Cities of Refuge

Instead of building refugee camps, why not build cities?

When I first met Paul Roemer a few years ago a few years ago he was promoting an idea he called “Charter cities.”

The basic idea is that, under contemporary economic conditions – in particular the astonishingly low cost of transporting freight by water – economic activity doesn’t require much in the way of natural or even human resources: just a piece of land with access to ocean transportation, a little basic urban planning, the rule of law, and the absence of intrusive and kleptocratic government.

Alas, those last two are sufficiently rare in the worst-off countries that hundreds of millions of people, deprived of industrial opportunity where they are, want to leave and go somewhere else. The problem is that “somewhere else” mostly doesn’t want to take them in.

Romer’s proposed solution flows directly from this analysis: find an empty space with the requisite transportation access, get the national government out of the way, and build a new city, attracting economic migrants from around the world. At first the charter city would be governed by an international board, with housing and industrial plant built by private actors and infrastructure and public-services financed by ground leases: in effect a Henry George single tax.

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