What if we split the US into city-states?
On autonomy, utopia, and whether we can find it locally.
Plato, Thomas More, and Aldous Huxley all place utopia on an island—a small city-state that self-governed.
For a long time, the city-state was our best and only form of government—Rome, Athens, Florence, and Venice became beacons of art and philosophy, of intellectual study and scientific progress.
But eventually, they went wrong where the state in Plato’s Republic did: they grew, consuming more land and more people and requiring an even bigger body of government to manage them all. Eventually, they were no longer city-states, they became nation-states.
At a certain size, a state can no longer make decisions for the local, but only for the national. In The Republic, when his entourage asks the ideal size of a state, Socrates replies, “I would allow the state to increase so far as is consistent with unity; that, I think, is the proper limit.”
Today most of our states have grown beyond the limit of unity with the exception of Singapore, a sliver of land chipped off a nation-state to become a new city-state. Singapore is not perfect, but it is a near replica of Socrates’ utopia and it’s modeled by charter cities around the world for its ability to create a life uniquely attuned to the people who live there.
I think we want this—our own autonomy. Perhaps that’s why we’re seeing a revival of the modern city-state—with developers around the world piloting projects like Telosa and Neom and Som, even Seasteading. There is this idea that we should manage ourselves—that we’d be more able to attain utopia if it was local.
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We’ve talked about the benefits of self-governing US states, and that is perhaps the more practical entity, but if we narrow to the city we can see communities that could clearly decide for themselves how to live. And are there any who would rather the finer details of their lives be decided by a much larger (and more conflicted) government?
I live in Salt Lake City, which, for the most part, has the same ideas about life that I do. We are all here because of the beautiful mountains, because we have good jobs but also a good pace of life, because we want all of the benefits of a big city, but without the detriments of traffic and a cut-throat culture. There’s a common bumper sticker here that reads, “bet you were cool in California,” the implication being that your job and money just aren’t as important here.
If I share a lot of values with my city, I do not, however, have as much in common with my greater state, Utah, and have even less in common with my greater country, The United States.
This is not uncommon, and it’s why the author Jane Jacobs once advocated for the city-state to the point of allowing quiet separatism of any city that wished it, and particularly the secession of the French Canadian province Quebec from greater Canada. She points to Sweden’s peaceful departure from Norway as an example of what future polities might allow—amicable breakups that benefit both communities.grants Jacobs her idealism. “In this utopian fantasy,” she writes, “young sovereignties splitting off from the parent nation would be told, in effect, ‘Good luck on your independence! Now do try your very best to generate [or maintain, as the case may be] a creative city and its region and we’ll all be better off.’”
“Can you imagine Canada saying this to Quebec? Or England to Scotland? Or China to Tibet and Taiwan?” Fortier-Dubois wonders. “Yeah, me neither. That’s why it’s only theoretical and utopian. Jacobs knows very well that nations will never accept separatism as an option. And though the term ‘nationalist’ has fallen out of fashion, almost all of us still think very much in terms of nations.”
There are many benefits to the larger polity, and we’ll talk about those in a future essay, but we have left the smaller polity behind in pursuit of it. The EU was perhaps the rare political entity that managed to unite smaller countries even as it maintained their sovereignty, but that balance strains beneath the weight of each new treaty it signs, taking ever more power from its countries as it consolidates them into a larger one.
I see no reason why both couldn’t exist—could we continue to unite for matters of war, currency, and economic trade, even as we separate for matters of life?
That’s what I would do. If I could re-imagine the United States I would divide it into “metropolitan areas,” rather than states. That’s already where our economies take place (90% of our GDP comes from metropolitan areas) and where our population lives (86% of our population lives in metropolitan areas), and I see no reason why the remaining rural populations couldn’t form their own much smaller metropolitan areas and govern themselves as they see fit.
People live differently in the city and the country, and the state line forms an imaginary line around them as if to unite them. They aren’t. Not just in my state of Utah, but in all states. As Tomas Pueyo points out in his essay “why the world becomes more progressive,” as cities grow in size, they become more liberal, as they decrease in size they become more conservative, and this is true not just in the US but also in Canada, Europe, and even Russia.
It makes sense. Cities have more wealth, more education, more people. Because there are more people, cities need more services in the form of schools, hospitals, police forces, and homeless shelters. And because there are enough people to support it, they fill the city with signs of human flourishing: Libraries and parks and greenways, universities and theaters and opera houses!
In rural areas, however, people don’t see that as much. They don’t have access to those companies and jobs, they don’t have as big of a population, and they also like it that way. As a result, they don’t need as big of a police force or as many homeless shelters. They don’t have a big enough population to support the arts and the museums. It makes sense why they’d be more conservative: their tax dollars go to services they don’t see, and don’t get.
When city developers recently tried to invest in some of our smaller towns, rural Utah rebelled. “We are well aware of the people that absolutely want to take advantage of a town, its infrastructure, and its good people to line their own pockets,” the Mayor of Eureka (population: 740) wrote, but, “the majority of Eureka’s residents are in a good place economically. We may not have a Porsche Boxster or jacked-up Duramax truck in the garage—it’s more like a 1995 F150 and Polaris RZR side-by-side—but they are paid for. These ‘city saviors’ want us to help our community to become like Park City, leaking cash and spillover ‘benefits.’ It’s an illusion.”
Why does it make sense for the state, which is made up of both the city and the country, to come to any conclusions that might affect the whole of it? Perhaps rural Utah shouldn’t be making decisions for Salt Lake City. Perhaps Salt Lake City shouldn’t be making decisions for rural Utah. Perhaps communities in both areas should govern as they see fit. Perhaps “to each their own.”
Cities in the United States already have a certain autonomy—over parks and recreation services, police and fire departments, housing and public transportation—but what if they could do more? What if they had the same autonomy as a state, or even a country? That’s the case for charter cities, a “city granted special jurisdiction to create a new governance system and enact policy reforms.” Though they exist within a larger country, the federal government can cede certain aspects of governance to the city.
Instead of the “United States,” we could be the “United City-States!”
With a closer-to-the-ground governing approach, it’s easier for city governments to know what their people want and to act on it. As William MacAskill puts it in his book What We Owe The Future, charter cities could create “autonomous communities with laws different from their surrounding countries that serve as laboratories for economic policies and governance systems.”
“For almost every social structure we can imagine, we could have a charter city based on that idea,” he says. “There could be Marxist charter cities and environmentalist charter cities and anarchist communitarian charter cities. We could find out, empirically, which of these brings about the best society.”
In other words: we could A/B test cities for various utopian hypotheses, and keep what works best.
Around the world, hundreds of cities are granted charter city status, usually so they can ramp up their economies much faster than if they had to cut through the red tape of their surrounding cities and state. The Charter Cities Institute even created a map of existing projects, with details about what autonomy each city has over various portions of their governments.
In countries that are already seeing growing development and urbanization, charter cities are a great way to accelerate growth without the usual restrictions. In Africa, for example, four charter projects give new cities autonomy over various parts of their government. Itana in Nigeria, for one, aims to become a remote-work tech hub, where residents can live in a beautiful environment and tech innovation is incentivized without the usual national restrictions.
It is perhaps unrealistic to turn all US metropolitan areas into charter cities, but we could build new ones, and many builders have a mind to try—like Solano in California or Elon Musk’s Snailbrook in Texas. But these projects don’t have autonomy over their governments—they aren’t charter cities, just development projects. They work more like a homeowners association or suburb—a city within a city—and still have to follow all the rules of the city, county, and state in which they reside.
That’s where Seasteading remains the last hope of those wishing to circumvent the nation altogether—only on international waters can we start from scratch and build islands with our own governments. I once attended a Seasteading workshop in which attendees were split into breakout rooms to decide what their Seastead community might look like. It was like solarpunk worldbuilding, and very much like listening to Socrates babble on about what the ideal state might look like were it not confined to the realities of our existing ones.
But if it’s autonomy we’re craving—so much so that we’re willing to build new cities and even utopian islands to create it—then perhaps the city-state is worth revisiting. If not to the extent that cities can choose their own governments, then at least to give them more autonomy over the daily functioning of our lives. Because there can be no doubt that the closer government is to us, the better it is. Or at least the more like us it becomes.
“There is unity where there is a community of pleasures and pains—where all the citizens are glad or grieved on the same occasions of joy and sorrow,” Socrates concludes for his entourage. “And where there is no common but only private feeling a state is disorganized—you have one half of the world triumphing and the other plunged in grief at the same events.”
The United States is feeling that divide—half of us want one life and half of us want another—but we can still find unity locally.
Maybe even utopia.
Next week, we’ll be talking about one concrete way cities might gain autonomy in the years to come. This is a continuation of my government series.
Thank you so much for reading!
Here are a few of my notes from the margins of my research.