Isn’t it odd how we assign human characteristics to inanimate objects? We rank the “friendliest,” “least hospitable,” “most free” regions and countries. We nickname urban centers “City of Lights,” “Sin City,” or the “Big Easy.” I suppose it’s just part of the way we cope with life’s intangibles. But to me it also exemplifies our dichotomous nature—we value the uniqueness that is “I” but cling to a “We” to which we belong.
Yet even as our various “We” identities are defined in opposition to one another, there is much connecting Us with Them. I recently traveled to Europe and Asia. It afforded me the observation that there may some truth to all of this.
Last month I crossed over The Pond to Paris and Berlin. Paris is, of course, beautiful and romantic and one of my favorite places to be. But it isn’t until 11 am that one feels any buzz while walking its streets and alleyways. It’s as if the city has suffered a collective hangover, and its march to morning productivity is hampered by soft pillows and the need for espresso and brioche. But as capital to a country that has a hard time internalizing the concept of the “work week,” we should not be surprised. Yet somehow, among boutique shops and street markets, the place functions—in its uniquely Gallic way.
Berlin is the modern phoenix rising out of the ashes of World War II and Soviet occupation. Its Teutonic heritage seems to give it a determination and studiousness its French neighbor lacks. It is a city alive with scaffolding, towers, cranes, and sounds of hammering. Much of that development is driven by the powers that be rather than by genuine industry. But among all the centrally planned “works projects” sit cafes, art galleries, and other spontaneously ordered spaces whereby Berliners are reclaiming their once-bifurcated city. Perhaps the West’s traditional understanding of free enterprise and civil society aren’t as dead in Europe as we often hear.
And then there is Hong Kong—the fabled “Pearl of the Orient.” It had been 27 years since my last visit but the sense of the city remains unchanged. Its energy oozes from the gleaming skyscrapers and hundreds of ships that defy each other as they frantically move up and down its great harbor. Its sidewalks are as jammed as New York’s, but its people walk as if they can’t waste an opportunity to plan, design, and implement. And, oddly, the city is largely devoid of the police presence that dominates places like New York, Washington, and London.
But perhaps most impressive is Hong Kong’s growth—not in people or buildings, but in actual land surface. In 1987 I walked along the Kowloon Peninsula Hotel’s harbor promenade. Since then, the city has reclaimed from the water nearly three city blocks in its desire to grow. Now, the Peninsula, while still a grand property, has only an urban promenade out its front door. On most economic freedom indexes, Hong Kong is king—among the top-rated economies in the world for the past 20 years. And it’s no wonder. Creative destruction, not whimsical history, is its modus operandi.
And there, perhaps, is the link. The late great Julian Simon reminded us that scarcity is often something we manufacture. That when particular resources become relatively scarce, prices rise and thus incentivize people to discover more of that resource, then ration and recycle it, and develop substitutes. As was the title of his great works, this “ultimate resource” was not physical, but the capacity for humans to invent and adapt, despite government encroachment in their lives and livelihoods. That energy still permeates the great cities of the world, starting with Hong Kong.
Yet, Hong Kong wasn’t always what it is today. And even as Beijing exerts greater political pressure on Hong Kong to conform to its political objectives, the history of Hong Kong’s rise offers great hope. Here’s hoping the Free Cities Projects in Central America and charter cities projects around the world give rise to hundreds more competitors for the “freest city” title. By competing, you’ve already won.