Jane Jacobs: Cities and the Wealth of Nations

The death of Jane Jacobs prompted me to do something that I ought to have done at least upon the inauguration of the Bush Administration: to re-read Cities and the Wealth of Nations: Principles of Economic Life. Reading this book when it came out in 1984 was a moment of startling political clarification, for its challenge to traditional economics was instantly persuasive, and for the first time in my life I could conceive of a truly desirable civil arrangement. There is no doubt that I already shared Jacobs's preference for the small and open-ended to the large and controlled, as well as a dislike of large corporations. The latter is only implicit in Cities, but there is no way that its principles can be reconciled with the furtherance of business organizations that hire more than, say, 150 people. What Jacobs could only guess was the role that computers might play in making her dream of a world of city-states come true.

This will be the first of several pages on Cities and the Wealth of Nations. Some of them will discuss things that Jacobs actually writes, while other will tease out implications and obstacles. The book's last three chapters read like a springboard into a much larger, more radical book, but their force derives from the strength of the case that Jacobs has already made by that point. It would seem that her central proposition is inadequately supported, at least within the pages of the text, but I am inclined to fill this lapse with the findings announced in James Surowiecki's The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies, and Nations. The title of that book might almost be taken as an amplification of Jacobs's premise, which is this: economic health depends on the countless small adjustments made by innovating individuals in response to symbiotic contacts with other innovators. The fewer the innovators, the fewer the adjustments, the poorer the health. Jacobs sees economy as akin to and no less complex than organic life - of which, obviously, it is an extension.

And here is what Jane Jacobs's thinking is up against: the dream of fulfilling predicted outcomes that lies at the heart of every MBA's project. Like all the dreams of patriarchy, this one relies heavily on powers of control, limiting interference, and standardizing procedures. It is nothing less than a wish that human beings might be forced to behave like robots. Robots indeed are replacing human beings in many types of production. There is nothing wrong with robots, per se, but they will never come up with a better way of doing something. They are designed to preclude alternatives altogether. Doubtless there are operations, many of them dangerous, at which their performance excels that of mortal men, but the managerial inclination to treat mortal men as robots is never productive in the long run. That it is also inhumane is not beside the point.

Inevitably Jacobs is up against standing armies, routine military expenditures, and, ultimately, the nation as a sovereignty. These she argues against quite lucidly, even if it is sometimes difficult to follow trains of thought that so many men would almost instinctively derail with ad hominem interjections. Advocating the views set forth in Cities and the Wealth of Nations requires patience and great care, with no false steps. I am writing this page as much to develop my ability to speak for the book as for any other purpose. (May 2006)

Reading Cities and the Wealth of Nations I

Reading Cities and the Wealth of Nations II

Reading Cities and the Wealth of Nations III

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