Progressives Want Everything Locally Grown Except Government

Progressives Want Everything Locally Grown Except Government
August 25, 2014

Benjamin Domenech

Benjamin Domenech (bdomenech@heartland.org) is a senior fellow at The Heartland Institute. Domenech... (read full bio)

Peter Blair has a piece at The American Interest on the anti-statist alliance that wasn’t. It’s worth a read:

Perhaps sensing an opportunity, social conservatives have used these libertarian fears to make the case for strengthening local communities. They argue that the disappearance of strong neighborhoods and towns created a void into which the overbearing hand of the state has entered. In this way, a roughly overlapping vocabulary of concerns has developed between the two groups… Social conservatives are right to point out that traditional forms of social trust and community have eroded. There is a real sense of loss and tragedy to all this. But one shouldn’t let a desire to construct a bigger tent for Americans concerned about the growing power of the state lead one to the unwise conflation of two different views of human flourishing.

I am not convinced by Blair’s argument, which strikes me as premature. The overlap of civil libertarianism and the modern libertarian and federalist perspective on limited government is not merely due to shared vocabulary, but to an increasingly shared perspective on the encroachments of life under the ever-expanding scope of a nationalized and unrepresentative government. People with a shared understanding of government’s outsized power can absolutely be at odds over what a good American life looks like. City mice and country mice can both love liberty and understand the appeal of local government over the rule of distant administrators.

Today, progressives want everything locally grown except government. Why is this? In part, it’s because self-government proves the failure of the Administrative State. As a rule, responsible self-governing neighborhoods and communities thrive and foster virtues which lead to close-knit communities and strong civil institutions. Ideally, they turn into little Lake Woebegons, where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average. The urban elites may mock the little pink houses with their picket fences, the soccer moms making grocery runs in the SUVs, the Vacation Bible Schools… but these are the communities where people actually live good wholesome American lives. The stronger these communities are, the more they form a hedge against the encroachments of government.

Consider the death of the suburbs, which has been predicted eagerly (and inaccurately) by the left for decades. Today just one out of ten Americans live in a square mile of more than 10,000 people. And while just a third of Millennials are the heads of their own households and only 1 in 4 are married, they overwhelmingly say that they want to get married and have a family – 70% for men and 78% for women. The desire of Millennials to own their own home is actually stronger than prior generations. And having a kid accelerates that desire even more, with the cohort with young children the likeliest to move to the suburbs or to small towns. Why is this? Because of the incentives of economy and community – the obvious benefit of neighborhood and homeownership and good schools and churches and community. Many Millennials won’t choose this life, but many more will. The presence of Yelp does not eliminate the lure of this approach.

The progressive left and the technocratic right want the whole world to look like the political machines they know and love. They cannot tolerate the idea that self-governing communities outside their approach to dealmaking and spoils-centered politics could give people an attractive alternative. That’s why it’s so essential to them that the major decisions about our economy, policing, health care, education, transportation funding, and more be made in Washington, where the order they seek to impose on people’s lives can be dictated by administrators beholden to no one except the stakeholders, the political and business interests who have a seat at the table.

The appeal of the self-governing community, which can decide for itself what is encouraged or discouraged, what is banned or made legal, is one directly at odds with this approach. The issue is not whether we all agree about the definition of the life well-lived. The issue remains, as Ronald Reagan framed it a half-century ago, “whether we believe in our capacity for self-government or whether we abandon the American Revolution and confess that a little intellectual elite in a far-distant capital can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.”

[First published at The Federalist.]

Benjamin Domenech

Benjamin Domenech (bdomenech@heartland.org) is a senior fellow at The Heartland Institute. Domenech... (read full bio)