community and exit

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. 

no_exitKids 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.

Update.

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.

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14 thoughts on “community and exit

  1. Yes. One of the main problems of small towns is the difficulty in exiting. Know what one of the strenghts is? The difficulty in exiting.

    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.

    Finally: “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.”

    Well, maybe. You are correct that not “all” families and communities can supply these things. But many can and do. Of course, these people are not stupid. These things are immesely hard to provide. And expensive. So once someone starts providing these things to other communities free of charge… what happens? These people are not stupid.

    My mother was a home health nurse for many, many years. She saw a lot of heroic families take care of elderly members, and a lot of dirtbags do the opposite. In recent years, she noticed a pronounced trend of people EXPECTING the gommit to take care of granny. So much so that the prevailing idea was for granny to sell her house to the descendants for a pittance, thereby breaking herself financially. Thereby forcing the government to pick up the tab for the nursing home, etc. And the family gets to sell the house and split up the money?

    This was always an option, and there is not a lot you can do about that if you want a syste, that really does take care of the worst off. Still, she says only the dirtbags used to do it. The good people always used to sell the house and use the money to pay for extended care. Now, she says, nobody does it that way.

    Nobody.

    A lot of people overplay the “moral hazzard” card. But it’s real.

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    • Sam,

      Yes. This is very true – the closer-knit community can be very good in promoting stronger community values and can keep people in lime with shame, etc. These are pros. But I think people are too quick to cast them only as pros and not see the downsides that may cause for many people. And actually, some small communities force exit on young people, too, through what is essentially banishment.

      I also agree that government should not step in where private individuals and families are capable of handling it themselves. Welfare can do as much harm as it can good – only spend some time on the Navajo Reservation to see what I mean. But a safety net does not have to be the same as a welfare program. Safety nets should be temporary – places to fall and then stand back up – not places to reside.

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  2. The idea of “economic freedom” is a little underdeveloped here. With respect to social policies that might aid or foster “economic freedom”–and by extension, the ability to exit–it seems to assume open information, in which all residents of all low-economic communities have the necessary info to take advantage of certain opportunities for mobility. It might do us some good to explore this a bit more.

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    • I left economic freedom wide open on this post for a reason, since it was more the freedom to exit from social situations that I wanted to discuss. Economic freedom is a very big topic, obviously. Freedom of information is certainly worth exploring in more depth as well.

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      • The open access to information piece is pretty key here, especially from a policy perspective. Take housing vouchers for example. Valuable access to information (a form of social capital)–such as knowing which neighborhoods are safe, which schools are good (and why they’re good), where available affordable housing is, how much more development is planned, and where–are all tantamount to “economic freedom” and the ability to successfully and efficiently utilize your resources. In an isolated community, say, in Iowa, some folks may not even be able to fathom life outside their sleepy town. Where would you even start to look? Who would you ask? Who would you even know to ask? These are all important places in which access to information–or lack thereof–influences this “ability to exit” and either undermine or support policies aimed at facilitating exit.

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