Cities, Government, Law, and Civil Society

Paper by Heidi Li Feldman: “For too long, legal commentators have developed accounts of law, governments and civil society, and rights to access that society, from a national-federal perspective. As Americans increasingly live in cities, it is time for legal theorists to concentrate on municipalities as the locus of civil society. From an American national-federal perspective, government and law play primarily a remedial role with regard to civil society, stepping in only to resolve great inequities, usually by creating legally recognized civil rights and enforcing them. Civil society and civil rights, however, exceed this cramped national-federal window on it. Throughout the United States today, civil society is a multi-faceted arena for social coordination and social cooperation, for consonant and collective action of many different kinds. The only reason civil rights and the legal protection of them matters is because participation in civil society is makes it possible for individuals to engage in all manner of activities that are useful, enjoyable, and worthwhile. In other words, the significance of civil rights follows from the existence of a civil society worth participating in. To the extent that government can and does make civil society viable and valuable, it is an integral part of civil society. That feature gets lost in a remedial account of the relationship between government, law, and civil society. 

Perhaps the role of cities in civil society has been neglected by the legal academy because cities are not sovereigns. Sovereignty has often been the issue that provokes theoretical attention to government and its role in civil life. At the heart of the federal-national account of civil society and government is the potential threat the sovereign poses to other actors in civil society. But there is no necessary connection between concentrating on the nature and workings of sovereignty and considering the role for government and law in civil society. And when a government is not a sovereign, its ability to threaten is inherently constrained. That is what examining cities, non-sovereign governments embedded in a web of other governments, shows us. 

When we turn our attention to cities, a very different role for government and law emerges. Cities often exemplify how government and law can enable civil society and all those encompassed by it. They show how government can promote and amplify collective action, not only at the local level but even at the international one. In the United States today, governments can and do provide resources for consonant and collective action even in nongovernmental settings. Governments also coordinate and cooperate alongside fellow actors such as citizen activist groups, small and large businesses, labor unions, universities and colleges, and other nongovernmental organizations. This is particularly apparent at the local level. By delving into local government, we gain a distinctive perspective on the intersection of government and law, on one hand, and civil society, on the other — on what that intersection does, can, and should be like. This paper develops a first iteration of a locality centered account of civil society and the role for government and law within it. I examine a particular municipality, the City of Pittsburgh, to provide a concrete example from which to generate ideas and judgements about the terrain and content of this localist account….(More)”.