Thinking About the City

Commentary, October 1973; reprinted in Walter Berns, In Defense of Liberal Democracy (Regnery Gateway, 1984).


Cities express an ambivalence in the American soul: we like cities and wish to live in them—or at least to visit them—but we also dislike cities and wish to avoid them, and live instead on farms or in suburbs, and wish we could redesign the whole country along the lines of the Berkshires, in western Massachusetts with the Turnpike for rapid transit but to a different kind of Boston. Cities are the home of commerce—business and industry we now say—and therefore of the inequality that naturally arises out of commerce—some men become richer than others—whereas this country was founded on the proposition that all men are created equal, and it seems to follow, for some of us at least, that equal we should remain. Originally, then, we opposed the city in the name of democracy. Yet we know, when we think about it, that there is no necessary connection between equality or democracy, on the one hand, and agrarianism; that there was once a purely agrarian society in the West, but it was not democratic; indeed, it was known as feudalism. When we think about it, we would be hard pressed to name a purely agrarian society that was at the same time democratic—outside Rousseau’s books that is, and Jefferson’s imagination. The latter, as a wise man has reminded us, “did not seem to realize the extent to which, in constantly seeking to strengthen agriculture, not with other elements making for a balanced economy but at the expense of other elements, he was acting to strengthen slavery.” At any rate, our ambivalence toward the city has one of its roots in Jeffersonian democracy, which retains its vitality among us even though the sturdy yeoman farmer has long since been replaced by the suburban homeowner fighting crab grass with a bad back.

American Enterprise Institute