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Wednesday, March 15, 2023

On Latimer, Localism, Liberalism, and Democracy

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

Trevor Latimer’s Small Isn’t Beautiful: The Case Against Localism deeply engaged me, but not in a positive way, at least not initially. As one already inclined to respond defensively to his j’accuse against localism (one which he levels because, in his view, “localism can do and has done real harm to real people”—p. 15), I admit I found the book, despite its occasional strong arguments, too much like a meandering whine. Basically, it seemed as though that Latimer had decided—on the basis of a good deal of anecdotal observation but little systematic assessment—that American society is suffering from an “idolatry of localism” (p. 229), and was annoyed by it. His disparate responses to that supposed idolatry in turn annoyed me.

Fortunately, I then read Adam Smith’s much more complimentary take on Latimer’s work, and that gave me pause. Not because Smith's review of the book provided persuasive support for Latimer’s anti-localist assertions, but because Smith found in his arguments an occasion to rethink why he, or I, or anyone so inclined, might identify with localism in the first place. And such rethinking is always helpful, because localism is admittedly a strange beast—it can be understood (as Latimer observes—p. 25) as a theory, an idea, a doctrine, an ideology, a phenomenon, an activity, and/or a process, and hence requires much critical thought. And Smith’s particular rethinking is more clarifying about the project of localism than Latimer’s criticisms of it.

Latimer’s criticisms are, I think, very much a product of his self-confessed pragmatic, and therefore unavoidably utilitarian, individualism. He insists that his explicitly “consequentialist and welfarist” perspective isn’t necessarily utilitarian, in the sense that he allows that the consequences of any particular policy or position should be judged on the basis of more than simple utility; when it comes to assessing the welfare of persons, “complex values count too.” But it’s not clear to me just what the “complexity” of those values might consist of, since the notion of assessing the consequences of any given policy or position on the basis of anything other than that welfare which can be materially observed or surveyed in the lives of specific individuals is simply irrelevant to his analysis. Quoting the philosopher T.M. Scanlon, he dismisses any reasons or values “that are not tied to the well-being, claims, or states of individuals in any particular position” (pp. 15-16). No res publica, no commonweal, no public interest for him (though he will make use of the latter term when it suits him, only without any kind of communitarian framework that might give it a moral or philosophical heft).

Consequently, the definition of localism that Latimer reiterates throughout the book—”prioritizing the local by making decisions, exercising authority, or implementing policy locally or more locally” (p. 27)—is always employed in terms of the practical benefits which it may or may not provide to particular individuals. This makes it impossible for Latimer to accurately assess, or even to really fully acknowledge, what seems to me a key component of localism, however construed: the philosophical anthropology that builds upon the kind of love which human beings routinely have, and in localist thinking normatively ought to be able to have, for those people and those natural and social forms and patterns and practices most immediate to their lives.

The love of, or the affection for, or the attachment to, the particular that I’m talking about is grounded in our existence as physically embodied creatures, whose awareness of and reflection upon the world can never be (at least until the transhumanist revolution, and maybe not even then) entirely separated from the tactile and the sensory and the circumscribed. Given this historical—even evolutionary—reality, developing an affection for one’s physical and social environs, for one’s place and one’s community, for a context that is both materially present and publicly knowable, has been recognized (and not just by convinced defenders of localist political arrangements) as constitutive of our persons and of our capacity to publicly act and reason and create and judge, in a way unlike any other pedagogical or experiential development.

This classically republican insight into the nature of human beings and human sociality is, admittedly, not always well articulated by those drawn to localism, perhaps in part because many localists grasp at it as a political foil for liberal modernity and not because of any deep civic commitment to local communities as a moral reference point. (This idea is well-addressed in Smith’s review.) Whatever the superficial motivation involved, however, this kind of thinking, with its emphasis upon the ties between local knowledge, local attachments, and human virtue that we can find in Aristotle and Wendell Berry and a thousand thinkers in between, is I suspect nearly always nonetheless assumed by all those—call them “conservatives,” whether left-leaning or otherwise—who recognize that a world circumscribed solely by rationally derived principles of the self or law or the market provides fewer and fewer spaces for such development. That Latimer does not engage with this thinking, preferring to stipulate a “normative individualism” instead, limits much of his philosophical and policy analysis (p. 109).

True, Latimer mentions both Aristotle and Berry (as well as many other localist and communitarian thinkers), but primarily only in two chapters of the book, those addressing arguments for localism (as he understands them, at least) from “belonging” and from “nature.” Some of those critiques are solid, directly posing challenges to the philosophical anthropology of localism, and thus should give localists pause. But many others go frustratingly awry. His attack on belonging boils down to an attack on the partiality which such attachments involve, while his attack on nature denies that there is any moral valence to natural sentiments anyway. In both cases, by working from within his welfarist and individualist frame, Latimer fails to fully grasp what it is localists are even talking about when they focus on the particular, and hence most of his arguments never fully connect.

Consider his attack upon the common localist concern with the size of those communities within which we live. He asserts that those who point out that large, complicated agglomerations of people are an unnatural site for the aforementioned development are confused: even if it is the case that certain elements of human nature are resistant to bigness, nonetheless “it is human nature to exceed itself” (p. 112). Leaving aside the potentially problematic implications of that assumption, it is striking that the size of a sphere of civic action and potential attachment is for Latimer relevant solely in terms of its level of welfare-provision. Berry’s articulation of affection as a virtue at least partly bound up with sticking to a definable place and a knowable people, or Aristotle’s insistence upon a definable polis or patria as crucial to the virtuous telos of the human being, make no appearance in Small Isn’t Beautiful, and that is no small oversight.

The idea of affectionate, tactile, even routine civic belonging, so crucial to the case that bounded communities and neighborhoods and other localities make for themselves, is cast by Latimer into a cost-benefit analysis as to whether one may justly “prioritize one’s own locale”—which, again, is for him wholly a matter of whether that prioritization will contribute to the material flourishing of disaggregated individuals. Since some localities enjoy resources and levels of social trust greater than others, justice might demand “that residents of flourishing communities disfavor their own communities and instead favor struggling locales” (p. 71). In support of this judgment, he asserts that being “agent neutral” is simply “a fundamental commitment of modernity,” which is an odd assertion, considering how elsewhere he dismisses “commonsense morality” as insufficient without supportive reasons to believe it (pp. 68-69).

To actually spell out the problem here in his own language: it is, I believe, simply an anthropological reality of human sociality that the community-building “favors” which individuals provide to and receive from their localities—the taxes paid and the governmental services and programs received, obviously, but also the volunteering, the civic participation, the local commercial activity, the pride, the social interaction and involvement, and so much more—cannot be regarded as discreet bundles of individual acts. Rather, they are all tied up with an affective and collective character formation process. But this claim is illegible in Latimer’s analysis; for him affection, like any utility, must be fungible. If one prioritizes that set of relationships closest to where one lives, simply because they are the relationships one knows best, then you are acting in a “morally suspect” way: “we are not entitled to beggar thy neighbor” he insists, weirdly reading the feeling of local attachment as a zero-sum drain upon all inputs that human beings may make to one another (p 75). He quotes Adam Smith’s classic insistence upon the importance of sacrificing private interest for that of the public (though his presumption that “private” equals “local” and “public” equals “non-local” is neither explained nor defended), acknowledges that Smith also insisted that universal cares “can never be an excuse for neglecting the more humble department,” but then quickly insists that “the critic of localism hardly demands ‘neglect' [of the local]’’ (p. 77). Why the same can’t be said for advocates of localism who might well also care about various universals is not explained.

Latimer is not wrong in noting that, to the extent one can identify specific prioritizations which really are zero-sum—city and county governments taking tax dollars away from more general funds so as to lure corporations and employers away from other localities with tax incentives and write-offs, all in the name of local development, for example—the arguments for them are extremely poor. In these cases and others like it, Latimer’s attack on local attachments are on point: some localists do indeed present communities as “unstructured, undifferentiated blobs” (though far fewer in my experience than seems to be the case for him), and by so doing make principled arguments about the need for nested, federal arrangements more complicated than they need to be; similarly, his use of critical political geography against simplistic conceptions of subsidiarity should be taken to heart, allowing us to see that, in certain matters, a fetishization of spatiality in thinking about decision-making can only “confuse and distract” (pp. 94, 111). But it is frustrating that such legitimate, pointed criticisms are used to prop up a broad, often internally inconsistent attack on what is, fundamentally, a deep and complex aspect of human history and anthropology—one that, at different points in the text, Latimer seems willing to acknowledge the reality of anyway, which at the very least made me wonder just where his annoyance with localism truly rests.

Other chapters of the book, addressing arguments for localism dealing with “tyranny,” “knowledge,” and “efficiency,” generally do not go as deep into the philosophical forest, and thus end up missing fewer trees. As regards localism as a response to the threat of tyranny, Latimer helpfully distinguishes between the centralization and concentration of governing power and correctly points out that localism is “a response to centralization, a special kind of concentration of power, not concentration as such” (p. 63). His claim that localism and centralization are parallel vices is weak, though; stipulating that moving away from centralization and towards localism invites fragmentation and anarchy requires at least as much argument as he gives to the problem of concentration, and that he doesn’t provide.

As regards localism as a response to the problem of knowledge, he freely grants the insights of such thinkers as F.A. Hayek and James Scott and allows that local knowledge is often essential to effectively serving the welfare of individuals—as he puts it, “that local governments and local people have an indispensable role to play in policy development and implementation” (p. 161). But he also insists such an argument is obvious today, and that localists go too far in insisting that the remote collection of knowledge and perspectives by non-local agents and the centralized processing of such does not change it or compromise its integrity, which makes me curious to understand Latimer’s theories of bureaucracy or knowledge, or if he has any.

And as regards localism and the argument from efficiency, Latimer probably makes his strongest points against much localist rhetoric; too often localists assume administrative centralization (which would be the aforementioned processes of handling local knowledge) and governmental centralization (which would be the scaling up of fundamental political decision-making) are identical, but they are not. To use examples particular to the United States, the power to administratively experiment, which has historically been embraced by those who celebrate the power of states (such as under some readings of the 10th Amendment), could be extended further to local counties and cities (such as under the principle of Home Rule and the Cooley Doctrine), without compromising the federal settlement under the Supremacy clause of the U.S. Constitution. He notes that “policy experimentation requires [administrative] initiative but not [governmental] immunity” (p. 191), and he’s not wrong.   

That leaves Latimer’s chapter on localism and the argument for “democracy,” which I think is the densest and most frustrating of all of his engagements with his topic, and also the one which brings me back around to Smith’s perceptive comments on what Latimer’s attacks on localism reveal about the thinking of many localists themselves. The density and frustration comes from the way Latimer conflates a large variety of admittedly difficult arguments that have been made over the millennia about democratic rule, lining them up against localist conceptions of democracy in a somewhat arbitrary manner. The connection to Smith’s comments come from the way Latimer’s anti-localism—unavoidably, I think—makes use of common anti-democratic tropes about the presumed divisiveness and injustice of democratic participation. As Smith admirably confesses, perhaps certain localists are wrong in assuming that democratically empowering people within their spatial divisions will lead to preferred outcomes; as he put it,  perhaps some localists “smuggle our opinions about what should be decided into our statements about who should decide.”

To select a few of Latimer’s multiple overlapping arguments, he claims that, assuming one accepts the democratic legitimacy of electoral representation, questions of spatial proximity and size ignore “system effectiveness”—after all, while citizens “in large communities are less likely to influence decisions…those decisions are more consequential and more likely to be translated into outcomes” (p. 124). Hopefully, even those resistant to communitarian or republican ideas will recognize that making “consequentialness” solely a function of how many individuals are effected by a decision in total, ignoring entirely the affective dimension of that democratic empowerment which emerges when citizens are able to make decisions within their own communities, however humble or limited, is contestable at the very least.

Similarly contestable—and, in fairness, Latimer allows that his arguments regarding democratic participation are “less sure-footed” that his others (p. 127)—is the data he employs on the rates of local incumbent re-election, or on local media consumption, or on the social position of local activists, or on the convolutedness of local decision-making boards, all to suggest that arguments which tie localism and democracy together merely assume what they claim to support: the existence of a democratic local political culture. And it is exactly that kind of localist culture of politics—a culture which demands, in Latimer’s words, that governments be “more accountable to their [meaning, that localities’] citizens” (p. 147)—that Smith admits that, just maybe, many who call themselves localists don’t actually want. Why? I suspect primarily because prioritizing civic and democratic formation cannot be predictably tied to any particular policy outcome--especially not, as the localities in question often reflect progressive ideas characteristic of urban communities, illiberal ones.

People are urbanizing across the globe; changing technologies of commerce, information, finance, and communication have been making that inevitable for many decades. There are many reasons to think critically about the cultural and economic consequences of this characteristic of late modernity; as FPR readers in particular ought to be quick acknowledge, the agrarian critique should be made part of any localist (and therefore republican or communitarian—and I would say also socialist) one as well. But as Smith observes, for some localists the frustration is that local democracy in urban settings often contravenes the preferred outcomes of many of those who had embraced jurisdictional arguments for localism primarily because they'd assumed that their preferences would find greater support “in the country and the small towns” stereotypically association with localist politics. He thus asks: “to what extent are we localists, and to what extent are we postliberals, and to what extent are these positions compatible?” It’s a good question and---for left-leaning localist writers like myself, who have occasionally wondered why some longstanding advocates of localism seem uninterested in the classical republican literature when it comes to working out the implications of local democratic empowerment in our increasingly urbanized world---a revealing one.

Latimer has his vision: it is the maximization of measurable individual welfare. Localism is, for him, usually a false path towards achieving that. I think the case he makes has many flaws. But to the extent that his book helps some localist thinkers recognize that a defense of localism should rest not upon aggregate material results but rather upon a recognition of the moral and anthropological value of certain forms of civic engagement and democratic empowerment—and therefore not upon securing anti-urban political victories in various culture war issues—then it deserves praise. Latimer does end his book on a more positive note, hoping to provide “some lessons for localism from a skeptic” (p. 225). Maybe he actually succeeded at this: just in a far more conceptual way than he—or I, upon my first reading—thought.

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