In the hinterland, plus ça change

America’s cities used to be closely linked to their surrounding regions as part of a single supply chain. Today, big cities often have stronger economic links to other big cities than they do to their own hinterland.

Journalist Emily Badger described that new development in a recent and engaging New York Times piece. In response, economist Paul Krugman wondered whether “small cities serving rural hinterlands” even have a reason to exist in today’s economy, besides “historical luck” that created pools of self-sustaining social capital there. Contra Krugman, economist Tyler Cowen argues that smaller cities have plenty of amenities that could ensure their survival even in a more globalized economy, including cheaper prices, less congestion and better governance.

There’s another angle that’s important not to miss in this debate about very real changes in how regional centers relate to their regions: None of this is entirely new.

The last time the world saw massive social, economic and political changes crash onto traditional ways of life all at once was at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. Historian Peter McPhee describes a familiar-sounding situation following the French Revolution on page 100 of his A Social History of France: 1789-1914.

There was an old order in which cities were tightly bound to their surrounding areas:

In many ways the provincial centres of ancien-régime institutions had been parasitic on the countryside: cathedral chapters, religious orders and resident nobles extracted ‘surplus’ from peasants which was expended in provincial towns such as Bayeux, Dijon and Angers through direct employment of domestic servants, indirect maintenance of skilled trades, especially in luxury goods, and in provision of charity… In the countryside around Angers, the Benedictine abbey of Ronceray had formerly owned 5 manors, 12 barns and wine-presses, 6 mills, 46 farms and 6 houses, bringing into the town 27,000 livres annually. Some of it employed — and was collected by — lawyers in the 53 courts and tribunals charged with ensuring that the countryside met its obligations.

Then there was upheaval, snapping the old bonds.

As a direct result of the Revolution, the countryside largely liberated itself from towns, leaving marketing and administration as the remaining links.

In the short-term, there was real suffering in some quarters (in this case, the regional centers), while others saw significant improvements in their standard of living from the change:

The population of Bayeux declined by 15 per cent by 1830, leaving administrators, those involved in the rich cattle and dairy industries, farm suppliers and an impoverished artisanate who could never hope to return to the days when they serviced a numerous and wealthy noble and clerical élite… The Trappist monastery of Bonnecombe in the Aveyron had distributed annually 300,000 livres’ worth of bread to the destitute, paid for from the tithe collected in the countryside; after 1789, the peasantry consumed that part of their produce and the urban destitute were in an even more precarious situation.

Over time and after much tumult, a new equilibrium was established. Some areas saw their populations decrease in response to new economic demands, while others saw an increase. (The biggest population shifts in 19th Century France, whose overall population largely stagnated, were to the major world city of Paris — contributing to the current state of affairs Badger describes.)

This isn’t to say that there is or isn’t a call for a policy response to today’s changes in the urban-hinterland relationship. We just need to recognize that there’s no one natural state of affairs between town and country, but rather a regularly evolving connection with both losers and winners.