Small Isn’t Beautiful? Localism and Its Critics

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Caldwell, ID. In his excellent review of Trevor Latimer’s Small Isn’t Beautiful, FPR associate editor Adam Smith closed with a challenge to his fellow localists to read the book and to let the arguments force us to think a bit more clearly about what exactly we mean by localism and how we practice it. Intrigued by the book and by our reviews of it—see also Russell Arben Fox’s incisive review—I took Smith’s bait and asked for a follow-up interview.

The definition of localism, or, more specifically, “normative localism,” that guides Small Isn’t Beautiful is simple: “localism is the belief or the claim that we should prioritize the local by making decisions, exercising authority, or implementing policy locally or more locally.” We discuss this definition and more below.

Latimer received his PhD in Politics from Princeton University and has taught at New York University, Dartmouth College, and the University of Georgia.

Latimer: First of all, I want to thank you giving me the opportunity to develop some themes—and soften some arguments—from my book. I feel honored that the book as garnered so much attention from Front Porch Republic.

Stewart: It is my pleasure. We’re grateful for friendly debate. First question: Is there really a danger that localism is taking over America? Like Adam Smith in his review of your book at FPR, I found myself surprised to read your description of the influence of localism. In what ways is localism a powerful force, and in what ways is it still a marginal movement?

Latimer: No. There is no danger that localism will take over America. If I said that or implied that in the book, I was exaggerating for effect.

Wait, not so fast. There is a danger that localism will take over America. But it’s small and of roughly the same magnitude as the danger of America turning into a centralized dictatorship.

In my book I show that there are many different kinds of localism. I hesitate to paint Front Porch Republic with too broad a brush, but I think it would be fair to say that many of its (localist) readers are communitarian or classically republican in their localism. There is a romantic strain as well. In these forms, localism becomes associated with human flourishing and a particular vision of the good life. These are perfectionist views.

There is another kind of localism exemplified by the American Enterprise Institute’s (AEI) Localism in America: Why We Should Tackle Our Big Challenges at the Local Level. That form of localism is consequentialist rather than perfectionist; for the AEI crowd, localism should be adhered to because it helps solves problems. It says nothing about the good life. Here I’m really just rehashing a major divide in moral theory (consequentialism vs. perfectionism), but it maps well enough onto two very different strands of localism.

I think this gets me closer to actually answering your question. Localism is certainly still a marginal movement in its communitarian or republican or perfectionist forms—the very forms that resonate most with The Porch. Adam Smith, in his review of my book, is right that “Wendell Berry still hasn’t been named Secretary of Agriculture” and that the Secretary of Agriculture probably hasn’t read any Wendell Berry. (President Obama did, however, award Wendell Berry the 2010 National Humanities Medal alongside Joyce Carol Oates and Philip Roth, among others.)

My guess—I don’t claim to have evidence—is that communitarian localism is not “on the march” precisely because it has a comprehensive conception of the good as rich and as thick (and as difficult to explain and adhere to) as Marx’s conception of human flourishing through creative work. Perfectionism is hard, and the problem, for communitarian localists like Wendell Berry, is that it’s a vision of the good life that many of us simply cannot accept, as much as we might like to.

Stewart: Which is more concerning to you: what we might call bumper sticker localists who simply assume localism is good but live like any other American, or principled localists who have changed their lives to become more localist, and who advocate coherently for localist principles?

Latimer: Neither bumper sticker localists nor principled localists concern me all that much. The bumper sticker localists are certainly annoying. Incidentally, I own a bumper sticker (a gift from snarky colleague) that urges fellow motorists to support their local everything.

The principled localists (not to imply that all the other localists are unprincipled!) are certainly far more interesting. I really respect them and value their contribution to our discourse. They aren’t concerning for the same reason as in my answer to the previous question: it’s hard to convince people to adopt somewhat arcane perfectionist views, especially when they do not promise salvation.

My real concern is when the ideas of bumper sticker localism or principled localism seep into the culture and influence people in positions of power. I suppose if I had to choose, I’m more concerned by bumper sticker localism because it is easier to accept and apply uncritically.

Stewart: When I was first encountering localism, I came across a paragraph from Caleb Stegall that has stuck with me: “To practice this discipline [of place] is to believe that to suffer one’s place and one’s people in the particularity of its and their needs is the primary basis for finding love, friendship, and an authentic, meaningful life. This is nothing less, I would argue, than the key to the pursuit of Christian holiness, which is the whole of the Christian adventure: to live in love with the frailty and limits of one’s existence, suffering the places, customs, rites, joys, and sorrows of the people who are in close relation to you by family, friendship, and community—all in service of the truth, goodness, and beauty that is best experienced directly.” Whether defined as Stegall has it here or in another way, the idea of place is not a primary theme of your book, though tangential discussions show up in the “Belonging” and “Nature” chapters. How might this sensibility fit into your arguments about localism?

Latimer: This is a really good question to which I don’t have a great answer. My colleague Paulina Ochoa Espejo has done a much better job than I have drawing the connections between localism and place in On Borders: Territories, Legitimacy, and the Rights of Place.

When I was looking for a way to understand what the various strands of localism had in common, I gravitated toward space rather than place because, in my view, not all localists care about place but all localists care about space, at least to some degree.

Place matters. Many people feel a connection to the places in which they live and work. Even I feel connected to places sometimes, usually through a vivid memory of happiness or camaraderie.

Stewart: Grappling with your book helped me see that I am more committed to federalism than localism as you define it. I have no problem admitting that local governments can fail (as they did in the U.S. during the Jim Crow era, for example), but because I think the national government has more power and attracts more attention now, I think the balance of power needs to shift in the direction of state and local governments. I would guess that at least some other localists are more federalist/subsidiarist/relative localists than normative localists as well, in that they want to help balance the scales in the direction of the local because they worry that the scales are currently weighted too much in the direction of the national/international. Your arguments are directed primarily against normative localists, and you acknowledge the value of local governments. Would you consider yourself a relative localist at all, given your acknowledgement of the value of some localist insights?

Latimer: You caught me. In some cases, I accept that we should make decisions, exercise authority, or implement policy locally or more locally.

I think the idea of balancing the scales makes a lot of sense. Nevertheless, as I argue in the book, it’s fairly hard to tell where the balance currently lies. Some people think the national government is too powerful. Others don’t think it’s powerful enough. The balancing the scales argument works equally well on both sides!

Stewart: I agree that localists might be inclined to overlook ways that local governments tip the scales in their favor at times. An objection, nonetheless: failures of local government seem to be limited in a way that failures of national or international governments are not. In your book, you suggest local governments fail by falling into chaos, and larger-scale governments fail by becoming tyrannical. The technological developments of the digital age and the increased potential for surveillance that is now possible suggests to me that concerns about tyranny might be more pressing than concerns about chaos. You write, “Centralization can facilitate great good as well as great evil. Localism guards against great evil but also thwarts great good.” Maybe I underrate the great goods you are discussing, but I think it is more dangerous to underrate great evils. Another way to put it: chaos is a terrible evil to be avoided, but it is not as dehumanizing as the evil of tyranny. What do you make of this position?

Latimer: Before giving my answer, let me clarify that the passage you paraphrased, that large-scale governments fail by becoming tyrannical, is not quite my view. I think governments, large and small, fail in lots of different ways. Failing is easy.

I’ve never really been compelled by the “centralization descends into tyranny” argument. In his Commonwealth Club Address, Franklin Roosevelt reminded us that “in many instances the victory of the central government, the creation of a strong central government, was a haven of refuge to the individual. The people preferred the master far away to the exploitation and cruelty of the smaller master near at hand.” John Stuart Mill—certainly a friend to liberty—warned us of “local despots.”

To address your question more directly: I interpret the argument you’re making—that concerns about tyranny are more pressing than concerns about chaos (presumably because of the magnitude of the evil of the former exceeds that of the of the latter) as an interesting version of the precautionary principle. Maybe I’m stretching things. But the idea is that because the evil of centralized tyranny is so extreme—you use the word dehumanizing—that we should proceed with centralization with extreme caution—and we may even have reason to prefer localism because of it.

Setting aside the fact that the precautionary principle has its fair share of detractors, my response is to ask whether we really have good grounds for assuming (and that’s what we’re doing right?) that tyranny is worse that chaos? And calling it chaos, which I admit is a term I use, is to understate is own forms of cruelty, tyranny, and dehumanization. In the absence of some evidence or a compelling argument, I can’t help but to see symmetry.

Stewart: Your book raises a disquieting suggestion to me: just as with some variations of communism and libertarianism, I wonder if some people are attracted to localism because it gives us a utopian ideal to strive for that we know will never actually be implemented in the ways that we advocate. At its worst, this tendency could look more like a refusal to accept responsibility for the actual political moment rather than a proper recognition of limits. Do you sense that problem in your study of localist thought? Are the post prevalent forms of localism more of an aesthetic or a brand than a real political position?

Latimer: I think the unattainable utopia you speak of is certainly there in some strands of localism. I don’t necessarily think of it as a problem, however. Unattainable utopias help us measure the world against an ideal. Libertarians read Anarchy, State, and Utopia and Communists read Marx not as checklists but as models. Deviation from the ideal is expected but abandoning the ideal would leave us without a powerful way of articulating the ways in which we want to change the world.

Localism is certainly a brand and an aesthetic—even I feel the pull of the local. I think localism as a brand or aesthetic is mostly harmless. One argument I wish I had considered more fully in the book is that localism as brand or aesthetic preserves and even expands the variety of goods and services available to us—think of the proliferation of craft beer in the last 20 years. Localism has succeeded in this regard.

Localism is also a serious political position, but uncommon in proportion to its seriousness. My concern in all of this has always been drift or seepage of arguments from one domain into another. Arguments have lives of their own and so we should be careful what we do with them.

Stewart: Thanks for helping sharpen our thinking on localism, Trevor. It’s been a pleasure.

7 COMMENTS

  1. “My real concern is when the ideas of bumper sticker localism or principled localism seep into the culture and influence people in positions of power.”
    Well then he should sleep easy because there is no flavor of localism that has any influence at all over anyone who has any power at all.
    Go ahead and go to one of the innumerable small towns that look like a neutron bomb went off and tell people there that “localism” is the problem. That’d make a good story.
    The fact is that people like this always say, when confronted with all these obliterated towns, some combination of 1. the town sucked anyway, and 2. the local Walmart means these people are so much better off than they used to be.

  2. Try actually living your whole life in a small town full of families and their relations, their terrible children, the religion on the skids, the gossip traps and toxic church ladies, their centuries of repression and its weekly return in monstrous farces, the closeting of original minds and bodies, the incapacity to get through adolescence or allow anyone to do so, the catastrophization of garden variety sexuality or divorce, the clustering of broken and talentless left-behinds, and all the intergenerational psychoses.

    Even without the accumulated traumas of the past five centuries, there is nothing in even the late medieval literature to suggest anything but crisis has ever prevailed, and — as Raymond Williams noted — the depredations of “culture” and “agriculture.” These words are etymological signposts to the loss of healthy living and healthy land.

    The words we use for things we think are lost or damaged are just battered signs for things that never existed or always were lost or damaged. Hiraeth and Saudade. The old nostalgia trap.

    You should ask what Stegall thinks of it all now!

    • Perhaps I’m being Ron Obvious here, but surely there are small towns that don’t resemble the description in your first paragraph. And even if some of those characteristics are present in many small towns, it would seem to me that people might be willing to live with them given the corresponding depredations present in urban life. By all means leave if you want to, but don’t bash the folks who choose to stay. They may very well have good reason to.

      “The old nostalgia trap”

      It can be a trap but it isn’t always one.

  3. Let me suggest that “localism” is the wrong term. Indeed, by itself, it’s a terrible term. The proper term is “subsidiarity.” Subsidiarity involves a hierarchy of powers, but in a non-traditional way. Traditionally in a hierarchy, the lower serves the higher, to add to the strength and power of the forces at the “top.” Subsidiarity reverses this: the higher levels exist _only_ to serve the lower, to provide functions which the lower cannot provide for itself. The whole structure exists only to support the local community and, above all, the family. That is, subsidiarity stands the whole idea of hierarchy on its head.

    Why is “localism” the wrong term? Because the world is always composed of powerful forces, entities and institutions whose power dwarfs anything at the local level. Leaving the local to itself would leave it also at the mercy of these powers. And in a globalized economy, these forces exercise power on a global level, and few communities can, by themselves, defy them.

    There is a real sense in which “localism” requires empire, and empire that can stand against rival “privatized” or foreign powers. It needs to be constituted by, and responsible to, the communities it serves. To be sure, it needs to represent the individual persons, but more importantly, the particular communities that it is means to serve. Politically, that’s a tall order, but not, I think, an impossible one.

    I said “localism” by itself, is a terrible term, because in a contest between a neighborhood and globalized commercial interests, localism will be a mere sham.

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