Free Private Cities revive an old European tradition to which we owe much of our diversity and innovative power: They combine urban autonomy and mobile cosmopolitanism. Time and again in Europe productive people have had to flee plunder and persecution. Yet the continent differs from other parts of the world in that it has attracted a greater number of refugees who have been able to build up capital and trade globally. Doing so allowed those refugees to escape the abject poverty that would have faced them in more remote hideaways.
Venice – to cite just one example – became a refuge for merchants and artisans after the decline of the Roman Empire. As a result, the city was able to cultivate a seed of prosperity that spread around the world thanks to its easily defensible location and naval buildup. Other cities took in innovative classes in the form of Jews and Huguenots, who made a major contribution to European prosperity. The Hanseatic League of Free Cities provided a defensive alliance in the north that allowed a common market to develop. Its historic member cities remain wealthy today. Despite its cities being dominated by greedy families and overly worldly churchmen, the diversity and connections they cultivated – through a combination of small scale-politics and a larger-scale common culture – created a legacy from which we all benefit today.
The term “private” in the concept of “Free Private Cities” does not denote egoism or isolated exclusivity. Rather, it refers to the primordial democratic principle of spontaneous collaborationcitizens who settle common matters through free discourse or by peaceful, voluntary contracts. Rather than being highly exclusive enclaves, cities are typically places where the peaceful exchange of goods and ideas amongst strangers can thrive.
Europe’s unique history has allowed it to develop a special culture. Historically, cities have served as bases for Europe’s political rulers. Yet the continent’s division into countless principalities and its competition between ecclesiastical authorities gave rise to a kind of urban dynamism that left room for free citizenship to emerge. Many cities were administrative centers and residences, but most thrived on being marketplaces. They sprang up at the junctions of transportation routes, and offered freedom from feudal order.
To the average European today, founding new cities may seem like a crazy undertaking. Europeans looking for change are more likely to pine for a romantic return to nature rather than a new form of urbanism. But demonstrated preferences tell a different story to preferences that are merely expressed: People everywhere, including in Europe, are drawn predominantly to where they can find prosperity, inspiration and diversity— to the denser hubs where a nexus of ideas, talent and capital can be found.
“Private” also denotes the rejection of colonialism in the negative sense: a rejection of cities serving as plunderers’ branches that feed resources to the center of power. Free Private Cities are not only nourished by their surrounding countryside, they also nourish that countryside through concentric circles of wealth that emanate from them to the wider world.
Free Private Cities, therefore, represent a possible path to improving the health of Europe since they encourage fruitful division of labor, policies and ideas. They provide dynamism for pioneers without requiring the subjugation of others. A living Europe would offer true diversity: from closed communes to open, dynamic private cities. The preference for most people will likely be something that lies in the middle of this spectrum. Yet all people will stand to benefit through interaction with new and diverse communities, even if they do not feel the desire to be fully enclosed within them.
Fruitful division means productively resolving conflicts of values and goals without those values and goals being sacrificed. We must protect roots, identities, traditions, communities, relationships, natural spaces and cultural capital from harmful dynamics that merely destroy and leave a vacuum in their wake. At the same time, we must protect positive dynamics from worry, envy, fear, identity politics, and delusions of control. If Europe can successfully navigate this balancing act, there will be no doubt about its sustainability and ability to maintain a positive, distinctive culture.
Free Private Cities are a hard concept to promote in today’s political environment dominated by the overconfident technocrats of centralization on the one hand, and national protectionists with an inferiority complex on the other. Yet the closer we can move towards the ideal represented by Free Private Cities, the less wealth will be lost through emigration and the more new value will be created.
Legally, Free Private Cities would be classed as special administrative zones with a high degree of autonomy, which would extend to the zones having their own courts and laws. These laws are not determined merely by rulers, but would be recognized voluntarily by citizens upon entry through the signing of a contract. Unilateral discrimination against citizens, even when majority opinion shifts, would not be possible, unless the contracts explicitly allowed for this to happen.
Of course, one can list countless potential challenges that will be faced by Free Private Cities. If the concept of Free Private Cities is implemented, some will likely fail. But reservations and misgivings alone get us nowhere. We need to have the courage to experiment with bold new ideas, instead of remaining powerless in the face of our problems. We need mutual understanding instead of standardization – the special path of multilingual exchange taken by Europe in the past – rather than the political unification of recent decades, which has only increased divisiveness.
Reform plans for Europe or the euro based on presumed technocratic omniscience and the need for a “one size fits all” policy will get us nowhere. Such reform plans – implemented in response to the crises of recent decades – have only led to greater division and cynicism. After all, which one person can save a continent or a world currency? Who has enough knowledge to know that their policies will not bring about unintended consequences? How can one win the support of majorities that are becoming more anxious, elderly, and dependent on welfare transfers at a time when every new path is uncertain?
It is time to give minorities the room to experiment again, whilst protecting the majority from any unwanted exposure to the risks of this experimentation. Free Private Cities could function as experimental spaces where the consequences of success or failure would be borne primarily by the pioneers themselves. Were these cities to be successful, their innovations would help secure the prosperity of the vast majority of Europeans.