Sunday, December 22, 2013

FA on States and Cities

There's an interesting, if unintentional, parallel in the current issue of Foreign Affairs Quarterly which picks up on a hobbyhorse of mine.  One component  is Michael Mazarr's (ungated!) essay on "The Rise and Fall of the Failed-State Paradigm," designed to give comfort and cover to those who want to do what George W. Bush used to say (back before he was George W, Bush) that we just ought to back off from this whole state-fixing business.  Mazarr presents a full-frontal assault but the pervasive aroma is that state building is pretty much undoable and anyway, we've got other fish to fry.

Now bracket Mazarr with a (n undated!) capsule review (by G. John Ikenberry) of If Mayors Ruled the World by Benjamin Barber, subtitled "Dysfunctional Nations, Rising Cities."  Barber's pitch isn't exactly new--Edward Glaeser's Triumph of the City sounds like it covers a good bit of the same turf.   

I can think of all kinds of ways in which cities can go wrong. They can consolidate the power of an elite (think the Yorty/Chandler Los Angeles).  They can mobilize a majority against a disfavored minority (think Karl Leuger of Vienna in Hitler's youth).  They can--well, I was going to say "they can produce the nightmarish masses of Katherine Boo's Beyond the Beautiful Forever, or Rohinton Mistrty's  A Fine Balance, or even David Gregory's Shantaram--but are they books of urban failure, or of urban success?  Complicated question, I suppose, but in all these contexts, you'd have to say that cities have a kind of concreteness (couldn't avoid the pun) that the more abstract and universal state does not enjoy.

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