One fundamental flaw in the idealized concept of small town America is the lack of freedom to exit. In small towns the freedom to exit is greatly reduced – especially in rural areas where towns are spread out. Social choice and economic choice are both limited in these areas, and both are equally important. The freedom to change schools or social circles is far more limited in small towns and rural areas than in larger cities and this can contribute to some of the problems we’ve been seeing in these areas such as rising meth abuse, high teen pregnancy, and other social ills once associated more with inner cities.
Much of this also has to do with economic class of course. Freedom to exit is always more limited for the lower class, and this is exacerbated in small towns.
Kids who not only have no freedom to exit their social circle, schools, etc. and also have inadequate security in their home life are more likely to end up in trouble than kids in similar situations who have a more stable situation at home. Obviously being poor does not immediately denote a bad home life. But poverty does limit what choices are available to us. Poverty is also cyclical, and kids who start out poor start out with an inherent disadvantage.
So while Mayberrytopia may be great for people with good families and a steady paycheck, it’s not so great for lower income families or for kids who have unstable homes. Even for middle and upper class families, the lack of choice in these smaller towns has its downside. Kids of any social class can get stuck in bad situations at school, either by getting in trouble or by getting picked on or in a whole host of other ways.
You can view all of this as a representative of the larger economic/social dynamic in America. Freedom to exit is important no matter what socio-economic class you are in, but the further down the ladder you go, not only does that freedom become more and more essential, so do strong safety nets. Not all families and communities are able or willing to provide these. So the two things that government should always attempt to provide for its citizens are economic choice and social safety nets (and defense, obviously, but we’ll leave that aside for now). This translates into government policies which at once promote greater economic freedom and which acknowledge and work toward important programs which provide health care, education, unemployment benefits, and so forth. Obviously no government program can ever tackle all the social problems that afflict American families, and no policy should aim for such a lofty goal. Nor will economic freedom always benefit everyone equally or adequately. The two must work in tandem, and communities, charities, and other groups should work alongside these programs to fill in the cracks.
None of this is to say that the localist ethic isn’t important. A strong community however, is not necessarily the same thing as a small community. The ideal, to my mind, would be the aesthetic and transportation model of the small town melded with the size and array of economic and social choices found in larger towns. The best of both worlds in a sense. The problem is that with a great deal of choice and with the car-centric urban development we’ve seen over the past few decades, neighborhoods are rarely built to reflect community, and people are conditioned to value their role as consumers over their role as neighbors and citizens. While the importance of choice cannot be overstated, we should not define ourselves as merely consumers or place too much value on our accumulation of wealth. We should avoid mixing up ends and means, in other words. This is a tricky social balancing act, and obviously urban policy can only do so much.
Sam M points out in the comments that part of the appeal of small town America is its lack of freedom to exit. He writes:
That is, people KNOW exiting is difficult. You can’t just throw a tantrum at the borough council meeting, or flip off the guy in the parking lot, or harangue the labrarian. Because you’re probably going to see them all at the PTA meeting, at the Elks Club, and everywhere else. This is not a foolproof guarantee of civility, obviously. But it leans in that direction. And to great effect.
This is true to some degree, though I’d say that most people don’t do these things because no matter where you live you’re bound to suffer some consequence for your actions – even if you have the freedom to exit, change schools, and so forth. This is the mystique surrounding small towns – that the limits imposed will also impose better behavior. But I think there are plenty of people who act badly in small towns, and plenty of people in big cities who are nice and polite. So I’m not sure how much value can actually be placed on these perceived limits when it comes to social behavior.