Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

City Government and City Markets

Gideon Strauss


May 27, 2011
By Gideon Strauss

In my article on Justice in place last week, I borrowed two distinct but equally necessary definitions of the word “city” from David Koyzis. On the one hand, “a city is a municipality, a differentiated, explicitly political subcommunity within the larger body politic”—a local community of government and citizens, commonly responsible for the exercise of public justice. On the other hand, “a city is a multifaceted network of local, differentiated communities—a community of communities—defying easy identification along social, economic, political or religious lines.” I then argued that the core task of the city in the first, political sense is to regulate or support the complex social fabric of public interdependencies that constitute the city in the second, intercommunal sense.

One of the facets of the city in the second sense is its economic life – the city is a marketplace. People working individually or in one another’s companies produce goods or deliver services of value which are exchanged in these in markets by means of barter or through the medium of money, each participant in the market hoping to gain at least fair value in the exchange and over time to build up a reserve of value that can be saved for later use or invested in the innovation or expansion of services. For a city to flourish, its markets must prosper. One task of the city in the first sense—the political city—is to secure the public legal circumstances that make the operation of such markets viable.

John McMillan describes an instance where this is not always the case. In the Makola marketplace in the center of Accra, Ghana, stall-holders sell fish, vegetables, grains, other foods, and simple household items. Every day each stall-holder makes a few dollars. The stall-holders buy and sell, transport goods, do some rudimentary manufacturing, recycle, extend credit, and in general “make others better off—as well as themselves—by making food available to the urban poor and by providing income to farmers with which to buy necessities like clothing.”

The Makola marketplace, however, has suffered from sometimes violent efforts by the Ghanaian government to shut it down and rid the city of Accra of the “market women menace.” In 1979, for example, the military government accused the stall-holders of violating government price controls. Soldiers looted the market and dynamited the marketplace. McMillan reports that one soldier remarked, “That will teach Ghanaian women to stop being wicked.” McMillan writes that one Ghanaian newspaper “described the market demolition as a ‘happy tragedy,’ which produced ‘tears of joy in the worker, the common man,’ who was ‘helpless at the hands of the unfeeling Makola conspirators.’”

Instead of looting and demolishing city markets, governments on every scale, but in particular city governments, are called to nurture and protect markets. McMillan writes:

“Markets are subtle organizations. … The mechanisms that underpin transacting are intricate—and they are in everlasting flux. ...  Markets do what they are supposed to do, however, only if they are well structured. Any successful economy has an array of devices and procedures to enable markets to work smoothly. A workable platform for markets has five elements: information flows smoothly; property rights are protected; people can be trusted to live up to their promises; side effects on third parties are curtailed; and competition is fostered.”

City economic life is relational.  City markets are a necessary part of the “multifaceted network of local, differentiated communities” that constitute the city, “a community of communities.” But city markets depend on urban public justice: governments must secure the public legal platform upon which markets depend. This is yet another element of the slow politics to which Christian citizens are called: cultivating an understanding of the subtle character of markets and their reliance on a robust public legal infrastructure, and advocating for the establishment and maintenance of the political conditions upon which the economic life of cities depend, both in our own cities, and in the growing cities all around the world.

—Gideon Strauss is editor of the Capital Commentary and CEO of the Center for Public Justice.


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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”