Where does power and authority come from? I think this is an interesting question to ask ourselves. What is it that makes a nation, a state, a city, or an institution powerful and authoritative? Thousands to hundreds of years ago we solved this question by outsourcing – we decided that a divine being had vested power and authority in a single individual. Today, what creates authority for our mayor, the supreme court, and our nation is not divine, but public trust, cooperation, and economic prospects. Building society with these blocks isn’t always perfect, but it has managed to work for humans for a few hundred years now.
Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak look at the implications of the authority and power philosophy I described above in their book The New Localism. They write, “The power of cities and counties is not like the power of nations or states. It is grounded in markets and civics more than in constitutions or charters.” The authors make a split between the local and national in terms of how power and authority play out to create a social structure of trust. Nations and states tend to be based on written charters agreed to by relatively diverse populations. Cities and local counties tend to be based on shared values, experiences, and backgrounds with shared economic prospects and motives being the ultimate binding glue.
I think there are two things that we can understand about national versus local systems from the description provided by Katz and Nowak. Nations and states, with authority grounded in written constitutions and charters, have a more permanent and stable feel to them. changing something in a drastic manner requires a change to the written founding documents. This gives national and state governments more structure and a form that is more likely to endure longer into the future, but at the cost of making them rigid and hard to adapt to changes in the economy, in social preferences, and other trends.
As a contrast, city and local governments, which are based more on shared interests, engaged civic actors, and local economic contexts are more flexible and adaptable to trends, changing social preferences, and new economic developments. This gives local and state governments the flexibility that is needed to take advantage of new innovations and technologies. It allows the governments to solve problems through the power of collective action, but it also leave them vulnerable to wild swings in economic fortunes and broader sociopolitical forces.
While nations are able to define their populaces and establish binding rules for citizens across decades or centuries, cities often find it hard to create structures and institutions that are guaranteed to last as long. City populations are more prone to leave when things go south, and the strength of institutions can be greatly diminished when the population falls and a few actors exert undue influence in local decision making. Nevertheless, humans seem to be drawn toward cities and seem to be willing to reinvent cities on a continual basis. This creates the dynamic power that cities are exerting today to solve problems and address global challenges that seem to be paralyzing nations.