Arnold Kling asks:
Today, we think of cities as places where people come to thrive. Wealth is higher in cities than in small towns and rural areas. Richard Florida tells us that the creative class is to be found in cities.
On the other hand, reading accounts of cities as of 1850 or earlier, they sound like death traps. People are less healthy in cities. Life spans are shorter. Poverty is Dickensian. I picture pre-modern cities the way I picture Russia today: people living off government assistance or criminal enterprise or sale of personal belongings; death at an early age; etc.
I wonder: who came to cities? Was it people without land? Were cities like an awful lottery that people would play when they had no other choice? A bunch of landless people gathered together to prey on one another, with the winners thriving (moving to the country as soon as they could afford it) and the losers enduring a Hobbesian existence, where life was nasty, brutish and short?
Did that make America in the eighteenth century seem like paradise, with its endless supply of land? Why were there cities in America? Was Jefferson’s preference for yeoman farmers a natural reflection of the relative state of urban vs. rural existence?
What would Jane Jacobs say?
In a series of famous passages, Jacobs argued that cities actually grew up alongside, and even before, advanced agriculture. It was cities – locations with dense, trading populations – that encouraged the transformation and modernization of agriculture. However difficult life might have been inside them, it was cities, according to Jacobs, that were the spur for modern economic growth and development.
Here’s a nice summary:
Jacobs contends that both animal husbandry and agriculture were most likely to have originated in the earliest urban settlements. Further, those settlements were the result of Paleolithic trade, and it was the intensification of trade in those early cities that paved the way for the development of agriculture and animal husbandry.
But don’t cities arise from and depend on agriculture? No: all economic progress originates in cities, Jacobs tells us; and cheekily adds that all agricultural progress originates in cities. Great advances, such as mechanical reapers and electricity, were invented and adopted in or near cities before being applied to agricultural regions farther out. Productivity improvements in agriculture always begin near the cities and spread out.
What we think of as purely rural activities often began in the cities. In premodern Europe, the quintessential cottage industry was weaving; but before cloth was woven in cottages the art was rediscovered and practiced in cities. Dark Ages peasants lived on gruel; the art of breadmaking was recovered first in cities (and based on city-grown bread; a medieval city had its own fields). In our own rural areas there are vast ranches where animals are fattened before slaughter; they are transplants from the city stockyards of Kansas City and Chicago.