Friday, August 29, 2014

Tools of power and power over tools

My friends on the left often advocate the use of public powers that have been used (or were originally intended) to suppress causes they would have sympathised with. Examples include occupational licensing, closed shop union legislation, the minimum wage, and urban planning.

The reconstruction of Paris between 1853 and 1869 by Haussmann and Napoleon was designed to control uprisings by breaking up and moving working-class neighbourhoods and facilitating troop movement though the city, but it also aimed to make Paris manageable for bureaucrats, planners, businesses, and tax collectors, and more comfortable for the bourgeoisie.

The intent of city plans is to make a city and its neighbourhoods understandable to those tasked with administering them. Poor neighbourhoods with complex streets, housing arrangements, and social relationships are likely administered by a college-educated planner who, odds are, has very little experience with how the poor live.

Asymmetrical access to power includes the power to create and implement plans, resulting in plans that demolish poor (though, according to their residents, functioning) minority neighbourhoods like Black Bottom in Detroit or Africville in Halifax, far more frequently than the neighbourhoods of better enfranchised residents.

The hope is that tools like urban planning can be used for good, but the ability to turn them back to their original intent shouldn't be ignored given the state's history of structural discrimination in support of the status quo.

This post was inspired by my ongoing reading of Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed

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