This post has evolved out of a number of different conversations I’ve had in real life, and one in particular with a person I otherwise respect and have known since I was six years old. He has become very entrenched in an almost libertarian view of the world, and I wanted to contextualize the reasons I held my own views in a way that de-escalated his sense that “all liberals just want to take my money”. It wasn’t an argument; I cannot speak for him, and I cannot speak for other people, but I can explain my own thoughts and reasons for my choices. (He expected that I would hold his beliefs — and I get this a lot, for reasons that are entirely and completely unclear to me.)
In the end, he could understand my views clearly, and I think it surprised him that he could; they made sense to him even if he disagreed with them; they were motivations that weren’t part of the calculus of his assumptions about people … like me.
I live in a city (Toronto). When I was growing up, I lived in a suburb (North York), which was folded into the city of Toronto sometime between then and now. When my family first moved into the house I lived in until I moved out of my parent’s home, sidewalks hadn’t been fully constructed, and there was a farm two blocks away. I don’t know what kind of farm it was – I don’t remember that at all – but the important feature of that farm was ponies. We used to take carrots and head to the farm and feed the ponies on the other side of a fence which seemed, at a great remove, not to be much of a fence at all, it would have been so easy to crawl through the very large wire rectangles.
This did not last very long; I was still a child when the ponies and their fence and our carrot-feeding expectations disappeared. More houses sprang up, as if by magic; by the time I had finished elementary school, we were smack in the middle of streets full of suburban houses – the smaller houses, not the large ones that often spring up now.
I still live in Toronto, five minutes from the nearest subway; I don’t have a driver’s license, so proximity to transit was important. There are two large grocery stores and a handful of the smaller fruit/vegetable places which are also five or ten minutes away, by foot.
I have always lived in a city.
I have friends who have not, or do not.
When I was younger, I was talking to someone who had moved to Toronto from the USian south. It was the first time in my life that I discovered that “Hey, guys, we need to leave” was not universally the general “everyone”; I had to explain that “guys” in this context was neither a gendered word nor a denial of my friend’s actual gender.
This wasn’t difficult. What was more difficult was explaining city manners.
She found the city too large and too cold; people were too impersonal. No one asked general social questions. As I was asking general social questions, this struck me as odd, so I pointed this out.
This was not what she meant. She meant: no one in the stores, no one in the restaurants, no librarians, no professors, were social. As I had zero desire to be asked social/personal questions by total strangers, this also struck me as odd.
It slowly became clear that living in a much smaller town meant that no one who lived there was a total stranger. Therefore, living in a place in which there were total strangers was an unexpected shock to the system.
This got me to thinking, and I’ve been thinking about this, on and off, for years. My natural horror at having, oh, everyone around me in my business is a function of living in a city.
There are millions of people living here, some on top of each other (literally) in the apartment buildings down the road. There are too many people to build a community in which everyone knows everyone else, or at least knows of everyone else.
But in a city you can more easily find your tribe: a community that exists that has things in common with you. Communities are often built on interests, on activities that people enjoy in common, on commonalities such as race, gender, sexual orientation or career. Within those are sub-communities, and they continue in an almost fractal spread.
In a city, conformity is by necessity much less of a problem: There are far, far more communities, and even if each pressures its members to conform to their standards, there are a lot of standards.
It’s why the “do no harm” metric has evolved. It’s simply impossible to impose a single standard across millions of people. If a community in which I play no part is doing no harm, I support the changes that will make their lives easier or better.
In a city, good manners is minding your own business. People often think cities are cold — and I’ve often found this confusing because I live in one.
Whenever I have seen accidents (or been in one) people come to help. Are they people I know? No. But when there is a visible and immediate need, people step up. If there isn’t, they step back because they are much more aware of social boundaries, of remaining within their own social boundaries, of minding their own business.
In cities, people are therefore likely to be more liberal. The laws form guidelines for acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. Some of those laws seem dead obvious, and they’re shared across the country: don’t steal, don’t kill, etc. But city people been raised more or less to mind our own business and to do no harm.
We’ve been raised in a plethora of different overlapping communities. When, for instance, gay marriage was being contested, almost everyone I knew (including parents) could see no reason why it wasn’t acceptable. It would not materially change our lives in any way, and it would materially make the lives of people who also live in our city better. Our personal communities would not be affected in a negative way, and other people would be happier; they’d have legal protection if their spouse passed away, among other things.
We learn not to judge the differences, even if we don’t fully understand them; it’s not our business to fully understand the lives of total strangers. Our entire life is full of strangers as a matter of fact.
In a small community that is bound by the fact of geography, community means something different than it does in a city. You can know everyone in your county; you can know their parents, their kids, etc. When there’s an emergency – like, say, when a giant tree falls across your only way of leaving your home in a blizzard – people who are in your community will come with tractors and saws and etc., and help get rid of that tree. Yes, you might be an oddball (writer!), but you’re still part of the responsibility of the community at large regardless. (This happened to a writer friend in the US.)
In a city, this function is absorbed not by your neighbors — none of whom will have tractors or chainsaws — but by the government. In a city, with postage stamp size backyards and front yards, the definition of useful and necessary is different.
As I mentioned above, I don’t even have a driver’s license; I live five minutes away from public transit. (In covid times, however, I’ve been avoiding public transit). We have a tiny lawn; a push mower can cut it. We have manual snow shovels because our walk/drive couldn’t accommodate a snow blower.
The garbage in a city is collected by ginormous garbage trucks on specific days of the week. The water is handled by the city. Sewage is handled by the city. The trees that get too old and drop branches on houses? The city handles those as well, if they’re not on your (tiny) property. There are city ordinances about what kind of weeds you are not allowed to have growing in your yard.
There are, again, commonalities. Schools. Policing. But the people I know who live in the counties are responsible for their own wells, their own septic tanks; I think they can and do burn their own garbage (I have been corrected; not all garbage can be legally burned, but you have to take it to depots yourself). (This is off the top of my head; I’m sure there are many more of which I’m unaware.)
I think the reason people in cities tend to support more government initiatives, and more taxes is, oddly enough, because of the city sense of community. There is simply no way to keep an eye on all of the people in a city, to bring your tractors, to help out where help is both permitted and not humiliating, to everyone who might need it. We can’t physically take care of everyone who is in need of help; we likely won’t even know they are.
Do city people help out? Yes, of course. When a falling 2x4 in a windstorm fell off the roof of a three story building at great speed, bounced off the sidewalk, narrowly missing a pedestrian, and shattered the back window of our car, all of the passing pedestrians stopped instantly, crowding around that shattered window and the person who was directly beside it, to make sure that he was okay. (He was.)
But… those people are people I’ve never met, and am likely never to meet again, not because I’ve offended them, but because the city is so large and so full of people. I don’t expect to meet them again; they don’t expect to be met.
The various taxes, the various improvements to life in the city are a form of community support; we accept up front that we’re never going to see all of the people in the city, or even a small fraction of it — but there persists a sense that we are still all in this together.
If I were living in the county, I’d probably find taxes more frustrating; I can understand how the increase in taxes won’t necessarily seem either helpful or useful for the county; that people there tend to take care of themselves and their own. Our city lives are built around the idea that water, sewage, garbage are facts of life that we do not handle ourselves.
I think the divide in voting patterns — urban vs rural — stem from the city sense of community vs the rural sense of community. For people like me, the taxes are an expression of community responsibility for people I can’t see, don’t know, will never know, but still live in my city. And because that’s the base, it extends more readily to the rest of the country.
I was grateful for the CERB (the covid-19 relief payments to individuals), and for the speed of its release and its payments; everyone I know who needed that money got it. Will my taxes increase? Oh yes. My husband’s as well. But it’s the form of outreach for tens of millions of people that I could not, ever, afford to do on my own. And it’s an outreach that I considered necessary.
People who were, through no fault of their own, suddenly out of work could still eat and pay rent; they might be trapped in their homes, but they would still have homes.
There are many, many things I do not know how to do. I can’t fix electrical work. I can’t fix my own plumbing (it’s considered the worst of the things to try if you have no experience, given the damage getting it wrong can do). I can’t fix a car, let alone drive one. I do not know the first thing about growing anything organic (children don’t count). I know that septic tanks exist, but have no experience with maintenance; I don’t know much about wells.
Could I learn these things? Yes. But they wouldn’t be practical for me to learn. Not because they’re inherently useless or inferior, but because they serve no purpose to me, in the city. There are things in the city that serve no inherent purpose in rural communities, but I’m less aware of them because I’ve always lived in a city.
I say all of this not to tell people they should be voting differently, but to explain some of the context about how I view voting and its outcomes.
In the county, you go help your neighbors personally. It’s a community responsibility. In the city, you don’t; you extend that help through the taxes you are willing to pay. In both cases, there’s a sense of responsibility, and it’s a driving force — but we don’t inherently see them the same way because of where, and how, we live.
*Also: there are a ton of people who live in cities who want to pay no tax. There are people in the counties who are liberal. This is Michelle talking out loud about my observations — and of necessity, I see only a fraction of, well, anything.