The Coastal Packet: Maine and the local

Wednesday, February 11

Maine and the local

Sam Smith - In an interesting column on Maine’s strong tradition of decentralized governance, Colin Woodard of the Portland Press Herald concludes:
So strong local control has many merits, but it’s still in need of retrofitting. The central problem is that, unlike the 1690s or 1890s, we no longer live at the municipal level. Many of us sleep in one town, work in another, send the kids to school in a third and shop in a fourth. We live regionally, which means that we need to be able to plan and govern on a regional scale. One example: When Wal-Mart builds a supercenter, they’re thinking about a market of 50,000 people. Its effects will be felt over an entire county, and yet only the people of the town it happens to locate in have any say over where and how it is built. That’s the antithesis of local control.
There’s a strong case to be made to keep local control and home rule, but for citizens to frankly consider what “local” and “home” really mean. Clusters of towns … are in it together; they ought to keep planning together, building trust, sharing services, revenue and administrators. But it’s got to be a voluntary, bottom-up movement…

In a state with strong local identities and civic traditions, local people really know best what partnerships will work and with whom. Forcing communities together from on high is unlikely to reduce costs, but is certain to spark resistance.
While Woodard is quite right about local people knowing best which partnerships will work best, he still implicitly suggests that the standard should be cost reduction rather than community construction.

At one point he quotes an Envision Maine study: “Regionalizing services can’t be done simply because it intuitively make sense, or for its own sake. Absent that neutral, trusted data (on where consolidation will brings savings), it’s hard for anyone to move forward, and we end up with little more than competing anecdotes and strongly-held opinions.”

The assumption that we must judge the worth of our communities primarily on their economic efficiency is one more example of how the values of corporate America and its business schools have skewed our thinking of how we should best live with others. After all, if economic efficiency was truly the most important determinant we would all living dormitories and eating our meals in huge dining halls.

We have come to accept what G. K. Chesterton called the huge modern heresy of "altering the human soul to fit its conditions, instead of altering human conditions to fit the human soul."

Nationally, there has been a noticeable drift away from a healthy parochialism in the political class to a growing dominance of those whose skills and values come not from their communities but from the graduate schools they attended, their powerful friends, and the national sources of their campaign funding. In over fifty years during which I covered Washington, one of the biggest changes was the loss of the power of place and its replacement with the increasing power of a professional class that made its decisions based on what they had learned from their specialties.

Further, it didn’t have to be, as it sadly became, a struggle between Washington and the rest of the country. A century earlier, Catholic theologians and Pope Leo XIII had laid it out in the principle of subsidiarity, which, Wikipedia describes this way:
Functions of government, business, and other secular activities should be as local as possible. If a complex function is carried out at a local level just as effectively as on the national level, the local level should be the one to carry out the specified function. The principle is based upon the autonomy and dignity of the human individual, and holds that all other forms of society, from the family to the state and the international order, should be in the service of the human person. Subsidiarity assumes that these human persons are by their nature social beings, and emphasizes the importance of small and intermediate-sized communities or institutions, like the family, the church, labor unions and other voluntary associations, as mediating structures which empower individual action and link the individual to society as a whole. "Positive subsidiarity", which is the ethical imperative for communal, institutional or governmental action to create the social conditions necessary to the full development of the individual, such as the right to work, decent housing, health care, etc., is another important aspect of the subsidiarity principle.
Note the lack of mention of economic factors.

As an advocate of subsidiarity, it was easy for me to move full time five years ago from the capital to Maine, which still valued the power of the local and the individual despite increasing pressures to the contrary.

The rationality of subsequent debates over a couple of local issues have reinforced my impression. At one meeting, I turned to the guy next to me and said, “We should send everyone in this room to Washington.” Even when there wasn’t a clear resolution – as in the case of our town’s dispute over ending its school district consolidation – it was the rationality of the conflicting arguments, not their excess, that made it difficult to choose.

At one meeting over the planned destruction of a historic boatyard building, the old and new America confronted each other. The boatyard had sent a vice president of its corporate owner up from Connecticut who clearly failed to impress a 30 something home builder who told him, “You don’t understand how we work here. When I build a house I not only have to worry about what the owner will think but I have to worry about what people say about it to my parents.”

It is this blending of the personal and the profitable that makes Maine so different, all the way from that home builder to the oft cited consumer attention of LL Bean. It has deep roots in trades like farming and fishing where cooperation and competition co-exist.

It is not that you don’t look ahead and don’t make new plans. But a good place to start is not with budgets but with a look at cultural values and behaviors that have helped make your community what it is. These are not likely to come from planners and other experts from away. In my time in Washington, for example, I only came across one city planning project that didn’t tacitly or openly depend on the replacement of existing businesses and citizens with what was considered a better alternative.

Yes, there are many changes Maine can and should make but dissin’ the value of its faith in the local is a bad place to start. Lately, we’ve been learning that it doesn’t work well for food. And it won’t work for people either.

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