If getting across the country still meant getting on your horse maybe having everything in one place would make sense. But it’s the 21st Century – should we be getting rid of capital cities altogether?
Donald Trump talked a lot in the 2016 election about ‘draining the swamp’, his shorthand for rooting out corruption and waste in the government (and specifically in Washington DC). Now some Republicans are starting to talk about a slightly different idea: moving the swamp.
A lot of the backlash against London and DC is political — people living outside of capitals are sometimes unhappy about decisions being made in far away cities by people who are ‘out of touch’ with their world.
Residents made their views pretty clear: “They have to come up north more, stop living down in London and burying their heads in Parliament and see how people live up here,” one said.
But there's also an economic case for rethinking the way we concentrate government jobs (and the money and power that go with them) in capital cities.
It could mean moving jobs to poorer areas...
As with most countries some parts of the US and UK are poorer than others. This is particularly true of regions affected by the loss of mining or manufacturing jobs over the last few decades.
Taking well paying jobs out of capital cities and putting them in struggling areas can help jump start local economies by bringing in people and outside money. It could give more options to young people who want to start careers in public service without leaving their hometown. One new employer can have a surprisingly big effect on a city or region’s economy, and moving a few big departments or ministries to the ‘rust belt’ in the US or the north of England could do a lot of good.
... and help with high housing costs…
Many capitals have notoriously high property prices. Moving jobs to another region could take some of the pressure off capital cities and cool down demand for housing and offices, which would keep prices in check.
Capital cities date back centuries...
Turn back the clock to 1800. There are no phones to chat with distant colleagues, no email to send documents (not even a fax machine!), and getting across the country probably still requires that horse of yours. It makes a lot of sense to have everything in one place.
Capitals also served a big strategic purpose: keeping all the government power in one place meant a country only had to defend one key city from conquering armies to keep the government working.
...but they aren’t as important in the 21st Century
But today we do have
. There are still very real benefits to close proximity — companies usually don’t want everyone to work from home all the time, and online universities haven’t put physical schools out of business — but these benefits aren’t as make-or-break as they used to be.
Plus, these days we’re a lot less worried about conquering armies than a natural disaster or terrorist attack that paralyzes an entire city. Keeping the government in one place could make it more vulnerable.
A lot of congresspeople weren't wild about the resolution, which only passed by one vote. The people representing DC and its suburbs said the move would seriously hurt the capital's economy. Other lawmakers thought the move was a waste of time, designed more to score political points than fix the economy.
Breaking up capital cities may not solve all our economic problems, but it could balance things out a bit. And if splitting government jobs up could help governments understand the views of people outside major cities better, then maybe it’s worth a shot.