Shortly before I listened to Benjamin Barber’s talk, the Republican-led Congress passed a budget bill almost certain to fail, once again bringing the U.S. to the brink of becoming the world’s largest deadbeat, unable to pay its bills. In Iraq two suicide bombers attacked a funeral, killing nearly 100 people. In Canada the Harper government continued to censor scientists whose findings ran counter to the party line.
It is a crazy world out there, and Barber poses one way of dealing with the issues governments seem incapable of resolving. Since national bodies spend their time telling each other why everyone else has to change first, why not put the reins of power into local hands? Barber says:
Democracy is in trouble, no question about that, and it comes in part from a deep dilemma in which it is embedded. It’s increasingly irrelevant to the kinds of decisions we face that have to do with global pandemics, a cross-border problem; with HIV, a transnational problem; with markets and immigration, something that goes beyond national borders; with terrorism, with war, all now cross-border problems.
I still remember when Chicago’s local government was so corrupt bribery was a way of life. But Barber makes some interesting points that are worth thinking about. Among them:
- Governments collapse, but cities tend to endure. (The people of Detroit may want to ask some hard questions about this point.) Barber points out Istanbul, Alexandria and Rome as examples of cities that lasted beyond the decline of empires.
- More than half of the world’s population live in cities, a number that climbs to 78% in the developed world. Nation-states have proven themselves incapable of tackling global challenges, such as climate change, which have serious impacts on cities. Cities around the world are stepping forward to work on those problems at the local level and are forming networks to cooperate internationally.
- Political bodies, riven by party squabbling, spend most of their time opposing each other rather than finding common ground. City mayors do not have that luxury. They have to be pragmatists and problem solvers. They also live down the street. We know them so are more likely to trust them and can more easily boot them out if they violate that trust.
Barber’s talk is thought provoking and worth listening to. Cities are run by human beings. Many mayors are noteworthy and inspiring. Others are mediocre. Still others are corrupt. But certainly it is easier for urban dwellers to influence city government than to have an impact at higher levels.
It is not the idea of mayors taking over world governance that gives me hope when I listen to this talk. Rather, it is the reminder that at the level of our communities we can, indeed, work together for the common good. Whatever we do at home ripples outward.