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Talking Headways Podcast: The Case Against Localism

10:13 AM EDT on April 13, 2023

There are lots of branches of “local” government.

This week we’re joined by Trevor Latimer to talk about his book, Small Isn’t Beautiful: The Case Against Localism (Brookings). We chat about what localism is and how its geographically defined, as well as why “leave if you don’t like it” is disingenuous.

There's an excerpt of our conversation below the audio player, but to read a full, unedited transcript, click here.

Jeff Wood: What is the geography of local? Like, what is the spatial aspect of local and what does that mean? Does local mean state? Does it mean metropolitan region? Does it mean your neighborhood, does it mean your neighborhood association?

Trevor Latimer: It’s relative. Philosophers or critical geographers will talk about space being relative. To put it more simply, it’s that local is always local with respect to someplace else. So the neighborhood is local with respect to the city. The city is local with respect to the state. The state is local with respect to the national or federal government. And then with respect to the world. And then there’s an example I use in the book, it comes from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy because my mother was recently trying to read my book. She was saying it’s very slow going to me, but she really got the Hitchhiker’s Guide example, which is Arthur Dent is dealing with the local planning commission who want to knock down his house to build an expressway and he lies in front of the tractor and is doing all that sort of thing.

And then he hears a voice from the heavens from a group of alien folk who are coming and they’re asking everyone on Earth to prepare themselves for their planet to be obliterated. And Arthur Dent and the folks with him are like, why? How can you do this? And they say something like, the plans have been on file at the local planning office in Alpha Centauri for months. You could have raised an objection. Why didn’t you? And so the point of that story is that Earth is local in the galaxy whereas the neighborhood or the planning commission for Arthur’s house are both local with respect to something else.

That’s the way I depict it in the book. But I recognize that that might be foreign to some people. A lot of people have a particular size in mind when they think of the local. I do however think that you and I might have a different sense of the local in mind based on our own frame of reference. So cities are local, right? But I live in New York City where like even Manhattan seems like it’s not local. The East Village is called the East Village because it used to be a village. I also used to live in Los Angeles, which is a very distributed city as you know and you don’t really think of yourself as, some people will say Los Angelino, but they more identify more with their neighborhood than they do.

And in those cities are so large that localism there makes very little sense. But they’re also in a certain period of U.S. history, the 19th century, where politicians would often refer to state governments as local governments. And so I think most people think local, they think either neighborhood or city or town or village.

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