The World Needs More Free Cities (The Social Argument)

by | Jun 3, 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

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The Social Argument

In the West today, a kind of uneasiness is felt all around. The current socio-political climate feels tense and agitated. People increasingly feel like their supposed ‘representatives’ in government do not actually represent them in any meaningful way and their concerns are just left unaddressed.

Some might see this as a result of various factors like the influence of social media, media misinformation, or political extremism of various stripes, but the more compelling argument is that these are only symptoms of a deeper underlying issue.

Such unending social strife is created where the political system is set up so that with any issue debated in the public realm, the stakes are very high and too much depends on who wins some election or vote in parliament.

When there are too many and too strong levers of power that can force everyone to act a certain way, it pushes everyone to try to take control of these levers – either for the purpose of exercising power over others or simple self-defence.

In such a system, not getting involved is not an option, because the ‘ring of power’ will be used either way – the only question is how. This creates a situation where everyone is forced into never-ending conflict with their fellow citizens.

The ultimate cause of this is large central governments having too much power and being able to do almost anything they want.

In contrast, city-states and Free Cities represent small, independent, self-ruling units that, ideally, are subject to few outside powers or constraints, and have no direct power over the outside world in turn. A world-wide proliferation of Free Cities will therefore serve to counteract this trend of increasing social strife.

When only a limited number of people, in a limited geographical area, are ‘united’ together under one set of policies even if they dislike them, it allows those with differing preferences for any kind of social or personal values to sort themselves into like-minded, self-ruling populations and communities more easily. The ability to easily dissociate from one’s opponents leads to social harmony. The reverse – being forced (either by fiat or circumstance) together with them – is where social conflict thrives.

In a world of many Free Cities, there will be a broad, diverse palette of societies with different values, preferences, and identities living side by side, with peace assured through mutually beneficial and mutually indispensable trade and economic relations. Some cities will be more progressive, experimental, or hedonistic, while others will be more predictable, unchanging, and conservative. When neither of these is able to force their values on the others, the world remains a peaceful place, in stark contrast to the ever-increasing conflict of our current hyper-centralized mass societies.


Conclusion: What Would a World Full of Free Cities Look Like?

It might sometimes be difficult to imagine what an alternative to a world made of unitary nation-states might look like in the future. People all around the world, but especially in developed countries, often have a rather warped and narrow view of what diverse political structures can look like and how societies can be organized. This is because we live in a historically rather bizarre political world centred almost exclusively around nation-states. We tend to think that a country’s ‘freedom’ and ‘independence’ means a centralized hierarchy of courts and law enforcement, a separate central bank and a currency it prints, a behemoth bureaucracy, and perhaps most importantly its own defence and border monitoring. We think all this because this is indeed how most of the nation-states around us organise themselves.

However, there is a much broader range of possibilities of how an independent country or city can function beyond this narrow format. Every one of the aforementioned features we associate with a ‘country’ is strictly optional. It can be there but it can also be absent altogether, perhaps being proven unnecessary outside a nation-state-based world.

Furthermore, if any of those features are in place, they can be organized in many different ways. Some alternatives that immediately come to mind are delegated provision by other states, by private companies, by international organizations, or decentralised provision through a competitive market environment.

The options do not end there, though. There can be other ways, perhaps wholly unimaginable now, that would be thoroughly researched, innovated, and optimised in a world full of Free Cities with strong competitive pressures on governments, in a bid to provide the best governance products possible.

Though this is starting to change, today’s world is remarkable in its political uniformity – and such uniformity is thoroughly undesirable. Not only is it repetitive and uninteresting, but as argued above, it is also highly inefficient – which, in the political context, can mean destructive and oppressive towards the people living in these systems. Finally, uniformity is also fragile and dangerous, as a single well-positioned threat can put everything and everyone in jeopardy.

By contrast, a world-wide proliferation of Free Cities will bring us plenty of political diversity, with which will come an explosion of innovation, progress, and resilience, resulting in a more consensual, peaceful, wealthy, and happy world. Mired in troubles stemming from the rigidity of its obsolete political structures, the world needs such a breath of fresh air maybe more now than ever.