We Need More San Franciscos

Post by Michelangelo Landgrave (occasional blogger for the site, joined February 2014). See:

This post is a response to Nathan Smith’s recent post Make More Singapores! where he makes a call for the creation of more city-states like Singapore. I have two small quibbles with Smith. Firstly, I believe that we need start-up cities as well as charter cities. Secondly, I disagree with Smith when he remarks that current international relations make it unlikely that we will see the birth of new city-states.

I have discussed start-up cities previously here, but allow me to refresh readers on the topic nonetheless. City-states are some of the earliest forms of political organizations, but the concept of charter cities is much younger and can be attributed as Stanford Economist Paul Romer’s thought child. Under Romer’s charter city arrangement a host government would cede administration of a region of their land to a 3rd party. The 3rd party would administer the region under its laws this would hopefully allow for 1st world institutions to be imported abroad. One major concern about Romer’s charter city proposal would be that it could quickly become a form of colonization under a new label.

An alternative proposal to Romer’s charter city has been the start-up city. I previously described the start-up city as being different in that it remains under the administration of the host government. By avoiding using a 3rd party as an administrator a start-up city avoids the potential for neo-colonialism. As I have written previously, those nations with a significant emigrant population living in the global north have a comparative advantage in forming start up cities since they can draw on the expertise of their emigrant population. In retrospect this description undersells the start-up city concept, as a start-up city does not content itself with trying to emulate the existing institutions of 3rd parties, but also seeks to create entirely new forms of institutions.

The world needs both charter and start-up cities. The former have a comparative advantage in importing institutions that have proven useful and the latter may have the comparative advantage in experimenting with new institutions to see if improvements can be made. Most city-states today exist somewhere in between ‘charter’ and ‘start up’ city.

I propose viewing city-states as being defined by two key characteristics:

(1) The level of sovereignty they have.
(2) Whether their goal is to emulate pre-existing institutions or to experiment with new institutions altogether.


Most cities fluctuate between these categories over time. Singapore began its life as a sovereign charter city content with following British institutions, but has continually moved towards acting as a start-up city willing to experiment with everything from DRITI-esque immigration policies to managed lanes.

Hong Kong meanwhile is a former non-sovereign charter city under British administration that became a constituent charter city after the transfer of its sovereignty to the People’s Republic of China. PRC China’s ‘one country, two systems’ policy has effectively created a federal system that allows Hong Kong to act as a constituent member of a larger Chinese federation. Of relevance to us in the open borders movement, Hong Kong does not currently seem willing to act as a start-up city when it comes to its immigration policies despite it otherwise sharing many characteristics with Singapore. Both Singapore and Hong Kong are populated mainly by ethnic Chinese who lived under British administration for most of the modern era and today boast some of the most market friendly regimes in the world. Both Singapore and Hong Kong have control over their migration policies, but of the two Singapore has thus far been more welcoming of migrants.

Hong Kong’s reluctance towards open borders seems to stem chiefly from a fear that Beijing would encourage mainland Chinese to move to Hong Kong in an effort to undermine Hong Kong’s political autonomy. Taiwan shares a similar fear that opening its borders with mainland China would also endanger its own autonomy. The best keyhole solution in both cases would be to allow open borders, but not open citizenship.

An example of a non-sovereign start-up city is the greater San Francisco Bay Area. San Francisco is a region in California that enjoys both a high concentration of migrants and powerful corporations. As I touched upon in the beginning of this post, I disagree with Smith that the current international system makes it unlikely for new city-states to form as I believe that San Francisco is already a city-state and is poised to gain further autonomy in the near future.

In terms of immigration policy several cities in the greater San Francisco area have adopted ID programs that provide documentation for all of their residents, regardless of their immigration status. San Francisco was instrumental in the passage of the California TRUST Act, which limits the amount of cooperation between local governments and federal authorities in the enforcement of immigration policy. Most of the major corporations based in San Francisco in turn are leading the current immigration reform movement in the United States. It is clear as such that San Francisco has radically different views on what immigration policy should be and this difference in political opinion translates over to other public policies as well.

It is granted that due to the experimental nature of start up cities they will create bad institutions as well as good institutions. San Francisco has developed better institutions than the rest of the United States with dealing with its migrant population, but has also produced bad institutions in such areas as transit or housing. This is okay and is not an argument against start up cities. Failure is an essential part of the creative destruction process.

In the past few months San Francisco has been attempting to gain greater political autonomy in the form of the ‘Six Californias’ ballot proposition. If passed by Californian voters the proposition would split the current state of California into six new states, with much of San Francisco forming the state of Silicon Valley. The proposal is being carried out by businessman Tim Draper and being sold as being for the benefit of all Californians, but it is clear that it chiefly an attempt for greater autonomy for San Francisco. It is doubtful that the Six Californias initiative will pass this year, but I would not be surprised to see San Francisco to gain greater political autonomy in my lifetime.

Many of the great city-states of history achieved sovereign status by attaining sufficient military might to fend off their neighbors, and on this point I agree with Smith that the current international system discourages secession from the major powers. Then again, has secession ever been easy when one neighbors a major power?
A city-state however needs not full sovereignty; it can exist as a constituent member of a larger federation. The Italian city-states were fully sovereign, but at the same time many city-states existed in federation with the Holy Roman Empire. The United Arab Emirates and the Swiss Confederation are both modern day city-state federations. Several cities in modern PRC China enjoy a high degree of autonomy in economic and legal affairs as ‘sub-provincial divisions’.

A necessary condition for city-statehood is for it to house an economically affluent population that has substantial political differences with the rest of the current nation. San Francisco meets this condition and as such I don’t believe it wrong to classify it a city-state. It may not have the military prowess to attain full sovereign status, but I could see it becoming a constituent city-state within the United States.

Such a city-state would be extremely beneficial to the open borders movement. San Francisco already has favorable policies towards its large migrant population. If it gained the ability to set its own immigration policy it would surely move towards even more open borders. Regardless of their exact nature, city-states are of immense importance to the open borders movement for two reasons;

(1) They bring better institutions to those who are unable to migrate and,
(2) They provide laboratories in which to create better institutions than ones currently known to us.

All in all I agree with Smith that we need more Singapores, but qualify it by adding that we also need more San Franciscos.

Michelangelo Landgrave is an economics graduate student at California State University, Long Beach.

3 thoughts on “We Need More San Franciscos”

  1. Why open borders are not viable: California adds 1,655 people net gain daily
    By Frosty Wooldridge

    On NBC, ABC and CBS this weekend, Lester Holt, David Muir and Scott Glor reported on California’s 90 percent “severe drought” status. They reported on abnormal temperatures soaring off the devil’s tail.

    Those admired TV anchors articulated a laundry list of pools and water playgrounds closing down because of the drought. They reported on homeowners who could not water their lawns and gardens because of empty reservoirs. The anchors reported on 12 different wildfires blazing all over the state. They interviewed dozens of homeowners picking through the rubble of their homes.

    They talked about global climate destabilization causing horrific disruptions in our biosphere.

    They reported everything “downstream” or after the event occurred. They never, ever reported “upstream” by interviewing the experts who study the causes of the drought, how to mitigate homes from burning and how to proactively stop the consequences of Los Angeles and San Francisco’s horrifically congested and gridlocked cities.

    In other words, instead of interviewing “outliers” who would solve California’s problems, they evade, avoid and ignore anyone who offers viable solutions. What’s an outlier? Answer: individuals who think beyond the moment. Who think with a grasp of the future. Outliers represent those who understand how to change course toward a better “tomorrow” by implementing rational actions.

    For example: if you build a home in a wildfire area, you should create a 100-yard dirt and rock berm around your house so you protect if from wildfires. Building your home in the middle of “kindling wood” forests must put you up there with the people who win the “Darwin Award” trophies. Or, you don’t build in a wildfire area because you will eventually suffer a scorched house. Dah!

    Another example: if you possess a finite amount of rainfall annually and your reservoirs can only hold so much water, you build a limited number of homes that can be serviced by the available water. You don’t keep building more homes or enlarging cities beyond the “carrying capacity” of the area.

    Try this example: if your city suffers 18-24 hours of traffic gridlock and toxic air pollution, you stabilize your city’s population by passing a “Stable population policy” so everyone can drive to work without the nightmare and accidents of Los Angeles, Chicago or Atlanta. Why would you keep growing your city in order to make everyone’s lives miserable in traffic and everyone breathing toxic air with every breath?

    Today, New York City at 8.3 million expects to double to 16.6 million by 2050—36 years from now. Florida, already facing severe water shortages expects to grow from 18 million to 36 million. Are we stupid or what?

    Right now, California houses 38 million people. Because of legal and illegal immigration, which equals to 1.1 million legally annually and 700,000 illegally annually—California adds 1,655 people every single day of the year. The rest of our states absorb the rest of this enormous population injection brought to us via our US Congress by the late Senator Teddy Kennedy with his 1965 Immigration Reform Act. (Source: http://www.CapsWeb.org ; US Census Bureau.)

    A whopping 100 percent of California’s growth stems from legal and illegal immigration. Immigration causes nearly 90 percent of America’s population growth. (Source: http://www.CapsWeb.org)

    In other words, California expects to add 20,000,000 (million) people in three decades. So, if they cannot fill their water parks and swimming pools today, what will they do when another 20 million people roll into town? If they can’t solve their gridlocked traffic today, what in the Billy Blazes will they do when another 20 million hit that state? If they can’t solve the enormous toxic cloud covering Los Angeles today, what will they do when that 20 million hits and LA doubles to over 25 million in the basin area?

    What am I getting to fellow American? Are you rolling your head back with a sigh as you mutter, “My kids are screwed!”

    That’s right, you bequeath to your kids one hell of a mess. You bequeath to your children an unlivable environment and water shortages that can’t be solved. You bequeath an energy crisis that cannot be mitigated. You present them resource exhaustion that will affect everything in our civilization. Worse, all these problems will become irreversible and unsolvable. Do I make myself clear?

    These three videos will show you exactly how much of a mess:

    In a five minute astoundingly simple yet brilliant video, “Immigration, Poverty, and Gum Balls”, Roy Beck, director of http://www.numbersusa.ORG, graphically illustrates the impact of overpopulation. Take five minutes to see for yourself:


    “Immigration by the numbers—off the chart” by Roy Beck
    This 10 minute demonstration shows Americans the results of unending mass immigration on the quality of life and sustainability for future generations: in a few words, “Mind boggling!” http://www.NumbersUSA.org


    What immigration renders to America’s children:


    Last year, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, so old, he cannot think past his nose, and as stupid as Ted Kennedy’s 1965 bill, passed the S744 Amnesty bill that increases legal immigration from 1.1 million annually to 2.0 million annually. He guaranteed our country to add 100 million immigrants within three decades. He’ll be dead before the nightmare he bequeaths to your children hits home.

    Speaker of the House John Boehner, who will also be dead when this civilization-crushing nightmare manifests—tries to pass the House version of this insane S744 bill.

    This is a Constitutional Republic. Only you, the citizen, changes the course of history with your ACTIONS not your complaints. Join these organizations to empower your voice before this madness passes the House. Once it passes, we’re all screwed and our children face a portentous fate. Join for free and fax and phone call:

    http://www.CapsWeb.org ; http://www.NumberUSA.org ; http://www.Fairus.org ; http://www.Alipac.us http://www.CarryingCapacityNetwork.com ;


    Frosty Wooldridge
    Golden, CO
    Six continent world bicycle traveler
    Adventure book: How to Live a Life of Adventure: The Art of Exploring the World
    Latest book: How to Deal with 21st Century American Women: Co-creating a successful relationship
    Frosty Wooldridge, six continent world bicycle traveler, Mexico to Canada summer 2013, 2,500 miles, 150,000 vertical feet of climbing, 19 passes, and a whole lot of fun! Yahoo!

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