City Air Makes Free

“City air makes free” is a medieval saying quoted by Jane Jacobs. I thought of it a few months ago when I visited an experimental private school near Shanghai. The founder of the school wanted to encourage creativity among students, in contrast to the main Chinese educational system with its overwhelming emphasis on memorization. His school was itself an example of city air makes free. There are many factories around Shanghai, filled with migrants from rural areas. These workers moved without official permission, which made their children ineligible for public school. This created a market for private schools, such as the one I visited. The school’s founder was previously a school teacher. The rural-urban migration had made him free to start his own school.

By growing up in a city instead of a village, regardless of what school she attends, regardless of overall economic growth, a Chinese student will have more access to the Internet, much bigger libraries, better teachers, far more students of different backgrounds, far more occupations in action, and a much wider range of culture. Her parents’ increased income may allow her to have a computer. Her family will suffer less from corrupt government officials. The increase in freedom — in opportunity — is profound. Her creativity and productivity will increase because she will better match her talents and her job. This is why Chinese creativity will increase enormously in the coming years whether the education system changes or not.

That such thinkers as Bill McKibben (who doesn’t understand the importance of cities for saving energy) and Jeffrey Sachs (who doesn’t understand the importance of cities for economic development) fail to understand this point shows how non-obvious it is. One more reason Jane Jacobs was a great economist.

She and other Chinese I met on my trip had a much broader sense of what was possible, or what they were missing out on, than previous generations.”

8 Replies to “City Air Makes Free”

  1. It’s sounds better in the original German: Stadtluft macht frei, although there’s a nasty echo of the infamous Nazi slogan “Arbeit macht frei” (a case of false advertising if ever there was one).

  2. “Arbeit macht frei” was, rather, a nasty echo of the medieval original. The original referred to a legal effect: a serf who managed to stay in a city for a year was free of claims by his former landlord. That out was abolished in 1231, for the case of royal cities and princely landlords. Network effects of city life were rather tertiary to the popularity of the saying.

  3. no economist is influenced by Jacobs – economists are only influenced by mathematical proofs, not by logic or economic arguments.

  4. Most influenced by Jacobs: Ed Gaebler, of Harvard. He told someone that he’s going to spend the rest of his career bringing Jacobs into the economic mainstream. I heard that a few years ago and it is a fair description of his work since then.

  5. Hi Seth Roberts: in a january New Yorker, I read an article about the growth
    of psychoanalysis in China. Fascinating! Would like to hear your views.
    When are you returning for a visit? Regards, Joyce

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