Monday, September 10, 2012

The United Cities of America

In a four-hour stretch, Meg and I flew out of Detroit, into Chicago and out again, and into Philadelphia. Amazing cities, one troubled now, but even that one an important part of our economic and cultural past. Think about all the great cities in America--Houston, Atlanta, San Francisco, New York, L.A., on and on. No country in the world has more big, vibrant cities than we do. No one else is even close.

No disrespect intended to our agrarian roots, but our cities are where the action is: the jobs, the arts, the innovation, the craziness. All that land outside our cities and their suburbs is dedicated mainly to feeding us and giving us places to escape from ourselves once in a while.

It makes me wonder whether the way we govern ourselves still makes sense. Why shouldn't the cities make the local laws rather than the states. When our current law-making patchwork was sewn, most of the population lived in the country. States were big boundaries drawn around collections of farms. Today, eighty two percent of us live in cities or city suburbs.

As we moved off the farm and into cities, rural areas ended up over-represented in state legislatures. In the nineteen sixties, the Supreme Court forced the states to reapportion, so that all citizens in a state would have an equal voice in state government. I wonder, though, whether that is enough.

Urban and rural dwellers have very different concerns. Consider the issue of gun control, for instance. Many city folk would be happy if they never saw a gun. Outside the city limits, people like to hunt. They like to be armed. I think isolation increases the instinct to want to be able to defend yourself.

Even though the residents of cities get equal weight for their votes, they may be in a state with many rural citizens. So when the vote for gun control comes up in the state legislature, the urbanites get out-voted. (Let's leave the Second Amendment out of this for now. There are plenty of other issues on which city dwellers and rural folks have fundamentally different points of view.)

Why not let the cities vote on city laws and the rest of the state vote on rural issues? I know, I know, there is the little matter of the Constitution, so I guess I can't be seriously proposing this as a political reform. But it's something to think about as our society evolves. Ultimately, the way we govern ourselves must reflect our local interests and concerns. Just ask King George III.

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