Towards A Good Samaritan World

Sunday, April 24, 2005


I've gotten a couple of e-mails concerning my Tech Central article about the new pope, the name Benedict, Alasdair MacIntyre, and monasticism. I might as well add a few remarks.

The idea of the new monasticism is, among other things, a comment on the question of economic geography, which was fascinatingly raised (for me) by Paul Krugman. (See my earlier post "Why are there cities?") It was the weird fact that the size of cities in a jurisdiction tends to follow the Zipf distribution that persuaded me the problem was interesting.

The obvious reason there are cities is various forms of economies of scale. You build a factory in a city because you need a lot of workers. You can start a specialized business only in a large city to generate enough demand to cover your overhead. These examples describe economies of scale in economic production; but there are also economies of scale in entertainment: a small town may have one movie theater, whereas a big city has operas and playhouses, ballet, bars and clubs, many fine restaurants, many movie theater complexes with multiple screens, and so on. There are economies of scale in religion: big cities may have brilliant preachers, fine choirs with organs, congregations of thousands, with multiple services, Bible classes, etc., whereas a small town may have a few old ladies who can't sing, at the early service. There are economies of scale in education: a big city can have schools with thousands of students, with a vast array of course offerings, which small rural schools can't sustain. You can have economies of scale in love life-- lots of girls for young men to choose from, and vice versa-- and in social life-- with lots of conversational partners, lots of "crowds," it's possible to find people who share your own peculiar interests.

But cities have a problem: scarcity of land. And this underlying problem leads to a lot of other problems. Most obviously, it leads to high housing prices. In a city, most of the price of an apartment does not pay for the construction materials, or the labor of the workmen who built it, or the upkeep: it is paying for the land, i.e. for location. In cities, there is a built-in poll tax: everyone who wants to live in the city has to pay a lot for a place to sleep. Then again, scarcity of land makes the streets disputed territory in a special way. To put it colorfully, we might say that streets are a socialist institution: they are provided by the government, free, to everyone. And the attendant problems of socialism appear, such as the free-rider problem (the homeless "consume" street space while reducing its value for everyone else; non-litterers have to walk streets degraded by others' trash), and the problem of estimating value in a market-less system (should we build a metro, or plant trees? how much would it be worth, and to whom? and how can we make the beneficiaries of public investment pay, and allow those who improve the city to internalize the externalities of their activities?) Scarcity of land constrains the production of transportation (parking is expensive, traffic is bad). It tends to drive down the birth rate, because cities are not great places to raise kids; and the reason that they're not-- kids like to run, and are hard to discipline-- says something about the constraints on freedom in the city of which we are barely even conscious until we try to make children observe them. It's no accident that a man in the Lockean tradition like Thomas Jefferson disliked cities. In the city, Locke's ideas don't make sense. Property cannot reasonably be considered an extension of self-ownership through the products of one's labor, because what is maybe the most important form of property-- the underlying value of the pure unimproved land because of its mere "location"-- is abstracted from labor input altogether.

Economists like to talk about the problem of "scarcity." But what may be the most serious scarcity constraint which contemporary Americans are up against is the scarcity of urban land, which fits oddly with this paradigm, since this form of scarcity is not a fact of nature, a premise, but rather a side-effect of the organization of the human community. Physical goods, we can make pretty cheaply. Americans spend a fairly small percentage of their income on food and clothes, and could spend a lot less if they needed to. Even goods like computers are pretty cheap nowadays. Most of us devote much less of our income to food nowadays than we do the rental value of urban land. This also drives the emergence of a class system of sorts, where Georgetowners look down on people from the slums in Southeast or the far suburbs, while East Coast metropolitans look down on Midwestern bumpkins.

If one of the chief scarcity constraints the contemporary US faces is the scarcity of urban land, then if we want to keep increasing living standards, we need to come up with a way of increasing the supply of urban land. Yet increasing the supply of urban land seems paradoxical since cities are, by definition, places where there are a lot of people per square mile, i.e. where land is scarce. The way out of this is if you can figure out in what the goods associated with urban life consist-- and then reproduce those elsewhere. What is it exactly that people like about cities?

As I've argued elsewhere, the sociality of enjoyment is a truth about life to which economists tend to be blind by inaptly generalizing the notion of "consumption" from food (where enjoyment can be individual) to other activities where it is not. The sociality of enjoyment is also the key to the attraction of cities. Thus, to increase the supply of city-ness in the US we need to increase the supply of community.

Religion is the deepest, most fundamental, most powerful way to undergird and to sustain community. That is why some form of monasticism may be critical to a new phase of economic progress. People who turn aside from civilization to begin the moral community afresh, as MacIntyre urged, will create new communities, new places sacred to community. Once community is created, there will be opportunities to realize economies of scale in education, in economic production, in the arts, in religion, and so on. Where neo-monastic communities lead, others will follow. The net effect will be to increase the supply of that curious "good," urban land, and thus to enrich the whole society.


  • This is exactly what subcultures are about, to a large extent. Goths, Skins, Punks, IDMers, DIYers, etc... it's an attempt to achieve that spiritual/moral renewal an a world less inclined to totalizing beliefs that tend to characterize religions and sects. Of course once a subculture acquires sufficient cachet to warrant notice in the mainstream, things change in a hurry, but the attempts to establish new communities-within-communities is, I think, related to the heart of your thesis.

    By Blogger Nato, at 4:00 PM  

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