Small is beautiful. No bigger than necessary. Act local; think global.
Deborah Fallows and James Fallows (he, a longtime national correspondent for Atlantic magazine) were traveling these recent years. Not by car or train; their transportation mode was a single-engine airplane. They spent two weeks in each of 25 towns and a shorter time in 25 more. Many places are “doing better in most ways than most Americans realize,” they write in Our Towns (Pantheon Books, 2018). A popular tendency, especially since November 2015, is to view our society’s problems as symptoms of a big disaster. Consequently, social commentators neglect or “dismiss local success.”
The success stories, as the Fallows detail, occur when local government entities take cues from and then cooperate with voluntary associations and with small to medium-sized businesses. Public schools including community colleges and libraries are government funded in whole or part, but they act like a voluntary group at times. These too are important parts of genuinely successful public-private projects. Using statistics and first-hand analysis, the Fallows give numerous examples of “little pockets of prosperity.” The blows from de-industrialization and from our country’s widening inequality do not totally destroy many smaller towns. Although they are “works in progress,” these places show visible and verifiable economic, cultural and social improvement.
While cable TV reporters and newspaper columnists are obsessed with national divisions, interesting improvements occur at the local level, writes Gerald Smith in Wall St. Journal (12/12/20). He provides several examples in which a mayor, a homemaker, a small business owner, a civic club and more take the initiative to address race relations, wage inequality, affordable housing, climate deterioration, employment opportunity and education shortfalls. Each effort seems to inspire more improvement in the locale. Such local effort, says Smith, is embraced on right and left. Genuine leaders want practical solutions to manageable problems. They might argue about the details but they are willing to compromise for the sake of the community.
Smith and others who track local stories are quick to say that the federal government and big business have appropriate roles. An anti-Covid vaccine, for example, cannot be developed and distributed without federal funds and logistics, without a full-court press from major airlines and national trucking companies and from the largest drug store chains, like Walgreens, CVS and Rite Aid (some stores owned by Walgreen’s). At the same time, Covid will not be defeated without local leadership from clinics, community organizations, neighborhood pharmacists, mayors, pastors, nursing homes and many more.
Catholicism has a social doctrine about localism. The word for it, subsidiarity, is not found in most English dictionaries. It comes from a Latin word meaning to help or aid. The doctrine is based on a devotion to science (physical and social science) and reason, on 2,000+ years of experience and on dogma which includes revelation of Scripture. Subsidiarity says that decisions should be made as close as possible to those affected by the decision. The phrase “as close as possible” is an important qualifier. Some neoconservatives erroneously claim that subsidiarity means a government that governs least governs best.
The beneficial outcome of this principle is a celebration of mediating institutions—groups that are halfway between a ragged individual and big entities of government and business. These intermediate groups include extended family, union local, parish, ethnic club, soccer league, regional chamber of commerce, professional association, community organization and more. The practice of subsidiarity rebuffs extreme individualism. It forces individualists to exercise responsible freedom, what Pope Francis calls social friendship. It also gives a person tools to collectively negotiate with bureaucracies.
Small groups are not uniformly good. Parochialism can deteriorate into prejudice, conspiracy theories and even violence. This negative aspect can be tempered when one person belongs to several groups. She or he agitates within one group for consideration of the issues of another group. In theory, as James Madison (1751-1836) thought, a large multiplicity of groups (factions, he called them) prevents tyranny. Subsidiarity is effective when people join and participate reflectively in groups and as those groups and new ones continually rededicate themselves to their original good purpose.
Droel edits INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629), a print newsletter on faith and work.