Trevor Latimer’s Small Isn’t Beautiful: The Case Against Localism confronts an ideological localism that treats localist solutions as a panacea, a presumption, and as an “article of faith.” He defines localism primarily as a political philosophy, defining it as “the belief or the claim that we should prioritize the local by making decisions, exercising authority, or implementing policy locally or more locally.” Like other theories of life and politics, however, what seems salutary on the surface can become practically dangerous. If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, then Latimer’s localism is one such road.
I will concede that I sympathize, in part, with Latimer’s concern. The foolish temptation to idealize all that qualifies as “local” or “small” does present itself from time to time, but it is usually dispelled with minimal reflection. One could, for example, read Wendell Berry (who, bewilderingly, is only mentioned twice) as a dogmatic localist. But Berry’s fictional town of Port William is no utopia, even if his idealistic tendencies briefly emerge now and then. His essays and poetry are colored by themes of loss, death, lament, and realism. There is great hope and beauty too, but a serious reader of Berry—arguably localism’s most prolific muse—could hardly justify dogmatism.
Latimer avoids not only Berry, but nearly all localist humanities in favor of the social sciences and economics, though not in a systematic sense. The book, instead, relies primarily on a dogmatic skepticism with a utilitarian bias he labels as “welfarist” or “consequentialist.” His approach also tries to exclude “impersonal reasons or values,” which may be impossible to identify. These include “beauty,” for example, as well as considerations of religious values. “The mere fact that the something pleases God,” he contends, “does not count in its favor, according to my approach in this book. Undoubtedly, what’s good for people pleases God, so what pleases God is good, but because it’s good for people, not because it pleases God.” Latimer should avoid theology, but from the outset, he has set himself and localism up for failure. His radical skepticism and aversion to anything subjective (other than his own beliefs and feelings), leave even his utilitarianism without a leg to stand on.
Nevertheless, Latimer will assert that “the case for localism is inconclusive at best, mistaken at worst.” After a brief review of some definitions of localism and its overlap with decentralization and federalism, he confronts categories of arguments localists make in light of their commitments and observed consequences. Latimer purports to refute or, at least, weaken, each of these arguments, but each chapter is too comprehensively problematic to adequately address here. I will instead focus on a few of his more controversial premises.
Localism Against Tyranny
Localists, for example, may defend their position as a resistance to tyranny, but Latimer contends that “centralization … is not necessarily tyrannical.” Furthermore, “despotism and tyranny can be resisted without recourse to localism, which is fortunate, because localism can do more harm than good.” In a basic sense, it is possible that centralized governments could do bad things, but so could smaller, decentralized governments. He also says that “tyranny is in the eye of the beholder.” One would be hard pressed to dismiss the atrocities of the last two centuries—from genocides and world wars to gulags, slavery, and Jim Crow—as subjectively tyrannical.
At this point, though, we find a curious and telling anecdote from Medieval English history misused by Latimer as an illustration. Centralization may, in his mind, be worth the risk since a more “localist” arrangement could prove dangerous. He writes, “Consider … the period in English history, often referred to as ‘the Anarchy,’ during the reign of King Stephen (roughly 1135–1153), in which rival claimants to the throne led England” into a violent and disordered chaos. This analogy is remarkably overdrawn.