The most liveable country in the world

One of my favorite journalists, Tyler Brule, editor-in-chief of Monocle, announced the magazine's top 20 cities survey in his FT "Fast Lane" column today. Copenhagen took first place, Munich second and Tokyo third (followed by Zurich, Helsinki, Vienna and Stockholm). Perhaps more interesting were the cities that were left out. Not only were there no Latin American or African cities in the list, but only three North American cities crept onto the top 20 -- Vancouver (deservedly) at #8, Montreal at #16 and Minneapolis at #19. So no New York City, no San Francisco and, most outrageously no Arcata, my wife and kid's favorite place on earth (no, please don't go there, it would ruin it for the rest of us).

Now, I'm not going to second guess Tyler who knows more about the world's liveable cities than probably anyone else. Here's his expert criteria for determining quality of life cities:

"What urban dwellers tell me they want is pretty standard: a mix of shops and services within walking distance, a good transport interchange within close proximity, green space as part of their residence, a good park with a body of water for a refreshing plunge nearby, independent businesses as a key feature of the community, a sense of security (police on the beat or a Japanese-style police box in their neighbourhood), excellent coffee (Melbourne’s Fitzroy and St Kilda and Sydney’s Potts Point frequently came up as neighbourhoods that had the ideal mix of restaurants, cafés and street life) and finally a little bit of grit and surprise."

But I wonder if Tyler would use the same criteria to determine liveable countries. After all, the decision to settle in a country is a much more abstract decision than deciding which city to reside. Rather than good shops and parks and coffee bars, what defines a liveable country? Is it the freedom to realize oneself, to identify with the social customs of a community, to embrace a collective history and culture? Or are the criteria more concrete -- taxes, efficient railway system, high quality media, democratic government, freedom from militias?

My own two most liveable countries are entirely contradictory. The first would be Italy -- entirely unliveable in practice, I know -- but nonetheless representative of a certain exquisite aesthetic and communal ideal. My other choice is America -- the antithesis of Italy -- a country communally and aesthetically imperfect, and yet an eminently liveable country. What is so distinctive about America is that one can live there without having to conform to anything or anyone. That's both America's greatest strength and its most serious weakness. Like going onto the Internet, living in America requires no contractual obligation. It's a place of rights rather than responsibilities. In the short term, then, I suspect that America is the most liveable country in the world. The great question, of course, is whether life in America can exist the long term.