Against Localism

Abstract

Against Localism provides a comprehensive and uncompromising critique of localism in political life. Localism is a malignant form of spatial partiality. It unjustly prioritizes the proximate. It violates an ideal of impartiality central to commonsense conceptions of justice. Unjustified partiality toward the proximate—what I call localism—is necessarily parochial. Regrettably, arguments against localism are no longer fashionable. The spirit of localism has caught fire and is now spreading: Brexit, Catalonia, Scotland. Localism is a “zombie idea,” in Paul Krugman’s phrase. It keeps coming back in new, mutated forms despite having been repeatedly debunked. Against Localism is the much needed antidote to this recent wave of localist thinking.

The argument of the book proceeds in three stages. The first stage is comprised of a direct argument against the idea of spatial partiality central to localism. The objective is to render the entire idea of localism morally and politically suspect. In unsympathetic terms, localism is a kind of spatially constituted group selfishness. The second stage responds to indirect, instrumental arguments for localism. Instrumental arguments for localism claim that encouraging or promoting spatial partiality actually advances the ends of impartial justice. I show that instrumental arguments for localism rely on unsubstantiated empirical claims, and are therefore far weaker than is typically assumed. The third stage explores the dynamics of localism in political and ideological discourse. I show that localist arguments, even when valid, often provide illicit justificatory cover for objectionable ends. Localism is particularly dangerous because it cannot be controlled once unleashed.

Overview

A fundamental task—if not the fundamental task—of modern politics is to overcome localism. The rise of modern state required the elimination of feudalism’s fragmentation and customary local privileges. At the Commonwealth Club in 1932, Franklin Delano Roosevelt argued, “The growth of the national governments of Europe was a struggle for the development of a centralized force in the nation, strong enough to impose peace upon ruling barons. 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.”

Localism, I argue, is a malignant form of spatial partiality in political life. It violates an ideal of impartiality central to commonsense conceptions of justice. Unjustified partiality toward the proximate—what I call localism—is necessarily parochial.

In The Federalist No. 10, James Madison warned that without large electoral districts, “men of factious tempers, of local prejudices, or of sinister designs, may, by intrigue, by corruption, or by other means, first obtain the suffrages, and then betray the interests, of the people.” Alexander Hamilton emphasized “that strong predilection in favour of local objects, which can hardly fail to mislead the decision” (The Federalist No. 15) and predicted that “there will be much to fear from the bias of local views and prejudices” (The Federalist No. 22). An anonymous Federalist (Pennsylvania Packet, September 22, 1787) put the point far less gently: “Away ye spirits of discord! ye narrow views! ye local policies! ye selfish patriots…. In the present state of America, local views are general ruin!

Regrettably, arguments against localism are no longer fashionable. With the last vestiges of feudalism virtually eradicated, the fundamental task of modern politics has now been forgotten. The spirit of localism has caught fire and is now spreading: Brexit, Catalonia, Scotland. As Donald Trump recently remarked, “people talk about how we’re living in a globalized world, but the relationships people value most are local—family, city, state, and country. Local, folks, local.”

The authors of The Federalist and other modern thinkers understood the attraction of localism. They anticipated our predicament. They knew from the Stoics, the Scottish Enlightenment, and plain common sense that people prioritize the proximate. Caring more about what’s near than what’s far is natural; partiality toward the proximate is a basic fact of human psychology.

But they recognized that partiality toward the proximate must be mitigated or overcome, even if it cannot be entirely eliminated. Above all else, it should not celebrated. For the modern centralizers—Hamilton, Madison, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt—localism is an unfortunate evil that must be dealt with—gently if at all possible. However, in contemporary political culture, especially American political culture, the modern attitude toward “the local” has been turned on its head. Instead of developing new and better strategies to overcome “the bias of local views and prejudices” contemporary culture now celebrates localism as valuable for its own sake. This is a strange inversion in our shared moral consciousness.

Contemporary political culture celebrates “the local” across multiple domains. Localism has reappeared on all sides of the political spectrum. Liberals exhort us to “think globally, act locally.” They laud the virtues of local food, local development, local production, sustainability through “downshifting,” sanctuary cities, local deliberative forums, and local participatory budgeting. Conservatives want Medicaid to be administered at the local level, where states “will have the freedom and flexibility to tailor a Medicaid program that fits the needs of their unique populations” (Paul Ryan, “Health Care”). Conservatives since Goldwater have supported local control of education. Some liberals, including African-Americans, now do too, with no sense of irony. Conservatives, along with some communitarian liberals, bemoan the withering of Alexis de Tocqueville’s (2004) intermediate associations—civil society organizations, social clubs, and the like. The “New Federalism” of the Rehnquist and Roberts Courts has limited the power of the national government and expanded the power of states and localities.

Libertarians, too, support localism. Decentralization, which I define as localism undertaken as a conscious policy in several places concurrently, is favored by libertarians because they think autonomous lower-level governments provide a necessary check on tyrannical nation-states. Academics in the “fiscal federalism” tradition argue that decentralization increases economic efficiency. Libertarians also recognize that localities are easier to capture and transform into libertarian oases than nation-states. Thus, the Free State Project proposes that libertarians relocate en masse to the state of New Hampshire, capture the state-house, and enact libertarian policies.

This book argues, against recent trends, that localism is indeed a regrettable evil that must be reckoned with, but not by celebrating it as a value. Proponents of localism may have a point against what James Scott (1998) called “authoritarian high modernism,” but this should not be interpreted as a point in favor of localism. Modern localists have fundamentally misread the great critics of centralization, especially Scott and Tocqueville. High modernism failed because it scorned local knowledge and disregarded local attachments. But sophisticated public policy utilizes local knowledge and recognizes human beings for what they are: creatures with local biases and local prejudices. Tocqueville favored a degree of political decentralization, but he clearly opposed local autonomy with no oversight (2004, 101n49). Arguments against foolhardy centralization do not make good arguments for localism because informed centralization is necessarily attentive to the ineliminable pull of localism.

Localism is a “zombie idea,” in Paul Krugman’s phrase. It keeps coming back in new, mutated forms despite having been repeatedly debunked. Each new generation revives the old arguments for localism, and invents new ones. To a weary observer of American political thought, the debate between localism and its critics, between Jefferson and Hamilton, Douglas and Lincoln, the Reagan Revolution and the New Deal, can seem like a high-stakes game of whack-a-mole. For each new iteration of localism presents itself as profound and original, thereby circumventing previous generations of persuasive criticism.

Against Localism is the much needed antidote to this recent wave of localist thinking. It provides a general argument against localism—against spatial partiality—which says that localism violates basic maxims of justice as impartiality. It also debunks eight of the most common arguments for localism. These arguments suggest that spatial partiality is justified because it advances one or more of the following political ideals or values: participation, accountability, knowledge, education, diversity, experimentation, efficiency, and liberty.

The Argument

The argument of the book proceeds in three stages. The first stage is comprised of a direct argument against the idea of spatial partiality central to localism. My objective in the first stage is to render the entire idea of localism morally and politically suspect. In the larger argument, establishing that localism is prima facie morally suspect provides a kind of citadel for subsequent argumentative moves. For whenever I can show, in subsequent stages of the argument, that a particular argument for localism appeals, behind the rhetorical veil, to morally arbitrary spatial partiality, it follows that that argument is morally dubious. Note that arguments for localism that appeal to morally arbitrary spatial partiality typically try to conceal this fact, for obvious reasons.

Thus, in the first stage, I argue that departures from a baseline of spatial impartiality constitute objectionable spatial partiality when such departures are morally arbitrary. Departures from a baseline of spatial impartiality are morally arbitrary when they lack a justification in terms of widely shared interests and values. The ideal of spatial impartiality says we ought to treat people equally, regardless of their spatial location. Spatial location as such is morally arbitrary. Therefore, departures from the ideal of spatial impartiality demand justification.

Localism says that it is permissible—perhaps even desirable—to treat people differently based on their spatial location. Moreover, localism entails that is permissible and/or desirable to favor people, things, and projects because they are nearby. Localism is therefore agent-relative. Not only is it permissible and/or desirable to vary one’s treatment toward people according their spatial location, it is permissible and/or desirable to favor the agent’s own relative position. Informally, localism says it is okay to give moral preference to one’s own relative spatial location. In unsympathetic terms, it is a kind of spatially constituted group selfishness. It is the political and spatial analogue of kin-selection in genetics, except that unlike the theory of kin-selection, localism makes a normative claim.

Closely following the claim that localism is prima facie morally suspect because it is inconsistent with the ideal of spatial impartiality is the claim that localism is not valuable for its own sake. If localism were valuable for its own sake, it would be possible to justify spatial partiality as such. However, the value of localism, when it exists, is derivative of other political and moral values. Whatever value we be may believe inheres in “the local” is actually derived from the interests and values protected or promoted by spatial partiality. The claim that localism is valuable as such—that there are nonderivative considerations in favor of spatial partiality—is metaphysical nonsense.

Localists are on firmer ground when they admit that bare spatial partiality is perhaps morally suspect, but then argue that by elevating “the local,” we are better off, all things considered. In other words, proponents of localism sometimes argue (though rarely explicitly or carefully) that encouraging or promoting spatial partiality actually advances the ends of impartial justice. Arguments of this kind—that localism is justified because partiality toward the proximate is an effective instrument for advancing the relevant moral and political values—are the subject of stage two of the argument of Against Localism.

Edmund Burke’s (2001) version of the instrumental argument for localism is justly famous: “To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind.” According to Burke, partiality toward one’s “little platoon” is an effective instrument for building morally necessary attachments toward one’s country and toward humankind. The argument is ingenious, for it suggests that higher-order spatial impartiality requires lower-order spatial partiality. That is, our best hope of treating people equally, regardless of spatial position, it to give extra weight to those nearby.

Note, however, that Burke’s claim is empirical and therefore contingent and falsifiable. The justification in favor of giving extra weight to one’s “little platoon” depends on the truth of the empirical claim. If lower-order spatial partiality is not in fact consistent with higher-order spatial impartiality, then spatial partiality lacks sufficient justification and is therefore morally arbitrary.

The problem I just described—that an instrumental justification for localism depends on the truth of contestable empirical claims—is endemic in arguments for localism. The proposed empirical claims, e.g., that localism improves the quality of political participation, that localism makes good use of local contextual knowledge, etc., certainly appear plausible. However, the commonsense plausibility of empirical claims advanced in favor of localism seems, in our political culture, to have obviated further scrutiny. The absence of thoroughgoing moral scrutiny is highly problematic because an instrumental justification for localism depends, for its moral force, on the truth of its empirical conjectures. Because the justification for localism depends on these empirical conjectures, it is not enough that they appear plausible.

My argument against localism is not reducible to cheap skepticism, however. Rather, I argue that there are good reasons to believe that the various empirical claims that supposedly provide moral support for localism are false, or at least not true in the relevant way. The second stage of my argument against localism takes up these instrumental arguments, and shows why they should be resisted. In general, I find that the commonsense empirical claims that appear to count in favor of localism are much weaker than they initially appear.

This is because such claims are often themselves conditional or contingent in nature. Typically, partiality toward the proximate only promotes or advances the relevant interests and values under a demanding set of conditions. To flesh this out using the passage from Burke: for localism to be justified, it has to be true that favoring one’s “little platoon” helps build attachments toward distant others. Moreover, to extend the example, if favoring one’s “little platoon” only helps build attachments toward distant others when the members of one’s “little platoon” belong to the same ethnic group as the distant others, then localism is only justified when the two groups share an ethnic heritage. If the groups do not share an ethnic heritage, extending partiality toward one’s “little platoon” will not help build attachments toward distant others, and therefore partiality to the “little platoon” lacks sufficient justification.

The third stage of the argument is concerned with unintended but foreseeable consequences.  Here I assume, for the sake of argument, that one or more of the instrumental arguments from stage two is successful. I then ask whether the acceptance of instrumental arguments for localism—in real world politics—has objectionable indirect consequences. The third stage therefore explores the political dynamics of localism as a discourse or ideology in our political culture.

The cases in the third stage of the argument of Against Localism are drawn from the American tradition, simply because that is the tradition with which I am most familiar. The cases are meant to be illustrative rather than definitive.

These cases are meant to demonstrate how arguments for localism, even if justified on instrumental grounds, can mutate and take on a life of their own. In the first case, I show how Stephen A. Douglas developed and deployed localist arguments for the “doctrine of popular sovereignty” in the antebellum United States. Douglas used the “doctrine of popular sovereignty” to justify the repeal of the Missouri Compromise, which had prohibited slavery in the former Louisiana Territory. He used localism to justify the claim that the western territories ought to be able to accept or reject chattel slavery, according to the preferences of the local population. The very arguments that are now used to justify sanctuary cities, local deliberation, participatory budgeting, and increased state control over Medicaid were then used to open territory to slavery where it had been “forever prohibited.”

In the second case, drawn from the controversy surrounding desegregation in primary and secondary education in the mid- to late-twentieth century, I show how localism—in the form of an argument for “local control”—contributed to the demise of desegregation. Prior to the introduction of the “local control” argument in Supreme Court decisions and the wider political culture, genuine integration seemed possible. But in 1974, the “local control” argument was used to prohibit cross-jurisdictional remedial orders, which experts agree are necessary for successful desegregation. Thus, instrumental arguments for localism, e.g., that “local control over the educational process affords citizens an opportunity to participate in decisionmaking,” (Milliken v. Bradley, 418 U.S. 742) simultaneously contributed to the greatest setback to desegregation since Plessy v. Ferguson (1896).

Table of Contents and Chapter Overview

Chapter 1. Introduction

This chapter introduces and defines localism, and explores historical and contemporary examples of localism in real-world politics.

Chapter 2. Localism as Unjustified Spatial Partiality

This chapter is designed to unsettle any baseline sympathy for localism. Localism is prima facie morally objectionable. Morally arbitrary departures from a baseline of spatial impartiality constitute unjustified spatial partiality. Departures from a baseline of spatial impartiality are morally arbitrary when they cannot be justified according to the relevant interests and values.

Chapter 3. Instrumental Arguments: An Illustration in Anti-Federalism

This chapter introduces the eight instrumental arguments for localism. It then shows how these arguments are developed and deployed in the real world. I use the 1787-1788 debate over the ratification of the U.S. Constitution because the Anti-Federalists, taken together, provide a sophisticated example of localist discourse.

Chapter 4. Against Instrumental Arguments I: Participation, Accountability, Knowledge, and Education

This chapter reconstructs the first four instrumental arguments for localism. It then ex- poses the weaknesses of each argument. The accountability argument, for example, says that we ought to concentrate political authority at the local level because it is easier to keep public officials accountable when they are kept close. This argument is problematic because accountability is not always desirable. If localism makes public officials accountable to constituents with unjust preferences, localism promotes injustice. Additionally, increasing accountability at the local level necessarily decreases accountability at higher levels.

Chapter 5. Against Instrumental Arguments II: Diversity, Experimentation, Efficiency, and Liberty

The next four instrumental arguments for localism are reconstructed and then critiqued. The efficiency argument, for example, says that devolving authority to local jurisdictions improves economic efficiency. However, efficiency gains depend upon the absence of economies of scale and inter-jurisdictional externalities, which are ubiquitous.

Chapter 6. Unintended Consequences I: Stephen Douglas, Localism, Slavery and Popular Sovereignty

This is the first of two chapters illustrating the dynamics of localism. Stephen Douglas initially supported a policy of indifference toward slavery in the territories on pragmatic grounds. He later realized that his southern colleagues would not tolerate outright prohibition of slavery in all new territories, both in the old Louisiana Territory and the Mexican Cession. But indifference on pragmatic grounds could not hold water against the South’s “common property doctrine,” which said that because the territories belonged to the states in common, prohibiting the slavery outright would violate the rights of the southern states. Thus, over a thirteen year period, roughly 1848 until his death in 1861, Douglas developed a sophisticated, but morally dubious, defense of the “doctrine of popular sovereignty.” He argued that local settlers ought to decide the fate of slavery because they were better informed about local conditions. He argued that popular sovereignty respected the diversity of opinion in the republic. Each of these arguments, which are now used to justify seemingly beneficial forms of localism, were then used to facilitate the South’s peculiar institution.

Chapter 7. Unintended Consequences II: The Ideology of Local Control in American Education Policy

An ideology of local control contributed to the demise of school desegregation in the 1970s and 1980s. Prior to the introduction of the “local control” argument in 1973, desegregation was proceeding slowly but surely. After 1973, desegregation began its decline, culminating in Parents Involved (2007). Additionally, this chapter shows how the ideology of local control was taken up by the mass public to delegitimize busing programs. This chapter shows how localism can be made to do nefarious work.

Chapter 8. Conclusion

Does localism have a future? This chapter takes up limitations of the argument developed in the preceding chapters. Are there laudable forms of localism? If localism is permissible in certain circumstances, does the discourse of localism erode our commitment to impartial justice? Can we celebrate localism, even when it is justified in particular cases?

 

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