Should U.S. Cities Allow Illegal Activity When It Works Well?

| 01/30/2013 2:07pm
Will Doig | Next City

The more you plumb the depths of informal systems in the developing world, the more you realize that the formal and the informal are not only symbiotic, they’re often indistinguishable.

This is certainly the case in Lima. At this point, trying to remove that city’s informal aspects would be like trying to extract cream from coffee. The formal and informal in Lima are so thoroughly blended together that the distinction between them has ceased to exist for many of the city’s residents, a fact vividly illustrated in Manuel Vigo’s blog post this week. Manuel offers a tour of the bustling Polvos Azules shopping complex, a mall that appears formal in nearly every respect — except for the fact that nearly all of its merchandise is bootlegged.

In many respects, Polvos Azules is highly functional. It sells a dazzling array of products not found in formal malls and provides employment for thousands of people. The fact that it is legally suspect is tolerated by pretty much everyone, including the police, because the city understands that dismantling it simply because it’s informal would do more harm than good.

In fact, the solution to Polvos Azules’ legal ambiguity might not be to change Polvos Azules, but to change the law – a notion that could be applied in many developing cities. This might seem strange to a Westerner, for whom changing laws to accommodate criminal activity sounds like turning the asylum over to the inmates. But it’s less nonsensical when you realize that, in the developing world, informality is not the alternative to the norm – often, the informal is the norm, comprising the systems that people are most comfortable with, and becoming indispensable with time. In those cases, it’s the formal realm that should sometimes be required bend to accommodate its informal counterpart, rather than the other way around.

Could such a mentality be good for U.S. cities? When the benefits of an informal solution outweigh any harm it might be causing, should officials simply look the other way? Strangely enough, this is the same question that’s currently driving the push for marijuana legalization in the United States, the sellers of which are some of America’s most successful informal vendors. The argument for legalizing pot usually harnesses the same logic as the argument for legalizing many informal goods and services: people want it, they’re acquiring it anyway, and keeping it verboten causes more problems than it solves. And indeed, in the U.S., the incremental pivot toward legal pot has often taken place exactly this way: with officials quietly declining to enforce the law.

American cities have more informality than they might realize, from the people who sell water out of coolers on Venice Beach to the pedicab operators who shuttle tourists around Manhattan. Many of these services face periodic crackdowns by authorities, even though they’re providing a service that the public likes. Point being, sometimes the inmates know what works best.