On a gated globe, where are the walls?

Dan Drezner notes an amusing coincidence: an Economist special report on a “gated globe” is published on the same day that the NYT runs an op-ed entitled “The End of the Nation-State?” about a global free exchange led by cities (although the usual practice of headlines with question marks implies that even the NYT thinks the answer to this question is no).

The nation-state has had quite a good run for the past couple hundred years and is unlikely to be going away anytime soon, but what intrigued me about the cover image from the Economist is something else. What is gated is not the country, but the city. Now, to be sure, it’s hard to depict convincingly walls and gates around a country for a magazine (sorry, newspaper) cover, but this reminded of Kam Wing Chan‘s book, Cities with Invisible Walls. Chan describes the ways in which the Chinese regime, mostly through its hukou system, regulated migration within its borders and especially keeping rural farmers out of cities. I argue that the Chinese regime continues to do this and is unlikely to move dramatically away from denying migrants access to social services offered in cities. China’s future is in cities, but it plans to keep the walls around them up for now.

More broadly, even in countries without policies that explicitly keep migrants out, cities put up walls to keep people out. High real estate prices emerge from high levels of demand but also restrictions on supply. Individuals understand that economic opportunities are inside of these cities and will take amazing risks and bear tremendous costs to stay in them, as anyone who has made it through Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers knows. Regimes of all sorts are as enamored by the possibilities of cities as they are petrified of their dangers. Gates to protect those already inside of cities will open from time to time, but the walls will remain.

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