Arnold Kling  

Urban Death Traps

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Razib Khan writes,

up until the year 1900 the world's cities were massive genetic blackholes. Cities only kept their population up through migration, which explains how Rome shrunk to 30,000 inhabitants by the 7th century.

Today,. we think of cities as places where people come to thrive. Wealth is higher in cities than in small towns and rural areas. Richard Florida tells us that the creative class is to be found in cities.

On the other hand, reading accounts of cities as of 1850 or earlier, they sound like death traps. People are less healthy in cities. Life spans are shorter. Poverty is Dickensian. I picture pre-modern cities the way I picture Russia today: people living off government assistance or criminal enterprise or sale of personal belongings; death at an early age; etc.

I wonder: who came to cities? Was it people without land? Were cities like an awful lottery that people would play when they had no other choice? A bunch of landless people gathered together to prey on one another, with the winners thriving (moving to the country as soon as they could afford it) and the losers enduring a Hobbesian existence, where life was nasty, brutish and short?

Did that make America in the eighteenth centuray seem like paradise, with its endless supply of land? Why were there cities in America? Was Jefferson's preference for yeoman farmers a natural reflection of the relative state of urban vs. rural existence?

What would Jane Jacobs say?

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CATEGORIES: Economic History

COMMENTS (13 to date)
KipEsquire writes:

This is a tired old canard that has been repeatedly debunked by historians.

The alternative to pre-modern city life was not being a "Pa Ingalls" (let alone a Thomas Jefferson) on some bucolic farm. It was subsistence farming at best and death by famine at worst.

dearieme writes:

"Jefferson's preference for yeoman farmers": it was easy enough for the slave-driving gentry to romanticise farming, I suppose. Especially if a "revolution" lets them default on their debts and conquer more land from the Indians.

Alex Martelli writes:

"I wonder: who came to cities? Was it people without land? Were cities like an awful lottery that people would play when they had no other choice?" -- far from it, depending on the historical period involved; in general you find a very varied mix, including many powerful and middling people as well as many desperate ones.

In much of Europe (especially Central and Northern Italy) in the late Middle Ages, cities were grabbing more and more power (partly through wealth production through manufacture and merchant activities, affording better concentrated military power than even the largest feudal landlords could wield) -- soon it was clear that anybody ambitious had to have an abode in the city to take part in the struggle for power, whether they could afford to also maintain a rural residence or not. Much better to have that rural mansion if you possiby could -- that's where you took refuge in times of plague or when you temporarily found yourself on the losing end of the political struggles within the city. The less-fertile hills and low mountains between Firenze and Bologna are studded with such residences -- families like my ancestors, their more famous and powerful allies the Medici, other well-known ones such as the Macchiavelli and the Marconi, etc, etc, all held them, whether they were moving to Firenze OR to Bologna as their primary residence.

Rimfax writes:

Pardon the argumentum ad fictum, please (and my pseudo-Latin).

The happy-go-lucky novel "The Wizard of Oz" has a mighty stark take on rural life. That said, perhaps life at the two extremes of social density were the ones that embodied the "happiness lottery" and that the transition zones, suburbs/exurbs/what-have-you, embodied the "safe bets" where there was little chance of great success or great failure.

Given that bit of dubious argument, for how many folks does the perceived chance of great success, even at the risk of great failure, determine their level of happiness? Yeah, the outcomes may have sucked, but were they happier anyway because of their perceptions of city life?

Rimfax writes:

From some of the comments, it reads like one of the motivations for choosing cities was an opportunity to take advantage of the political corruption. Didn't somebody post a blog entry about how the D.C. suburbs are perversely dominant in comparative wealth?

Isaac K. writes:

See "Oliver Twist" for a similar sentiment to what you are looking for.
Machiavelli was in political exile for trying to play both sides of the same coin - he himself didn't want power, he sought a stable Italy and a place for himself in it in government. The prince might be an ode to the strong monarch, but his personal views favored the Republic morally.
He just didn't expect Italy to pull a republic out of itself with all the internal strife it was suffering.
Machiavelli was right.

Re: cities - you have a duality - it was a haven for industrialization, ergo jobs for the poor. Unhealthy work environments and cramped quarters leads to diseases breeding, ergo cesspool of death. But at the same time, industrial cities were also investment centers, political centers, and religious centers.
Archeologically, cities clustered around a temple, part of which was dedicated to the local ruler(s). This duality of religion and military protection is what gathered people together - life was safer in a city, not more dangerous.
Conversely, the more successful you were as a collective, the more attractive a target you became.

BTW: what is the lower bound on "city" that we are talking about? There are many archeological cities that consistently thrived and could hardle be called a "death trap" apart from their eventual military fall.

Farming wasn't a subsistence-starvation choice. Farming occurred because it brought profits the more you planted. you earn enough over your subsitence to trade and reinvest for a larger field and greater profits.
True, there was risk - there is always risk - but relegating it to mere subsitence farming is also painting a one sided history.

Zac writes:

Is this post for real or is it satire? I sense a Malthusian bias.

Cities have always been the hubs of art, commerce, and learning. They were where the farmers came to sell their goods at market, the rulers came to rule, the scholars came to study, the artists came to perform and peddle their work, if not to learn their craft. Can you imagine this stuff going on in the sticks of pre-Industrial Europe?

Sure, you have examples of Dickensian poverty. And most of the landed gentry at least had homes outside the city and only came to the city to conduct business. But the rural areas were dominated by subsistence farming. If you were very destitute and couldn't work, you had to come to the city or die. Hospitals were in the cities, orphanages, large churches. Conceivably even if you couldn't work the fields, there might be work for you in the city, or at least charity.

So yes, there was plenty of poverty and disease. But to ask "who came to cities" is puzzling: the answer is, everyone who wasn't a subsistence farmer.

Dr Kling started getting the picture, through internal dialogue, by asking "Why were there cities in America?" - because without cities there'd be no government, no business. A city is a gathering place for people to trade goods and ideas. Think of a society without cities: what would it look like? How would it possibly work? Once people started gathering together in any significant, permanent sense, for any purpose, you'd soon have a city.

Black holes? How about shining rays of light, the only places anything ever happened.

razib writes:

please note the modifier genetic black holes. despite the fact that moving to a city likely decreased one's chances that copies of one's genes would be floating around in 4-5 generations, it probably did still make one free. but mortality was an issue, e.g.:

In the United States in the 19th and early 20th centuries, there was a substantial mortality 'penalty' to living in urban places. This circumstance was shared with other nations. By around 1940, this penalty had been largely eliminated, and it was healthier, in many cases, to reside in the city than in the countryside. Despite the lack of systematic national data before 1933, it is possible to describe the phenomenon of the urban mortality transition. Early in the 19th century, the United States was not particularly urban (only 6.1% in 1800), a circumstance which led to a relatively favorable mortality situation. A national crude death rate of 20-25 per thousand per year would have been likely. Some early data indicate that mortality was substantially higher in cities, was higher in larger relative to smaller cities, and was higher in the South relative to the North. By 1900, the nation had become about 40% urban (and 56% by 1940). It appears that death rates, especially in urban areas, actually rose (or at least did not decline) over the middle of the 19th century. Increased urbanization, as well as developments in transport and commercialization and increased movements of people into and throughout the nation, contributed to this. Rapid urban growth and an inadequate scientific understanding of disease processes contributed to the mortality crisis of the early and middle nineteenth century in American cities. The sustained mortality transition only began about the 1870s. Thereafter the decline of urban mortality proceeded faster than in rural places, assisted by significant public works improvements and advances in public health and eventually medical science. Much of the process had been completed by the 1940s. The urban penalty had been largely eliminated and mortality continued to decline despite the continued growth in the urban share of the population.

razib writes:

oh, and greg cochran was the one who pointed out to me the evolutionary consequences of these long term differences in fitnesses. e.g., we have strong data which suggests that etruscans left a genetic imprint in the modern tuscan countryside (the genes have obvious anatolian provenance), but what happened to all the foreigners who lived in rome?

Steve Sailer writes:

The British upper class spent their summers in London ("The Season") when Parliament was in session and debutantes attended balls. That's the lowest disease-burden season in a cool country. They preferred to live on their low density country estates the rest of the year. (The mild climate allowed hunting late into the fall.) The British upper class was notably healthy.

Isegoria writes:

I think it's missing the point to call the cities urban death traps.

The countryside can only support so many people. If you're a second, third, or fourth son on a small freehold, you don't stick around, adding little by your additional labor, until you die.

You go to the city, where you might make a living, or you might not — but you take your chances there.

Bob Hawkins writes:

Rural areas traditionally had three kinds of farms.

Good farms on which you could grow enough to adequately feed your family even in the bad years, which traditionally occur every 7 years.

Average farms on which you might lose a child or two in a bad year.

Bad farms on which you would likely lose all your children in a bad year, and you might go with them.

I think you can figure out where immigrants to the cities came from. Hint: the farmers on the bad farms knew they were on bad farms.

And the younger sons of the good and the average farms had no choice but to move onto the vacant bad farms, or to the cities. When emigration to the city was not available, deaths on the bad farms kept the population stable despite the high birth rate.

Publius writes:

I respond to this question in full at the website link, which I'll excerpt below for the sake of brevity:

"The Jacobs question, however, really only touches on a more fundamental question: if cities were genetic graveyards, why did migrants continue to flock to these urban death traps?

Why were genetic returns to agglomeration negative during a period when economic returns were relatively high, according to Jacobs and historical migration patterns? What in the name of Charles Darwin was going on?

I'm interested in hearing theories (perhaps the immediate prospects for the migrant is better in the city, but their genes are more likely to be wiped out generations later by a plague...), but for now, I am skeptical that millions of people, throughout history, have lowered their genetic expectancy by migrating to urban death traps."

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