Sandy Ikeda shares the abstract of an essay he is contributing to a Festschrift for Jane Jacobs. The Death and Life of Great American Cities is one of my favourite books, and I look forward to reading the Festschrift, particularly Ikeda’s essay. My favourite two paragraphs from the abstract:
The modern demand to rationalize the city and to make it “more efficient” is misplaced. A living city cannot be efficient. Efficiency, in the economic sense, presupposes an overarching plan against which measured outcomes can be evaluated. A living city, however, follows no such plan. It is itself the unplanned, collective result of the countless individual plans executed continuously in it, day after day.
Neither can it be inefficient, because that too presupposes a system-wide plan. Both efficiency and inefficiency presume that we know how things ought to be, what success and failure look like, and that’s impossible in the urban dynamic. Instead, borrowing from ecology (and certain heterodox schools of economic thought), we might say that a living city is a “dynamically stable” process, in which the forces of positive and negative feedback, as well as sudden mutation and diversity, combine under the right conditions to generate order through time. It embodies trial and error, surpluses and shortages, apparently useless duplication, conflict and disappointment, trust and opportunism, and discovery and radical change. These are in the nature of the living city.
This point applies to any form of social organization. I have recently become very suspicious of anyone positing a social welfare function as the basis of policy (something I try to get at here and here). I think Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem and the impossibility of interpersonal utility comparison make it fairly obvious that no social welfare function could hope to be neutral. Most often, advocacy of utility maximization is a way of dressing up implicit moral judgements as value-free economic science.