the past decades, it has become fashionable to point out that while technology and our way of life is progressing at a stellar pace, politics is not, and it is instead stuck somewhere in the 19th century. In my opinion, there is some truth to this, and the reason why is precisely the comparative lack of competitions faced by current nation-states. The proliferation of Free Cities would inaugurate an age in which the same kind of innovation and progress we see in technology would become part of the policy-making industry as well.


The Social Argument

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