GEOGRAPHIES OF REFERENCE

My young friend (and nephew) Florian Pellet recently posted a 1997 article from the Cato Institute (Boaz, David. Creating a Framework for Utopia, Vol. 31, No. 6, November/December 1997) as an interrogation on what it means to be a libertarian. The article coincides with a number of my own preoccupations regarding the management and care of public spaces. As I am into my 18th year living in France and it has been 15 years since the article appeared, I believe this article is ready for commentary: the key insights concern not only time and historical context, but essentially geography. Here’s why.

The article, “Creating a Framework for Utopia” offers an enticing view of the Libertarian philosophy as a philosophy of individual liberty and community self-determination. It makes a strong argument for the freedom to innovate and the right to self-determination. But, as the author implies clearly in his title, “Creating a Framework for Utopia”, he is not concerned with practicalities but with daydreaming about a world in which we are free to pursue our dreams unfettered by practical consideration.

As a plea for a libertarian Utopia, a number of major fallacies very quickly become evident. The first, and the least forgivable of the author’s intellectual shortcuts is his very obvious anti-government bias. For Boaz (and writers published by the Hudsun and Cato institutes generally) “that government is best that governs least”.

How often have we heard this platitude? And how often must we hear it more before we learn to question such simple mindedness?

To paraphrase the United States’ founding fathers, gathered in Philadelphia and prepared to risk all for “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”, governments are instituted among men to secure these rights. After a bloody and ill-financed seven year war of independence and after a six-year experiment in confederation politics, many of the same founding fathers agreed to a centralized union governed by a membership charter, the United States Constitution. The preamble to that document reads:

We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

It was understood then that a government (by the people and for the people, if you will) was necessary to ensure the public good.

What is missing from the Boaz article is not only that governments are necessary, but any mention of the values that such governments serve: the public good defined by a majority of citizens through their representatives met in Congress. Indeed, such governments are necessary and even to be hoped for because of their capacity to create and promote “public values”.

These ideas are so fundamental as to be pointless in repetition. And yet, if we do not repeat these truths we are likely to miss the fact that these truths assume the existence of a public good, that there is a greater public good in well organized (and governed) collective living than in individual selfish organization.

The second fallacy in the Boaz approach is the implicit assumption of market efficiency and the author’s failure to so much as acknowledge market failure. Fifteen years down the road from Boaz’ original work, the evidence of market failure is all too evident: the 1999 reform of United States banking laws (the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act) which created banks “too big to fail” led to the 2008 world financial markets meltdown; Increased concentration of media power and the relaxation of media ownership rules in 2003 led to complacency in following the Neoconservatives as they manipulated public opinion and a weak president; Merger and acquisition approvals from the Department of Justice far too numerous to count have resulted in anticompetitive markets where high barriers to entry encourage the creation of economic power at the expense of innovation. Absent responsible regulation, the “market approach” to regulating public spaces consistently fail to produce “socially desirable” outcomes.

Why the quotes around “socially desirable”?

Because social desirability is the quality expected and the end result of a political process and public policy.

Competitive and accessible education for the brightest and the best is a socially desirable outcome, public healthcare and a confident, healthy workforce are socially desirable outcomes for their benefit to worker productivity, a vibrant and competitive media landscape is a socially desirable outcome when you consider the importance of an informed citizenry. And yet, for each of these examples (and there are others) we Americans have accepted mediocrity: in education we have accepted that a liberal arts education should be an exercise in a student’s ability-to-pay, or at least, mortgage his/her future (although to be fair, localized and community based alternatives exist). With respect to health care it remains to be seen whether Public Health Care as it is now conceived will deliver on its public policy potential. Concentrated and monopolistic media ownership have led to complacency on critical national issues – the matter of public safety and security, the right of privacy, global warming and the depletion of major national aquifers.

Markets do fail and the social ills which confront America today are largely a reflection of those failures.

The third and perhaps most important fallacy in the Boaz argument, is the author’s failure to account for the practical aspects of geography in his Utopia. Boaz develops as a central premise the idea that historically there is tension (and competition) between centralizing and decentralizing views of authority. He notes that for any “country larger than a city, local conditions vary greatly and no national plan can make sense everywhere”. But, rather than develop the attractiveness of local scale for market economies, Boaz launches into a discussion of “economies of scale”, a traditional and well documented approach to the creation of wealth.

The issue is not the creation of wealth, but the scale at which wealth is created and redistributed as a matter of fairness and equity.

Boaz writes in his section of a “Framework for Utopia”

What we need is not utopia, but a free society in which people can design their own communities.

I couldn’t agree more.

But it is not enough to agree; one must understand that community is first and foremost geographic. It is rooted in place. It exists and is viable because of water resources or fertile land or access to some special ingredient that gives its inhabitants and the inhabitants of its trading area a competitive advantage in producing a tradable surplus.

Wealth creation is a matter of trade and tradable surpluses. And it is here that market theory becomes relevant. One cannot trade if one does not have producers of goods or buyers willing to exchange for those goods.

Trade and comparative advantage are central to the economic functioning of the community and geography is the sole criterion for sustainable development. But geography is not of itself sufficient to explain community development. Communities exist within hierarchies of communities and share specific values by treaty or by acknowledgement of suzerainty.

For instance, cities that participate in the hierarchy of French cities share a language, a set of laws, ideals about social justice and the meaning of life. They acknowledge a shared history in terms of a succession of events. By the same token, the cities that participate in the Mediterranean hierarchy of cities share a water resource and acknowledge a shared history of rivalries and outcomes as do the cities and communities on the North Sea and of the Baltic and Black seas.

It is these stories that create sustainable human relations, not the pursuit of riches or the accumulation of wealth. It is shared stories such as these that create the conditions for sustainable redistribution of wealth and for cooperative development, in short, the conditions for creating a utopia of cooperating and prospering communities.