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Arguing about justice

Axel Gosseries
Philippe Vanderborght

Self-determination for (some) cities?

Daniel Weinstock


Les villes sont des entités politiques presque complètement impuissantes. Les décisions politiques qui leur reviennent sont limitées. Et par ailleurs, elle ne sont pas constitutionnellement autorisées à déterminer les pouvoir qu'elles devraient avoir. Cette situation est problématique, car, premièrement, les villes devraient, pour des raisons tant morales qu'épistémiques, disposer d'une souveraineté au moins partielle sur certains dossiers qui les concernent tout particulièrement, qui ont trait avant tout aux dimensions spatiales des vies de leurs habitants. Deuxièmement, parce qu'elles ancrent les identités de leurs habitants, et parce qu'elles sont le site de cultures qui sont en danger d'érosion au sein d'entités politiques plus vastes, elles devraient également disposer du statut leur permettant de participer a la détermination du partage des compétences entre elles et d'autres entités politiques.

Texte intégral

1Cities have largely been ignored by political philosophers. Yet an ever-increasing proportion of the world’s population lives in cities. The lack of fit between the theoretical concerns of political philosophers and the lived social and political realities of so many people is an oddity that needs to be addressed. My intention in this paper is to make a small contribution to that end. I want to make plausible the claim that cities should possess a greater measure of political self-determination than they presently do. In particular, they ought to exercise some degree of authority over what might be termed the spatial dimensions of urban life. I will begin this short paper with some conceptual ground-clearing. I will then very briefly advance four arguments supporting my claim.

2Let me first specify my terms. By self-determination, I mean two things. First, self-determination involves jurisdictional autonomy. In order for a political entity to be self-determining, there must be some decision-making processes through which the members of that entity make decisions about their common lives without interference from any other political entity. This leaves open the possibility that these decisions might be reviewable by nonpolitical entities such as courts, as in the case of judicial review.

3Second, self-determination as I understand it also involves what I will call metajurisdictional autonomy (I borrow the term from Buchanan (2003), though I employ it here in a slightly different sense). That is, not only must it possess self-determination over certain defined policy areas, but it must also possess some say as to what the policy domains over which it has jurisdiction are (and perhaps also what the domains are over which it shares jurisdiction with other political entities). Thus, self-determination requires not only that certain powers be devolved to cities by a sovereign authority that has the power to delegate powers or not. It also requires that cities at the very least share the second-order power to determine what first-order powers they will exercise

4Most cities have some (usually quite limited) degree of jurisdictional autonomy, but very few have metajurisdictional autonomy. Frug (1999) has in the context of the United States spoken of the constitutional powerlessness of cities, and he has couched his analysis of the American case in a broader account of the attack upon and erosion of the medieval and early-modern authority of towns. That is, very few cities have the constitutional authority to participate in the decision-making processes as to what policy areas it will have jurisdiction over. Thus, in my sense, most cities are not self-determining.

5We also need to define what we mean by the term ”city”. Simply adverting to juridical facts on the ground will not help. This is because many urban areas are divided into independent municipalities in ways that it my view lack independent warrant. In my view, a city is characterized by a certain degree of spatial integration. This is within the context of a short paper a criterion that will be left somewhat vague. But it is meant to designate the idea that there is a city where the inhabitants of a certain area exhibit a density of spatially mediated interaction with one another in their work, leisure and patterns of residence that mark them off from other areas. Thus, cities like Montreal, Berlin an Brussels (to name but three) are divided into legally defined municipalities with a significant amount of jurisdictional autonomy. On my view, however, ”Montreal” and ”Brussels” each refer to one city, given their satisfaction of the spatial integration criterion just mooted.

6So the claim of this paper is that some spatially integrated areas, which I refer to as cities, have a legitimate claim to both jurisdictional and metajurisdictional authority. How can this claim be made plausible? Let me briefly sketch four arguments.

The case for greater jurisdictional autonomy

7The argument for greater jurisdictional autonomy flows directly from the spatial integration criterion that serves to demarcate cities according to my account. Briefly stated, residents of cities affect one another to a greater degree than is the case for fellow citizens of a nation state that do not share space in the way that city-dwellers do. If we accept some variant of the democratic principle according to which people ought to have some say over the laws and rules that affect their interests (Goodin 2007), then it follows that people who share urban space have claims upon each other to determine jointly the way in which they interact that differ from those that fellow-citizens of nation-states have toward one another. Briefly stated, this is because fellow residents of a city share space in ways that they do not with others. Their modes of transportation between work, residence and leisure activities, the ways in which they mark space symbolically and commemoratively, the ways in which they demarcate spaces for commercial and recreational activities, all these dimensions of people’s lives as city-dwellers, and many more besides, call according to the democratic principle I have just mentioned for an important degree of jurisdictional autonomy over those policy areas in which, as it were, the sharing of space is at issue.

8The all-affected principle applied to cities yields an argument for including cities in subsidiarity arrangements (Follesdall 1998) given what I take to be a fairly plausible epistemic claim. According to the principle of subsidiarity, political decisions should both for democratic and for prudential reasons be taken at the ”lowest” jurisdictional level, subject only to the efficacy condition, according to which the downward devolution cannot detract from the ability to actually implement policies with some hope of success.

  • 1 For a somewhat different way of relating the all-affected principle to the idea of subsidiarity, se (...)

9Now, many policy areas that are presently in the hands of national governments, or in the hands of sub-state level governments such as provinces, lander, cantons, and the like, which in many respects mimic nations (these sub-state units are, as it were, nations writ small) affect cities disproportionately. The claim is not only that it is it unfair, given the all-affected principle, that city-dwellers not be able to determine the contents of policies in these areas. Rather, it is also that city-dwellers and their representatives are epistemically better situated to formulate good policy in these areas than would be well-meaning legislators who are not intimately acquainted with the problems that arise in these areas1

10Take the area of what we might broadly refer to as diversity management. To the degree that the social diversity that is present in many societies results from immigration, and to the extent that immigration is in many countries of immigration an urban phenomenon, urban voters can ”see” the impacts of various policy responses to the ”fact of pluralism”, they are in a better position than are citizens and their representatives from non-urban areas on the effective integration of immigrants. For example, recent experience in Quebec, where debates over models of immigration integration have been heated in recent years, would seem to indicate that citizens who live in regions, mostly non-urban, that do not actually have to carry out the task of integrating many immigrants, may come to see immigration as more of a threat than do people who are actually affected by it. They may end up being tempted by policies that aim for a greater degree of immigrant assimilation, policies that can from the point of people who have an everyday experience of multiculturalism be seen to be counterproductive.

11The argument that has just been briefly sketched, if successful, grounds an extension of the jurisdictional authority of cities. It provides us with reasons to apportion jurisdictions between cities and other political entities. But it does not provide us with reasons to grant cities metajurisdictional authority. That is, it provides us with a criterion allowing us to determine what policy areas cities should have sole or shared jurisdiction over. It does not yet tell us why cities, like nation-states, ought to have a say in the political processes that distribute jurisdiction among political entities. The criterion just spelled out gives us a coarse-grained way of determining how jurisdictions ought to be distributed. More specific determinations – for example over whether a given policy area ought to be the sole jurisdiction of a political entity, or whether it ought to be distributed among political entities, and if the latter, how power-sharing ought to occur – are the result of political negotiations that occur among political entities that possess a certain status. They are collective political subjects, rather than simply being at the behest of other political entities. What needs to be shown is that cities possess the attributes that have traditionally been taken to ground the claim to that kind of political status on the part of other political entities.

The argument for metajurisdictional authority for cities

12Nations standardly claim the right to metajurisdictional authority. Historically, some nationalists have done so because they ascribed properties to nation as such. They viewed nations as self-standing entities, the moral importance of which could be spelled out independently of the good of their members.

13These arguments for national self-determination have largely been rejected by contemporary nationalist theorists, who tend to view themselves as liberal nationalists. They are liberal both in the sense that the nationalism that they have defended does not countenance illiberal policies, and in the sense that they do not view nations as (to use Rawls’ phrase) self-originating sources or moral claims. Rather, the degree to which they are granted self-determination must be a function of the good that such a granting does for the members of nations.

14Once liberal nationalists concede that it is not the ”nationness” of nations that grounds their claim to metajurisdictional authority, but rather the properties that they possess with respect to the well-being of their members, then the question legitimately arises as to whether other entities possess the properties in question, at least to a degree sufficient to ground such authority. What are the properties in question? The ones that have been most often adumbrated have to do with what one might call the identity-conferring nature of national membership, its agency-abetting function, and its morally attractive instrumental properties. Let me expand a bit on these three grounds that have been claimed for the self-determination of nations. First, according to some theorists, national membership matters because it grounds the identities of their members (Miller 1995). A good way of understanding this claim is that identities are in part grounded in culture, and that nations provide the culture from within which individuals shape their identities.

15Second, some theorists argue that nations matter to individuals because they provide them with ”contexts of choice” on the basis of which alone they are able to exercise their capacity to determine what ”the good life” will be for them (Kymlicka 1995).

16And third, it has been argued by some that a sense of shared national identity is instrumentally important in order to motivate redistributive policies that can be justified on independent moral grounds (Miller 2006).

17These properties are taken to ground a claim to metajurisdictional authority because, very roughly, they have to do with the kinds of things that nations are rather than more limitedly with what they do. The claim is that they could not ground identity, agency, and the motivational grounds for morally admirable policies if the range of issue areas over which they were able to claim authority was determined solely by others. The functions require a certain degree of immunity from the decisions of others. Let us grant this claim for the sake of argument in what follows.

18Identifying the properties that ground the ascription of metajurisdictional authority allows us to examine whether other political entities possess these properties as well. Thus, for example, many theorists following Kymlicka have argued that national minorities possess the requisite properties just as much as do nations that happen to have control of a state.

19Considerations of space prevent me from arguing that some cities possess all of the properties just mentioned. Let us assume, again for the sake of the present argument, that these properties are not jointly necessary for the claim to metajurisdictional authority to be justified. Let us assume in other words that any one is sufficient for that end.

20It seems clear to me that many cities are identity-conferring in a robust sense. First, many cities possess distinctive cultures. As Daniel Bell and Avner de-Shalit have pointed out, cities develop over time a shared sense of what they are ”about”. Thus, to employ Bell and de-Shalit’s categorization, Jerusalem is a city of religion, while New York is a city of ambition, and so on (Bell & de-Shalit 2011).

21To be plausible, their claim cannot be that these characterizations work because all or most Jerusalemites are religious, or that all or most New Yorkers are ambitious. What I take their claim to mean is that religion (in the case of Jerusalem) and ambition (in the case of New York) create a context or backdrop of intelligibility within which people in these cities lead their lives. To be a New Yorker is not necessarily to be ambitious, but rather to live in a city in which the organization of space and time, the functioning of institutions, and the like, can best be accounted for by invoking the notion of ambition.

22Putting aside the details of the way in which de-Shalit and Bell characterize the cultures or ”spirits” of this or that city, the general account strikes me as plausible. There are central issues, debates or ideas around which the lives of at least some cities are organized, such that one could not function competently in the city in question were one not at least to some degree attuned to this central organizing feature.

23If the claim that I have extracted from Bell and de-Shalit is true, then cities shape the identities of at least their long-term residents in quite a deeper way than do other forms of membership. This is because regardless of whether they would form part of the subjective account of their identities that people might (or might not) explicitly avow, cities shape the way in which people live their lives in time and space, the ways in which they expect to interact with other individuals, and the like. The claim here is that cities shape the identities of their members in a manner that is at least in part immune to the kinds of sources of illusion that attend self-ascription in the area of identity. People are prone to all kinds of romantic self-delusion in the accounts they provide of their identities. They often claim to identify with political entities, with traditions, and the like, even where reference to these political entities or traditions would not figure in the best account that could be provided, third-personally, of their behaviour. I claim that in virtue of the embodied, spatial nature of their relationship to cities, cities ground identities in a more robust manner than does, say, appeal to nation, because it does so in a manner that is less likely to give rise to subjective self-delusion.

24To the extent that the fact that a political entity possesses an identity-conferring culture grounds its claims to metajurisdictional authority, it would seem to follow that at least some cities (those that possess an identity-conferring culture) should possess a measure of such authority.

25A second argument for metajurisdictional authority follows one developed by Kymlicka in defense of group-differentiated rights for national minorities. The argument is, in a nutshell, that such entities need the protection that such rights afford in order to resist the corrosive impact of the broader nation-state within which they are incorporated. According to Kymlicka, allowing majoritatian democratic processes to hold sway in an undifferentiated manner across a multinational territory risks giving rise to a myriad of situations in which members of the minority lose out with respect to values and issues that are important to them, even if no malevolent intent is assumed on the part of members of the majority.

26Some cities are subject to a particular kind of corrosive impact from the broader society. The cities I am thinking of become pawns in larger national political debates, and have policies imposed upon them that reflect the way in which individuals who are not residents of cities think that these debates should be played out. For example, Montreal is a bilingual city (in fact, a riotously multilingual city), and bi- and multilingualism is better for the city than an imposed multilingualism would be. It makes the city culturally richer, and possesses significant economic advantages for the city as well, in a global context in which trade and commerce (that increasingly link cities together directly, as Sassen (2001) has pointed out in the case of ”global cities”). Yet the province that it is a part of has for a long time enacted language policies premised upon the assumption that bilingualism is a threat to the sense that many Quebeckers have of their society being a unilingual, francophone one (Levine 1991). Policies have thus been enacted to stifle the linguistic diversity that has resulted from the historical imprint left by the city’s two founding peoples, and by successive waves of immigration. Many theorists accept that subnational units should be able to defend themselves against the corrosive impact of majoritarian decisionmaking processes occurring in the larger society. They should by parity of reasoning also accept that cities ought also to be at least partially immune from the corrosive impact of the political processes that occur in the broader societies that they are part of.


27Cities have been off the radar of political philosophers. The purpose of this paper is to provoke them into redirecting their radars towards these entities that are, after all, so central to humanity’s past, present, and most probably future. My claim has been that some cities, those that are characterized by one or the other of the properties articulated here, are appropriate sites of self-determination. I expect that some will react negatively to this claim. Their arguments, and the debates that will ensue, are precisely what is needed to launch normative philosophical reflection on the place of cities in the global distribution of sovereignty.

28In closing, and as an indication of the kinds of issues that would have to be taken up in a more thoroughgoing exploration of the themes that have only been sketched here, let me briefly flag two question begged by the arguments provided here. The first has to do with the distinctiveness I am claiming for the self-determination of cities. After all, it might be asked, is what I am claiming about cities not also true of non-cities? Can country-dwellers not claim the same jurisdictional and metajurisdictional authority as the inhabitants of cities?

29In order to answer this question, we would need to determine whether there exists some identifiable political entity, neither city nor nation, that satisfies the criteria laid out in this paper for jurisdictional and metajurisdictional authority. To the degree that they do, then perhaps the arguments contained in this paper have broader scope than that claimed here, and actually underpin a position we might term localism, which could be defined as involving subsidiarity, but with a longer list of political entities among which jurisdiction should be distributed. I have what are at this stage intuitive doubts about whether this more ambitious claim actually follows from the arguments made here, but thankfully cannot possibly substantiate them within the confines of a short paper.

30A second concern has to do with whether self-determination for (some) cities, or the even more ambitious thesis of localism that I have just mooted, undercuts national solidarity in a morally unattractive way. I want to suggest that it need not. On the contrary, the institutionalization of national solidarity that involves the illegitimate suppression of claims for the self-determination of cities puts a strain on solidarity that might be eased were urban dwellers able to exercise the authority over matters pertaining to the city that their moral and epistemic position warrants.



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LEVINE, M. V. (1991), The Reconquest of Montreal: Language Policy and Social Change in a Bilingual City, Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

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SASSEN, S. (2001), The Global City, Princeton: Princeton University Press.


1 For a somewhat different way of relating the all-affected principle to the idea of subsidiarity, see Fleurbaey & Brighouse (2010).


Daniel Weinstock holds the Canada Research Chair in Ethics and Political Philosophy (Philosophy Dept., Université de Montréal). He is also the Founding Director of the Centre de recherche en éthique de l'Université de Montréal (CréUM). His work has spanned broadly across the contemporary moral and political philosophy. He has written extensively on the question of the just management of diversity in liberal democracies. A native Montrealer, he has held a number of public appointments. In particular, he was a member of the Commission chaired by Charles Taylor and Gérard Bouchard looking into the issue of "reasonable cultural accommodation" in Québec. He was also the Founding Chair of Quebec's Public Health Ethics Committee.

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