Response to Romer on private cities

Paul Romer has commented skeptically on private cities in two recent interviews. Having written on private cities I thought I would take a second to respond.

First, in his own words “And my rule is that I will not support any public policy initiative for a new city if it is not the kind of place that I would be willing to go live or where I would want my children and grandchildren to live.”

I think this is the wrong criteria for judging public policy initiatives. A better way to judge public policy initiatives is whether they improve the lives of those who are targeted by the initiatives. There are many cities throughout the world that I doubt Paul Romer or his offspring would want to live in. However, those cities are inhabited by hundreds of millions of people who want better lives for themselves and their children.

Romer does argue for experimentation and does not seem wedded to a particular organizational structure of a Charter City. I agree that openness and experimentation is necessary in creating new cities. Unfortunately, Romer specifically contrasts his vision to that of private cities, suggesting private cities should not be allowed. Before specifically answering Romer’s critique I will offer a few comments defending private cities.

The basic argument is that profit encourages the effective provision of goods and services. A private city that fails to provide those goods and services would quickly go out of business. Romer correctly notes that this analogy is somewhat lacking. Moving to a new city is high cost. As such, exit in governance terms is always more costly than exiting a grocery store, as new grocery stores are easier to substitute.

One advantage of private cities is that the initial construction of a city is very costly. A private city would mean the cost of infrastructure would be provided privately, possibly saving a government billions of dollars.

Another advantage is the distinct organizational structure. One of the primary benefits of a new city, be it Charter or private, would be to create a new bureaucracy to escape corruption in the home country. A private city would have a strong incentive ensure the bureaucracy is entirely separated. Old bureaucratic influence would be more likely in a public vs. private partnership.

Romer’s primary critique comes down to police. I will quote him in full.

The track record of private police forces and private judicial proceedings is very bad. We have some of these in the United States run by private, but non-profit, universities. If the university has a sports program that generates lots of revenue and prestige, the university tends to protect athletes, typically men, who commit sexual violence, typically against woman. They do not offer anything like “equal protection under the law.” It is a telling illustration of how police and judicial proceedings can be bent to support the mission of the organization, even one like a university that we usually think of as being well intentioned, and fail to protect the people it is responsible for.

First, I think it is odd that in critiquing private, for profit cities, he uses the example of non-profit universities. However, I agree his point stands and must be thought about. Many informal sources I have read suggest similar things happen at hotels, petty crimes by wealthy patrons are somewhat ignored. That being said, I think Romer overestimates the police, in first world countries and especially in the developing world.

As the events of Ferguson and Baltimore illustrate, police have rarely lived up to the ideal of equal protection under the law. Freddie Gray likely died because of a nickel ride, a procedure where police do not strap a suspect in a police van and then drive recklessly. Chicago PD had a black site, and before that they literally tortured people. Stop and frisk, done by several major cities, but most prominently by New York City, is essentially the continual harassment of minority males. I would recommend Radley Balko’s excellent book if Romer is interested in modern policing in America.

However, Charter Cities and private cities can do the most good in the developing world. Unfortunately I am unaware of much literature on law enforcement in the developing world. That being said, it is assuredly worse than in America. Some friends from Honduras, which is the murder capital of the world, have told me stories which illustrate how bad law enforcement can get. I heard from several people that they fear the police more than they do the maras, the gang members. Other people have told me that women being arrested are usually sexually assaulted, if not raped.

Now, given the level of violence in Honduras, I imagine the police force there is more corrupt than average. However, when thinking about how to improve the world it is important to understand the world as it exists. And the world is currently filled with terrible poverty and predatory institutions. Private cities seem like they could reasonably be better than many of those institutions.

Romer then comments, “Unless someone is willing to specify whether there is a local police chief and how he/she is appointed and held accountable, any suggestion they make about private cities can be dismissed as frivolous.”

This question does not strike me as particularly difficult. The obvious answer is the police chief would be appointed by the owner of the city, though I imagine Romer would consider that a frivolous response. They would then be accountable to the owner of the city, who would be accountable to the residents to the extent the owner would want to maximize revenue.

There are a number of other mechanisms which could be used for police. First, the police can be controlled by a non-profit. The board can be controlled by a mix of the owners, politicians, and other prominent individuals.

Another scenario, if there is a proliferation of private cities, is to unbundle the goods provided by each. Perhaps a firm dedicated to policing services will arise, and be contracted by the city itself. It has happened in Sandy Springs Georgia, among other places.

Another possible scenario is for an accreditation body to emerge which would rank various police departments. They would only give high scores to those police departments which taught best practices.

A private city would also likely lack sovereign immunity. It would be subject to lawsuits if it broke it’s founding charter. The charter could specify equal application of the law and due process procedures. Failing to follow these procedures would guarantee a loss in revenue.

Ultimately, I don’t know whether a private city would provide these goods and services or whether it would devolve into a corporate dystopia. I suspect Romer does not know either. Given our collective ignorance I would recommend, as Romer does, creating a set of meta rules for changing institutions on a local level. I would not limit the institutional experimentation, so long as the experimentation is not imposed on anyone. I would hope that Romer would not either.



  1. You have been much more charitable with him than I would have been, this is an obvious sexist dogwhistle, “omg, but think of the crimes against women.” Pure propaganda, trying to impress in the minds of potential clients of private cities an image of corporate dystopia. If anything, his step-too-far is as likely to create the dystopia he fears (or desires as an example to prove his thesis) as it is to prevent it. This strikes me not as a genuine criticism, but as an attempt to structurally condemn private cities as unjust and backwards.

    If he were honest, he would wonder what Google would do (being leftist like he likely approves of) if one of its execs were the owner of a private city. Probably ensure that above all things, sexist and racist crimes didn’t happen. That itself though, might end up creating a corporate dystopia more quickly than the profit motive.


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