Tuesday, March 4, 2008

BHI's contribution to the Center for the American Experiment's Symposium: What does it mean to be an urban conservative?

Location, Location, Location
David G. Tuerck

To consider what it means to be an “urban” conservative, it’s necessary to ask what distinguishes a conservative of this variety from any other. There are already plenty of varieties to consider -- social conservatives, neoconservatives, libertarians, and so on. How, we may ask, does it benefit the lexicon to add this new one?

We can attempt an answer by recognizing that location choices are similar in important respects to choices we make in the marketplace for ordinary products. Urbanites differ from other Americans insofar as they are willing to pay for amenities that only cities can offer. New York City, that most urban of all locations, offers an endless list of amenities: symphony, opera, museums, Broadway shows, jazz clubs, churches, sporting events, lectures —- you name it. People who live or work in New York City pay for these amenities by putting up with the congestion, taxes and general mayhem that go with living or working there.

To be sure, people don’t live or work in cities merely because of the amenities they provide. Some people, who would prefer the suburbs or the country, simply have no choice. Yet as we transition to a service economy and as electronic communication makes location less and less important a consideration for running a business, it’s the amenities that cities provide that will increasingly explain the attraction they hold for people.

So what is an urban conservative? Quite simply, it’s someone who is willing to pay for the amenities offered by a city and who happens also to be conservative. The mere fact that one enjoys world class opera or sports does not bear at all on one’s ideological orientation. It bears merely on the sacrifices, in the form of suburban or rural comforts, that one is willing to make in order to enjoy these amenities.

Yet there are aspects of the urban culture that can prove challenging and troubling to a conservative.

Consider what it means to be an urban social conservative. Probably, as some argue, there is a greater concentration of gays in the “creative class” that makes up the art scene in a big city. The prominence of the gay lifestyle in cities like San Francisco is troubling to social conservatives. Social conservatives are appalled that Massachusetts now permits same-sex marriages.

Neoconservatives likewise feel uncomfortable with the anti-war sentiment that is dominant in cities like Boston, New York, and San Francisco.

Libertarians oppose the government subsidies that go to support the arts, sports stadiums, and rapid transit in the cities.

Is it philosophically possible, then, for an individual to be both conservative and happily ensconced in the city? The answer is yes, provided that he understands and acts upon a theorem handed down many years ago by economist Charles Tiebout. According to the Tiebout theorem, the ability to "vote with one’s feet" is the key to unraveling the otherwise knotty problem of providing "public goods" (including concert halls and sports stadiums) without coercing the support of people who don’t necessarily benefit from their provision.

If government subsidies are necessary in order to make the amenities offered by a locality economically viable, then the simple answer is for the locality to finance the subsidies out of local taxes. As long as the cost of subsidizing some amenity is borne by local taxpayers, even the most hardcore libertarian could feel comfortable supporting the taxes and enjoying the amenity. If not, he could vote with his feet and move to a different locality that neither imposes the taxes nor provides the amenity.

If the urban conservative doesn’t want the Metropolitan Opera badly enough to pay New York City taxes, he can move to Nashville, where the Grand Ole Opry gets along fine without government subsidies. It’s necessary only that New Yorkers pay for the Met and that Tennesseans do not. Similarly, social conservatives or neoconservatives can readily move from Boston to, say, Houston, where the ideological climate is more to their liking, provided only that Houston isn’t compelled to become like Boston in terms of its social and ideological mores.

David G. Tuerck is executive director of the Beacon Hill Institute (www.beaconhill.org) and chairman and professor of economics at Suffolk University (www.suffolk.edu) in Boston.

Reprinted from What does it mean to be an urban conservative? by the Center for the American Experiment

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