|Jane Jacobs and Adam Smith
By Thomas E. Brewton
The late Jane Jacobs was a voice of sanity against Big Brother's urban planning. She and Adam Smith were reading from the same page.
In the works of both Jane Jacobs and Adam Smith, individualistic spontaneity, exercised incrementally, over many generations, is understood to be the wellspring of all of human society's effective and enduring institutions.
She noted, for example, that the typical residential development pattern prescribed by liberal urban planners – mammoth high-rise apartment buildings clustered around small parks and walkways – looked wonderful to outside observers, but became snake-pits of crime and family disintegration in practice.
Greenwich Village was created by the unplanned spontaneity of thousands of individuals experimenting over the decades, keeping what worked and dropping what didn't. In contrast, with urban planners it's the whole thing at one shot; there is no adjustment mechanism, no opportunity for trial and error. Urban planning is the same mentality, on a smaller scale, that animated the Soviet Union: override opponents by government fiat.
Experience over the years vindicated Jacobs's judgment. Large blocks of urban planners' high-rise, textbook apartments in cities from Chicago to Newark had to be abandoned and demolished. Greenwich Village meanwhile continues to flourish and to exhibit extraordinary vitality, commercially, artistically, and residentially.
Adam Smith's 1776 Wealth of Nations was the first comprehensive inquiry into the realities of economic activity. He observed in the records of thousands of years of history that social institutions bettering the human condition were spontaneous, trial-and-error affairs involving many thousands of individuals in disparate locations, most of whom were unaware of each other and of each other's intentions.
"The statesman, who should attempt to direct private people in what manner they ought to employ their capitals, would not only load himself with a most unnecessary attention, but assume an authority which could not be safely trusted, not only to no single person, but to no council or senate whatever, and which would nowhere be so dangerous as in the hands of a man who had folly and presumption enough to fancy himself fit to exercise it."
Thomas E. Brewton is a staff writer for the New Media Alliance, Inc. The New Media Alliance is a non-profit (501c3) national coalition of writers, journalists and grass-roots media outlets. His weblog is The View From 1776.
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