Jane Jacobs: Libertarian Outsider
[Transcribed from the Libertarian Tradition podcast episode "Jane Jacobs"]
When Jane Jacobs died five years ago (the exact date was April 25, 2006), there was a brief flurry of interest in a couple of libertarian publications — one brief obit ran on Mises.org, for example — but the flurry died down pretty quickly. And since then, apart from a perceptive short article about a year ago on LewRockwell.com and an extremely intelligent review essay on a recent biography of Jacobs in the Journal of Libertarian Studies back in 2007, I've seen no reference anywhere in the movement media to one of the most important English-speaking intellectuals of the 20th century, who, whether she knew it or not, was also a libertarian.
It isn't that the authors of those two lonely pieces on Jacobs weren't properly respectful of their subject — they were. Pierre Desrochers, the Canadian geographer who wrote "The Death and Life of a Reluctant Urban Icon" for the Journal of Libertarian Studies, called Jacobs "the most influential writer on cities in the last half-century," and Thomas Schmidt, who wrote "Ludwig von Mises, Meet Your Leibniz" for LewRockwell.com late in April of 2010, called Jacobs "an original thinker and urban theorist" whose "corpus of seven books shows few if any 'Austrian' sources in her bibliographies, and yet the conclusions she draws often seem merely a different way of stating the same descriptions as Mises."
Schmidt notes, in the opening paragraph of his piece, that
if a scientific theory provides a true description of reality, it will manifest itself in several ways. For one, different approaches to the truth will all converge upon the same underlying reality; for another, a theory congruent with reality will reveal its truth in more areas than the area of empirical observation that originally gave rise to it. Thus, Newton's development of the calculus coincided with Leibniz's, both working towards the same fundamentally correct method of mathematical analysis of the existing world. … If Austrian economics also reflects an underlying reality, it must likewise be approachable by different methods and be true outside pure economics, as Mises intended praxeology to be applicable throughout the social sciences.
In Schmidt's view, Jane Jacobs stood in relation to Mises as Leibniz stood in relation to Newton. They both independently discovered the same truth by coming at it from different points of view and employing somewhat different methodologies.
Pierre Desrochers sees Jacobs in a very similar way. He first read her around 1990 when he was an undergraduate at the University of Montreal. And he declared 17 years later in the Journal of Libertarian Studies that her "compelling writings on markets as complex adaptive systems [had] turned this once left-of-the-center writer into a spontaneous order devotee long before I had heard of Austrian economics and libertarianism."
"Spontaneous order," of course, is a concept more closely associated with Friedrich Hayek than with Ludwig von Mises, and there has been no shortage of commentators who have compared Jane Jacobs to Hayek. Management professor David Emanuel Andersson says, for example, that Jacobs's first and most famous book, The Death & Life of Great American Cities, and Hayek's well-known essay on "The Use of Knowledge in Society" "tell essentially the same story. One could almost say that Hayek's 1945 paper is a generalized and more abstract summary of the central arguments in Jacobs's  book."
Or consider another example: Gene Callahan and Sanford Ikeda, in a valuable article on Jacobs published eight years ago on Mises.org, wrote that "her works are full of arguments and insights on the economic nature of communities, on central planning, and on ethics that libertarians would find original and enlightening." They quote her observation in The Death & Life of Great American Cities that cities are "problems of organized complexity," which require that those studying them be capable of "dealing simultaneously with a sizeable number of factors which are interrelated into an organic whole." They note also her argument against what they call "heavy-handed local planning," namely that
such planning fails to take into account the subtleties of the knowledge possessed only by the individuals on the scene (for which she coined the term "locality knowledge"), and that it inappropriately imitates [the techniques of] nineteenth century physical sciences.
Callahan and Ikeda congratulate Jacobs on what they call her "innate grasp of the power of voluntary exchange and spontaneous order" and her "methodologically individualist and subjectivist" approach to her subject matter. And they comment that "the parallels" between the ideas she formulates in her first book and "Hayek's conceptions of spontaneous order, local knowledge, and scientism are striking, especially since she was unfamiliar with Hayek's work at the time."
At the time The Death & Life of Great American Cities was published, Jacobs was 45 years old. She had been born Jane Isabel Butzner on May 4, 1916 in Scranton, Pennsylvania, the daughter of a prosperous physician and his wife, a nurse. Young Jane grew up in Scranton, graduated from high school there, and took a job at the local paper, the Scranton Tribune, as a writer and editor for the "women's pages." A year later, at the age of 19, she moved to New York to seek her fortune.
It was 1935, the depths of the Great Depression. Before leaving Scranton, she had taken a course in typing and shorthand, so that she could qualify for an office job if she couldn't find work in journalism. And she did work as a stenographer off and on during her early years in New York. But it wasn't long before she began selling articles to newspapers and magazines — first to the magazines Cue and Vogue, then to the feature pages of the Sunday New York Herald Tribune during Isabel Paterson's heyday on that paper.
In 1937, at the age of 21, using money her parents had set aside for the purpose, she enrolled in college. As her biographer, Alice Sparberg Alexiou, tells the story, Jane Butzner
enrolled at Columbia University"s School of General Studies as a non-matriculating student, which meant that she could study whatever she wanted. For the first time in her life, Jane found to her surprise that she enjoyed school. She even received good grades.
In high school in Scranton, bored by the curriculum, she had sat in class reading books on subjects she found interesting, paying little or no attention to what she was supposed to be studying, and earning mediocre grades as a result. Now she was studying anything she liked — geology, zoology, economics, geography, constitutional law — and she was an honor student.
But, according to Alexiou,
after two years at General Studies, Jane was required to matriculate, which would have meant attending Barnard. But [Barnard] rejected her application, despite the good work she had done at Columbia. The women's college based its decision on her terrible high school grades.
Jane claimed not to care. As she told an interviewer years later, "once I was the property of Barnard I had to take, it seemed, what Barnard wanted me to take, not what I wanted to learn. Fortunately my high-school marks had been so bad that Barnard decided I could not belong to it and I was therefore allowed to continue getting an education" by means of independent reading. She also decided to go job hunting. Maybe several years of successful freelance writing and a couple of years at Columbia would get her an editorial job?
They did. She was offered a position on Iron Age, a trade magazine for the iron and steel industries. From there she moved on to a gig as a feature writer for the US Office of War Information, which, during the three years of its existence, was the world's largest magazine publisher. From there, at war's end, she moved into a reporting job at Amerika, an expensively produced slick paper magazine published by the US State Department during the early years of the Cold War, beginning in 1944. Amerika was published for distribution in the Soviet Union, to inform Soviet citizens about life in the United States. It was written in English by American writers like Jane Butzner, then translated into Russian, set in type, and printed. When it ceased publication in 1952, Jane, now 36 years old, moved on to an assignment as an associate editor and staff writer at Architectural Forum, a glossy product of Henry Luce's Time, Incorporated.
And it was through this job at Architectural Forum, the last job she ever held in journalism, that she finally found both fame and fortune in her late 40s. When she joined the magazine, according to Alice Sparberg Alexiou, she "was assigned the school and hospital beat, subjects about which she knew nothing. 'You'll be our school and hospital expert,' the editors told her. Years later, [she] said, 'So always be suspicious of magazines! I didn't know beans about this … somebody with a printing press tells you you're an expert.'"
By this time, however, Jane Butzner had acquired a husband, an architect named Robert Jacobs, whom she married in 1944. He taught his wife how to read blueprints and served as her tutor and consultant in her new campaign to learn enough about school and hospital design to cover it competently for Architectural Forum. Also, of course, he changed his wife's byline at the end of her first decade in journalism. He made Jane Butzner into Jane Jacobs, the name under which she became famous. For now, though, she was not yet famous, and she was facing a new problem at work.
Now that she had mastered her new beat, she was reassigned to a different and more challenging one: the city-planning beat. As always before, she set systematically about the business of educating herself. What were the goals of city planners, she asked herself. How did they attempt to achieve these goals? How successful had their attempts been in the past? If they had failed, why had they failed?
To get a handle on these questions, she began walking around Manhattan and riding around it on her bicycle. She observed. She asked herself how the city worked, what kept it orderly, what made it a place people could live happily, benefiting from the neighborhoods in which they lived.
The conclusions she reached, as I have indicated, were remarkably similar to those Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek had reached earlier by different routes. A city is, at base, a marketplace. It is a spontaneous order. It cannot be planned. The people who try to plan cities have failed above all because they have not comprehended the way the spontaneous order of cities works.
Jacobs wrote about what she observed and what she inferred from what she observed in Architectural Forum. Her work began attracting the attention of influential people, people who knew people, people who could make things happen. She was invited to speak at a conference on urban design at Harvard. Her remarks were heard by influential people, people who knew people, people who could make things happen.
She was offered a grant by the Rockefeller Foundation to expound on her ideas at book length. She was offered a book contract by Random House. She delivered the manuscript early in 1961. It was published later that same year — half a century ago this year — as The Death & Life of Great American Cities, and it may fairly be said that it took the world by storm. The ideas it contained, which flew in the face of everything that was known by the urban planners and students of urban planning at the time, are now regarded as commonplace truths that must be acknowledged by any serious student of urban living and urban planning. The Death & Life of Great American Cities is one of those books that leaves its reader forever changed — forever unable even to think about the subject matter it discusses except in the way the reader first learned from its pages.
This first book was a hard act to follow, but follow it Jacobs did, with two more books of comparable originality and comparable importance in the next two decades: The Economy of Cities in 1969 and Cities & the Wealth of Nations in 1984.
By the time the first of these, The Economy of Cities, was published in 1969, Jacobs and her husband had taken their three children, including their two draft-age sons, and left New York City for Toronto, where they became Canadian citizens. They opposed the Vietnam War, they told reporters, and they wanted to make sure their sons weren't forced to fight in it. Jane Jacobs spent the last 38 years of her life, a little more than half her adult life, in Canada. She died there, in Toronto, on April 25, 2006, and is now often described, with some justice, as an "American-born Canadian writer and activist."
She seems to have first come to any sort of "official" libertarian notice in 1970, when Murray Rothbard reviewed her second book, The Economy of Cities, in his Libertarian Forum, calling it a "brilliant, scintillating work celebrating the primacy for economic development, past and present, of free-market cities." But it was in the 1980s, when Laissez Faire Books began carrying The Death and Life of Great American Cities and ran a laudatory review (written by me) of Jacobs's 1984 book, Cities & the Wealth of Nations, in its monthly catalogue, that Jacobs and her ideas really began to penetrate the libertarian mind in an important way. In 1985, when Cities & the Wealth of Nations won the Mencken Award of the libertarian Free Press Association as the best book in support of individual rights published in the preceding year, public association of Jacobs's ideas with libertarianism was given another boost.
Two years later, in 1987, the anarchocommunist Murray Bookchin, who at times made common cause with libertarians of our sort, praised Cities & the Wealth of Nations, saying that "it remains a lasting contribution of Jane Jacobs to have demonstrated in a very compelling way that our economic well-being depends on cities, not on nation-states" and that "her argument invites a debate about the superfluity of the state that has been too long neglected." By then, though, Jacobs had already taken steps to distance herself from the libertarian tradition. An interviewer said to her in 1985, "Increasingly … I have seen people starting to identify you with libertarianism. Would you accept that characterization?" She replied:
I'm highly in favor of helping the poor and of giving everybody as good an education as they want and can use — not what they can pay for. I think health care, not tied to money, is terribly important. … The libertarians would say, "Look, we shouldn't even have laws about drugs. That's up to people to be responsible about themselves. We shouldn't have lots of laws about things that aren't harmful to people." I'm not so sure about that. I think people do need help of various kinds. It has to be empirical, pragmatic, you have to see what happens. You have to try to recognize mistakes, not just keep on doing them because you don't know what else to do. I don't have a sentimental notion that all human beings would be marvelous if they weren't deprived — it's not true. But as for not wanting to help the poor or saying "let everyone stand on their own feet," no, I don't believe that at all.
So, by her own account, Jane Jacobs was not a libertarian. By his own account, Ludwig von Mises was not an anarchist. Yet, as Murray Rothbard and others have argued, the logic of Mises's work leads the reader inexorably to conclude that there is no legitimate place for coercive government — the state — in a society of private property and free exchange.
Similarly, the basic logic of Jane Jacobs's work must lead an attentive reader inexorably to a libertarian view of human social relations. Jane Jacobs never realized that a libertarian was exactly what she was, however reluctant or half-hearted her commitment to it may have seemed to her. She was perhaps the ultimate libertarian outsider.
Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.