Society Magazine

Eight Inter-Connected Observations About Complexity, Liberty, and the City of Wichita

Posted on the 20 May 2021 by Russellarbenfox
Eight Inter-Connected Observations about Complexity, Liberty, and the City of Wichita[Cross-posted to Wichita Story]

1) Cities are complex systems—that is, they are places where different groups of people organize, worship, trade, celebrate, work, and simply live in close proximity to each other, all in different ways and with different goals in mind. In other words, cities are pluralistic, with different sectors and levels all interacting in complex ways. Obviously not all cities are equally pluralistic and complex—the size of the city matters, its economic and racial and religious and regional history matters, and the way it is governed matters. Still, the one common feature of every modern city--meaning every built community that isn’t a rural village and exists in the wake of the democratic and industrial revolutions of the 18thand 19th centuries--no matter what its relative size or history or location or politics, is simply this: its day-to-day operation is a complex, and by no means necessarily automatic, matter.

2) That doesn’t mean a large portion of what happens in any given city on any given street on any given day isn’t significantly automatic, because in a healthy city an awful lot of it will be. This was the crucial insight of Jane Jacobs, probably the most famous observer of cities in the 20thcentury: that in the midst of the “seeming disorder” of the city, you actually have “an intricate ballet in which the individual dancers and ensembles all have distinctive parts which miraculously reinforce each other and compose an orderly whole.” But Jacobs also insisted that the natural emergence of this “orderly whole” depended on putting in place (or removing out of place) the basic tools (or the basic obstacles) which cities require (or inevitably, unfortunately, produce). Call it a matter of putting in place, or enabling city residents themselves to put in place, good “infrastructure,” broadly defined, and get rid of the bad.

3) However, a lot of Americans, including a lot of Kansans, and perhaps especially a lot of Wichitans, have an ideological resistance to complex operations. They tend to believe that dealing with complexity, with the problems of good and bad infrastructure (the construction and renovation of roads, the maintenance and evaluation of schools, the expansion and restriction of police departments, etc.), is always going to result in someone, somewhere, capturing some resource that will enable them to limit someone else’s choices. This isn’t entirely incorrect: while the economic and social opportunities of city life have long been empowering and thus freedom-expanding to many, it’s also true that people under complex systems are often subject to--in the words of Louis Wirth, an early 20th-century urban sociologist--“manipulation by symbols and stereotypes managed by individuals working from afar or operating invisibly behind the scenes.” In other words, when things get complex, it’s easy not to know who is really making decisions, or to think that you’re in control of your choices when actually you’re not. So any society that takes individual dignity seriously has to recognize this, and work to make certain that the liberties provided by cities don’t crowd out those of the other type.

4) In our city, however, this structural dynamic is often flipped on its head, with those urban forces that push for the expansion of economic and social opportunities—including those involving environmental sustainability, civic health, democratic accountability, and more—having to prove themselves again and again against a less-complex, more libertarian default. Since Wichita is, in fact, a genuine metropolitan (if mid-sized) area, and simply isn’t—despite the convictions of many of its residents—a small town where (as my city councilmember, Bryan Frye, optimistically but, I think, incorrectly put it) everyone is only “one degree of separation” separated from everyone else, the reality of pluralism, and the need to deal with its complexities (whether through parties or procedures or some combination thereof) cannot be denied. Still, such denial is common, and thanks to the influence of major city players like the Wichita Regional Chamber of Commerce, the Kansas Policy Institute, and most of all Koch Industries, it is likely to continue to form a conceptual stream that those who engage city issues will have to struggle with.

5) That struggle has taken and will take many forms; I don’t mean to suggest that this is the secret history of every and any city controversy. (To believe that—that is, to believe, for example, that Charles Koch alone is solely responsible for Wichita’s profoundly underfunded street repair and public transit systems, despite evidence which might support that conclusion—would in itself constitute another form of denial of Wichita’s ideological complexity.) Depending on the issue and context, the disposition of so many in Wichita against urban complexity and in favor of a simplistic historical or market liberty may be more obvious or less so. On the more obvious side, you have the anti-government responses whenever city leaders suggest encouraging transportation alternatives or citizen groups advocate against the overuse of non-recyclable plastic bags. Or you have the fact that, when confronted with declining tax revenues or questionable management, the privatization of city resources—golf courses, the ice rink, or Century II itself—always seems to be preferred, as opposed to re-organizing or cutting back on the sort of services typically more valued by those with a property-centric libertarian perspective.

6) A less obvious manifestation of this perspective might be the way in which concerns about democratic accountability (that is, the ideal that anything the government does will reflect something that at least some portion of citizens actually want to have done), whether expressed in the context of political parties or city regulations or national polls, seems like a needless complication, an additional demand that gets in the way of simple, individual liberty. This is probably a stretch on my part, but when I look at a recent attack upon a fairly anodyne column of mine, it’s what first comes to mind.

7) To focus on that attack just for a moment (click through and read it if you’d like; I’ll wait), consider: why would implying, as I did, that challenging the use of the term “democracy” when thinking about the legitimacy of governmental actions was a distraction itself constitute “a disgraceful attempt to get people to accept [my] version of reality”? The version of reality which the author insists I am foisting upon my unsuspecting students and the reading public is that version wherein a constitutional republic like ours, one with elections, representative legislatures, and the bedrock principle that it is “We, the people” (the demos) who ultimately govern, is a “democracy” in the same way that a Starbucks Caffè Misto is a “coffee” and a walking, talking American citizen is a “human being.” In other words, unless the author is operating under a serious terminological misunderstanding, one which leads him to confuse fundamental categories with their particular types (I wonder if he believes that, because the United Kingdom has a monarchy, no one is ever actually elected to Parliament?), I suspect that he wants to push back against the case I made for acknowledging concerns over “democratic legitimacy” simply because, frankly, it is frustrating to have to admit that the people, pesky creatures that they are, might have mutually contradictory views about what they want those whom they have elected to do. Invoking the majesty of the U.S. Constitution has its place, surely, but doing so in a way which suggests that the pluralistic interests of the many different sectors and levels of America’s democracy can be cleanly resolved through a few lawsuits is, I think, once again, engaging a simplistic kind of denial.

8) My point in all these observations comes down to this: here in Wichita there is a strong tendency by many to deny the almost inevitable liberal fundamentals which, sooner or later, quickly or slowly, emerge in cities. This denial isn’t universal, but it is common; it scales all the way down to neighborhood arguments and all the way up to presidential elections. Don’t read too much into that “almost inevitable” bit; Wichita is far more dividedthan it is blue, and likely to remain that way for a good while yet. Still it’s simply impossible, I think, to be both honest about our city and simultaneously insist that its pluralistic reality can and should be reduced to a simple set of libertarian lessons, wherein urban needs and disagreements resolve themselves naturally in the marketplace. For better or worse, we’re bigger and more complex than that. Doubling down on that reduction only makes the already difficult task of managing Wichita’s infrastructure even harder, and leaning too hard on the “small town” ideal only ends up excluding some of those who came here looking to enjoy freedom and opportunity as well. Let’s not do that, shall we?

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