More on Localism

trekandshoot_localism© CAN STOCK PHOTO / trekandshoot

Yeah, I know: I have a lot of entries on the topic of localism. That’s because it’s probably the most significant trend shaping our economic, social and political futures. How so? Millions of Americans are coming to the realization that solving big problems may work better with smaller units of government.

In this post I want to alert you to two new publications on the subject.

Localism in America

The first is Localism in America, a collection of essays compiled by the American Enterprise Institute.

Here is an excerpt from the introduction by Ryan Streeter and Joel Kotkin:

One of the distinguishing characteristics of American dynamism is that, at its heart, the United States is an intramural, competitive enterprise. Competition among cities, regions and states for people and investment has been essential to our success as a nation.

Interstate migration has always allowed people to “vote with their feet” and escape a bleak environment for a more promising one. Until the end of the 19th century, this primarily meant moving from the East Coast to the West. “The peculiarity of American institutions is,” noted historian Frederick Jackson Turner, “the fact that they have been compelled to adapt themselves to the changes of an expanding people.”

Then came other mass movements, including the “great migration” of six million African Americans from the segregated South to the less stringently racist cities of the North. Today there is a reverse migration –among African Americans but also the rest of the country – to the less regulated, lower-tax states of the Southeast and Intermountain West. Throughout our history, this battle between and within regions has allowed individuals and businesses the luxury of choosing the kind of environment they preferred or that fit their essential needs.

Implicit in America’s “competitive federalism” is the ability of states and localities to be different and freely pursue ends of their choosing. To be sure, some federal intervention against state and local prerogatives is necessary, as was the case with attacking legal segregation, enforcing basic health and safety standards, or bringing electric power to remote regions. Yet increasingly this federal role has grown so intrusive that it now impinges on what has long been the bulwarks of local control, such as zoning, schools, and policing. …

The issue here is not the irrelevance or intrinsic evil of government itself, but rather addressing society’s primary challenges. Are they best addressed from the top or by a shift of responsibility to local governing agencies, neighborhoods, and families? While local governments can make mistakes and act in an authoritarian manner, the negative effects remain contained in their own jurisdictions and can be fixed more readily through the democratic process. …

Ultimately nothing is more basic to the American identity than, whenever feasible, leaving control of daily life to local communities and individuals. This is a particular challenge at a time when control of our economy is becoming more concentrated. Powerful businesses and well-funded lobbyists are best positioned to get results in a large government setting. Citizens, smaller businesses, and local associations cannot easily compete against well-funded lobbyists in Washington, Austin, Albany, or Sacramento.

The issue of an overly centralized government cuts across partisan lines. The urge to consolidate power extends to both ends of the political spectrum and often includes state abuses of local government. …

To resuscitate localism, we need to forge a new path that empowers the grassroots economy and polity and respects the diversity of contemporary America. We cannot expect that this movement would begin in Washington, DC, as deeply rooted in centralization as its institutions are, but it could be propelled by local communities and people who still believe in the decentralized democracy that the founders envisioned.

Constitutional Localism

The second publication is Healing American Democracy: Going Local, by Mike Hais, Doug Ross and Morley Winograd.

Here is an excerpt from the authors’ synopsis:

To heal our body politic and restore faith in our democracy, we need a new civic ethos or governing framework that doesn’t revolve around the largely homogenous society with uniform beliefs that emerged post-World War II, To provide better governance and reinforce the appeal and practicality of our democratic processes, America must replace its increasingly obsolete New Deal civic ethos with one that better reflects the times in which we now live.

The current deadlock in Washington, a major source of the growing disillusion with democracy, reflects the difficulty of forging broad national policy majorities in a nation characterized by extraordinary cultural, demographic, generational, racial and ethnic differences. Some say the only way to make America work again is through leadership that “brings us together” by reestablishing greater cultural and lifestyle conformity. We disagree and see an ever more varied nation as the product of freedom, choice, and dynamism.

Instead, we propose an innovative approach which we call Constitutional Localism. It is built on a civic ethos that intentionally shifts the greatest possible number of public decisions out of Washington and the state capitals to the community level, albeit within a clear Constitutional framework that protects the individual freedoms and rights won over the last 250 years.

Of course, certain responsibilities, such as enforcing and interpreting the Constitution, conducting foreign relations, providing national security, monetary and fiscal policy, and regulating inter-state commerce must remain at the assigned federal level. States also retain critical responsibilities under their own constitutions and must deal with some issues on a multi-community basis. But, Constitutional Localism argues for a system which prefers that decision making be as close to the citizens as possible. That is where consensus and effective solutions are most likely to emerge.

Already there is growing evidence that America’s diverse local communities are successfully displacing states as the new “laboratories of democracy,” by finding their own innovative solutions to problems. Their smaller scale and generally greater cultural, ethnic, and economic homogeneity make it easier to achieve consensus and find solutions to challenges that elude effective response in Washington and state capitals. Issues related to the environment, economic development, education, the social safety net, crime and health care are being crafted at the local level, with much less controversy and contention than attempts to address the same problems at the federal level. Both economic and social innovations are taking root more readily in localities than at more distant and bureaucratic levels of government. …

We believe – and history seems to demonstrate – that America periodically needs a new civic ethos to move forward. We believe this is one of those times, and that Constitutional Localism offers the best path to heal American democracy and preserve it for future generations.

A Great Transition

To repeat what I said at the top of this item, I believe localism is the future because big problems are better solved locally, and we face big problems. The truth is, as I outline in my presentation “Our Extraordinary Future,” I believe a big reset is upon us. I believe our country is in the midst of a great transition to something else, because so many of our systems are out of balance. This could be a difficult, not to say brutal period. But what does it look like at the other end? I hope and expect it will look much more decentralized and local.