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Return of the Polis

By way of Let A Thousand Nations Bloom comes this interesting SF Gate article by Paul Saffo on why the San Francisco Bay Area needs to act more like a city-state. One very interesting fact grabbed me:

If the Bay Area were to secede from California, it would instantly become the world’s 25th largest economy, ahead of Austria, Taiwan, Greece and Denmark.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Alpha Cities and the ways in which certain metropolises affect not only their region or nation, but the entire globe. San Francisco is, economically speaking, a more important global player than many EU or Asian powers. Yet it would be strange to hear talk of San Francisco’s economic or fiscal policies in the World News. This, to me, seems like the interesting contra-positive to the U. N. Fallacy. Namely, the role of alpha cities on the world stage is downplayed simply because they aren’t recognized as nation-states, despite the fact that many have a far bigger impact on international affairs than do most U.N. nations.

In addition to the underplayed economic effects of alpha cities, there are interesting political concerns that again get short shrift. It seems to me that, as Saffo touches on in his article, cities are increasingly requiring a level of political autonomy that participation in a larger nation might not afford them. (It’s certainly a strange nation, after all, that can simultaneously support San Francisco, Dallas, and Cleveland without severe social and political dissonance.) Furthermore, the increasing trends of globalization and the rapid growth of communications networks are meaning the centralized governments are required less now than they ever have been before. There’s a very real sense in which centralized national power was useful (in part) because it provided a single point of contact between large groups of people. Nation states were useful because they were the only way to create global communities and for disparate peoples to interact, relate, and trade.

Such really isn’t the case anymore. Globalization means that the graph of international relation is getting more connected, meaning that it’s no longer necessary to go through centralized choke-points to get things done. Increasingly, governments are bottlenecks to, rather than facilitators of, international trade and relations. They are out of touch, inefficient, and slow to respond, and getting more so with every passing year. Local governments, however, are better in all three of these regards. They have a better sense of the needs and wills of their constituents, their inefficiencies are smaller in scale, and they are smaller and more agile, and thus able to better respond to changing environments.

In short, IF we are to have governments, then I think that local ones would be preferable. This is partly due to the fact that they are better equipped to deal with the demands of a populace that are both globally influential and increasingly globally connected. The San Franciscos of the world might well be better off on their own.

Posted in Politics.

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