City air makes you free

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Stadtluft Macht Frei, “city air makes you free,” was once a statement of Germanic law: a serf who lived in a city for a year and a day was freed from his obligations to his manorial master. Today, the phrase has a deeper truth, reminding us of how cities enable social, political and economic liberty. Yet too often, public power represses, rather than enables, the free genius of urban creativity.

The original Germanic meaning still has some bite today. The migrant who comes from rural India to Bangalore enters a world in which the strictures of rural life, such as the caste system, essentially vanish. In many poorer countries, rural life still binds with traditional rules enforced by elders who wield the threat of social ostracism. In a city, such threats become toothless because no elder can effectively banish those who misbehave. In Bangalore, a smart software designer, even one with a taste for beef, will always find an employer and new friends.

Boston was born with repression deep in its D.N.A. Our earliest rules banned high wages and thatched roofs and everything irreligious. But by 1679, the essential chaos of urban life had asserted itself, and the righteous were inveighing against “intemperance,” “Sabbath-breaking” and “unreasonable” demands of “day-labourers and mechanicks.” Urbanites had too many options to bow to the will of any particular minister, even Increase Mather.

The high wages demanded by Boston’s 17th century workers remind us that cities deliver economic as well as social options, and that represents a different kind of freedom. Thick urban marketplaces connect suppliers and customers and give plenty of options to both. My small suburban town has one small supermarket and three restaurants: a breakfast joint, a bagel chain and most hopefully, a purveyor of dumplings and sticky rice buns. But Boston has thousands of eating options, and a single small neighborhood, can offer everything from Ethiopian Gored Gored to Indian Mela Goat.

The early Massachusetts Puritans tried to use the powers of the state to enforce religious rules on Bostonians. The city still has a state-mandated 2 p.m. closing time. It is a sad fact that our regulations restrict poor person entrepreneurship far more than rich person entrepreneurship. It is a lot easier to set up an Internet behemoth than an inner city diner.

If those rules were streamlined, urban freedom could also provide more economic opportunity. Services remain the best hope for upward mobility for millions of Americans, and cities make service delivery easier. The challenge ahead for Boston is to ensure that urban entrepreneurship can flourish even in the city’s poorer neighborhoods.

One option is for Boston to follow the “one stop permitting” model of the Devens Enterprise Commission. Each neighborhood in the city could have its own chief entrepreneurship officer, charged with speeding the permitting process and empowered with the ability to grant every license needed. That officer could provide a friendly multilingual face that would make it easier to open for business.

Electronic innovations, like Uber, are also helping the urban service economy to grow. I once experimented and tried to find an Uber driver in the suburbs at 5 a.m. to take me to Logan. The app failed me. If I were travelling from the South End, I would have easily found a driver willing to take my money. When cities block these innovations, they are stopping urban innovators from creating employment opportunities and from making cities more livable.

Cities also enable the social collaborations that can bring freedom. The American Revolution had its roots in the Bostonian partnership between John Hancock and Samuel Adams. Hancock wanted a little less British trade regulation. He knew that a liberty-loving mob could help him smuggle in peace. Adams, like so many purveyors of alcohol, knew how to conjure a mob. Together, they helped make America free.

In our own day, we have witnessed urban uprisings topple authoritarian rules like Hosni Mubarak in Cairo. We saw the last military coup of the cold war stopped by the citizens of Moscow in 1991. The Arab Spring was called the “Twitter Revolution,” but no uprising would have succeeded with tweets alone. Change was forced by masses of humanity who were connected and empowered by urban density.

Unfortunately, few democratic uprisings lead smoothly stable democracy. The freedom fought for in city streets can be repressed by new dictators or armed extremists. Yet there are few roads to freedom that do not begin with urban action.

Our western repression looks nothing like the horrors of dictatorship, but it still limits urban inclusiveness and innovation. Boston should be taller and less expensive. This city should provide apartments and homes to welcome new families. The city needs new building, but a regulatory maze stymies the creation of new living spaces.

Elsewhere in the U.S., cities are experimenting with $15 minimum wages. These are rules that restrict the ability of cities to enable employment. America has a massive underemployment problem. We should be celebrating employers who hire less skilled workers, not imposing rules that make it difficult to employ people with less education.

Redistribution by regulation is also unjust. America should do more for its poorest citizens, but the cost of social justice should be shared by everyone not just the employers or customers of the poor. If low cost restaurants end up raising their prices because of extreme minimum wages, it is the poor who pay the price. It would be far wiser subsidize jobs by reducing the payroll tax or increasing the Earned Income Tax Credit, than to penalize those who would hire the unemployed.

City air can still make us free, but governments need to resist the urge to restrict urban innovation. Boston should be a laboratory of opportunity, and that means fewer rules that limit new buildings and new businesses. Freedom and city life are old friends. They must continue to travel together.

Edward Glaeser

Edward Glaeser

Edward Glaeser is the Fred and Eleanor Glimp Professor of Economics in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard University, and author of “Triumph of the City.”