Who Should Govern, Cities or Nation-States? A False Choice

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Yale University Press

Let’s get two things straight from the beginning:

First, Benjamin Barber is one smart fellow.

Second, his prescription for saving democracy is wildly off base.

In his most recent book, If Mayors Ruled the World: Dysfunctional Nations, Rising Cities (Yale University Press), Professor Barber produces another of his wonderfully intense pieces of writing, this time taking on the twin issues of whether or not nations can effectively self govern in the modern world (he thinks not), and whether or not cities can become their successors (he thinks that they can).

To get there, If Mayors Ruled the World takes readers through a Whitman’s Sampler of inspiring mayoral achievements, while offering blistering criticism of nations and international bodies who he claims have failed humanity’s biggest tests. Former Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek is singled out for praise because of his often quoted admonition to the city’s eternally squabbling religious leaders that “I’ll fix your sewers if you knock off the sermons.” Michael Bloomberg, immediate past Mayor of New York City, is a particular favorite of Professor Barber. Citing an unnamed “senior advisor” to Bloomberg, we learn the following, “you look at the way Mike has operated (and) he’s used mayors around the world and his network of philanthropy to produce what I would say are the beginnings of an international infrastructure that can promote a level of change that is hard to fathom.” The “network of philanthropy” tool in “Mike’s” toolbox may seem just a bit out of reach for virtually any other mayor in the world, yet it is a key to whatever metric of success one can attribute to the former mayor.

Certainly, Teddy Kollek, Michael Bloomberg, Sheila Dikshit of Delhi, and Ayodele Adewale of Lagos have a lot to be proud of regarding service to their respective constituencies. It is equally as certain that New York, Delhi, and Lagos have vast stretches of dilapidated housing and huge populations living in grinding poverty, for whom there appears to be no municipal relief. In contrast to Professor Barber’s claim, what relief there may be is shaped and managed by national governments. When it comes to America, think about Food Stamps, federal funds for affordable transportation, and access to quality health care via Medicaid operated by the states and delivered by county governments.

Professor Barber’s careful selection of cities and mayors, designed to make his argument plausible, leaves out the cities and mayors who are anything but models of “from the bottom up” democracy. (Perhaps the reader can insert here their favorite fallen mayor. To prompt your thinking, consider Mayor Rob Ford of Toronto, Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick of Detroit, or Mayor Marion Barry of Washington, DC).

While there are many creative and honorable mayors around the world, there are similarly state legislators, members of congresses or parliaments, and heads of state who are equally creative and effective. Can you really argue that Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany, is a policy or political failure? Is it possible to overlook former Costa Rican president Oscar Arias as a model of effective governance?

As Professor Barber marches on toward his proposed “Global Parliament of Mayors,” he first must either disparage or ignore the existing international entities that are in existence to deal with massive-scale issues, such as atomic energy, famine, and disease. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has a very substantial track record of success. While far from perfect, the IAEA can hold its organizational head high regarding management of the belligerent use of nuclear power. Can mayors really put together an equally good or better entity that can do that particular job as well as mayors can collect garbage? The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, while also imperfect, can lay claim to relieving millions from starvation. Can mayors do a better job? If so, why are they not already feeding their poor and undernourished?

Where Professor Barber is spot on is identifying cities as incubators of very creative problem solving. He provides numerous well-documented case statements in this regard, and they should not be dismissed simply because his premise is exaggerated. Similarly, neither the reader nor Professor Barber should dismiss the creative work done every day in the United States by governors and state legislatures. For a large scale example, it is the State of California, working in a bi-partisan manner, that has taken the most bold and effective steps on large scale solutions to global climate change (clearly prodded into action by a federal congress and executive branch that cannot bring themselves to act in concert on this clear and present danger to humanity).

The false choice that Professor Barber seems to be presenting is this: national and international entities are failing, and untested theories of united mayors will succeed. Perhaps Professor Barber would do better to simply argue that mayors getting together in formal and informal leagues can add positive and effective solutions to vexing urban problems. It does not do his argument any good to say that such association is preferable to nations and their inherent powers for change and progress.