For thousands of years, in an unbroken but accelerating trend, humans have migrated from rural areas into urban ones. It’s not hard to come up with reasons why, but in conventional parlance we say that people can find more opportunities in a city than on a piece of farm real estate. Still, that’s only part of the story.

In ancient days, cities weren’t worth much unless they were built near water because it could be used for irrigation and trade. These same economic advantages still hold, but moreso for the latter reason. With more trade comes more goods and services to sate human desires — of which you can be sure there are an infinite number. The more these desires are fulfilled, the happier (so the theory goes) humans are. In general, this should be rather obvious. Looking at the extremes, places where there are no choices (North Korea, various indigenous communities), humans almost always prefer lifestyles with more choices. I do not mean to say that indigenous communities do not have intrinsic value, merely that humans do not prefer them, just as I wouldn’t say a 1992 Ford Taurus isn’t worthless– but almost everyone (Conan O’Brien excepted) would prefer a 2009 Nissan Maxima if all things were equal.

New York City is arguably the greatest city on earth, a place where interesting, growing culture and life can be found in even the darkest and smallest nook and cranny, which in my mind cannot be said of Los Angeles, Barcelona, (my beloved) Hong Kong or Vienna… and Paris is in no way as dynamic a place as NYC. Speaking of French food, you can get it 24 hours a day at fine dining establishments all over NYC — good luck finding delicious cuisine in Paris at 4 am. ( I’ve tried. And failed. ) In New York, there’s more than job opportunities: there’s family, transplanted and reformed nationalities, linguistic hot zones, and, oh yeah… art.

To look at a list and read out loud every gallery and museum in New York City would take you hours. ( I recently enjoyed this post by Joanne Mattera on a beautiful, tasteful private home-cum-gallery. ) The diversity and wealth of aesthetic experience, perhaps only possible in New York City, is a direct function of trade. Trade opens up people to new possibilities, and enables different parties to, based on the principle of comparative advantage, share what they are good at. The more people you have in a place like New York City, in a country that prides liberty and trade like America, the more possibilities.

So when I read this article in the New York Times (h/t Russ) on the New York Philharmonic performing for free in Central Park, consider how many improbable but beautiful elements of this there are: a first-rate world-class orchestra that has served as America’s ambassadors to North Korea and soon possibly Cuba (an effort I support, unlike many of my GOP colleagues), people of all income levels enjoying its artistic excellence, and a green space where time slows a bit (just a bit) from the world’s greatest city that surrounds it. The space, incidentally, enjoyed as much for its moments of artistic resonance as its jogging paths.

And so I wonder how cognizant the New Yorkers are of just how anomalous their experience that night on the lawn was: the people in that orchestra can play in many other orchestras, but they chose New York (let us blessedly avoid discussion of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra for the time being). The painters and photographers whose work draws millions at Sotheby’s and Christie’s auctions but make their home in New York could live in Paris, London, Milan, Berlin, Tokyo, Beijing, Sydney, or any number of other cities. But they chose New York. Why? In part because the pay is better. In part because there’s more creative possibility — and these parts are related, neither being possible without the freedom of expression and number of people. I suppose what I am trying to get at, but am not expressing very well, is that urban aesthetic experiences like this are built on the backs of business people (and their families), those like the traders of ancient times who founded and built cities on rivers — who, today, are the daring entrepreneurs, empire-building capitalists, and, yes, the heroes of any given Ayn Rand novel.

The more regulations a city passes, the higher taxes a state imposes, the higher the barriers to entry for artists. ( How many low-income artists are going to be able to hire a lawyer or consult with the VLA? ) Sooner or later, the people gathered in Central Park to enjoy a perfect evening with the New York Philharmonic will have to confront a startling reality: it’s not as easy, as obvious, or as likely, that these kinds of aesthetic experiences come as a result of charity and luck. Although such experiences may indeed be ends in themselves, make no mistake, the artists can afford it — and they can afford it because they’re already satisfied in so many other ways (financially, temporally, etc.). This seemingly simple and eminently enjoyable experience is inextricably linked to the thriving, dynamic commercial nature of the city.

( Picture credit: New York Times (2008) )