Localism and the reductio ad absurdum counter-argument
There’s a great logical counter to the localism argument: the reductio ad absurdum: Where does one stop? Within a state? Within a town? The family? Obviously we benefit from the interaction and cooperation within a community; extrapolating ad infinitum, isn’t it true that we benefit greatest from the global community?
This counter-argument is sound assuming that the moral physics of our interaction with others holds constant. That is: do we act similarly across the spectrum of local to global? Take this quote from Hayek’s The Fatal Conceit:
If we were to apply the unmodified, uncurbed, rules of the micro-cosmos (i.e., of the small band or troop, or of, say, our families) to the macro-cosmos (our wider civilization), as our instincts and sentimental yearnings often make us wish to do, we would destroy it. Yet if we were always to apply the rules of the extended order to our more intimate groupings, we would crush them. So we must learn to live in two sorts of worlds at once.
The point Hayek makes — I think it’s true — is that the micro-cosmos and the macro-cosmos are not interchangeable. We shouldn’t extrapolate values from the micro to the macro, or vice versa, because they are essentially different, and one does not belong in the other. In this sense there isn’t really a reductio ad absurdum to be made: there actually is an observable difference, a line to be drawn, between local and global.
The issue is that different kinds of morality apply to different spheres. I think — as Adam Smith argues — our local interactions tend to favor sympathy, whereas our global interactions tend to favor prudence. Sympathy just doesn’t travel well over long distances. Smith puts it best — and it’s worth quoting in full (emphasis added):
Let us suppose that the great empire of China, with all its myriads of inhabitants, was suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake, and let us consider how a man of humanity in Europe, who had no sort of connexion with that part of the world, would be affected upon receiving intelligence of this dreadful calamity. He would, I imagine, first of all, express very strongly his sorry for the misfortune of that unhappy people, he would make many melancholy reflections upon the precariousness of human life, and the vanity of all the labours of man, which could thus be annihilated in a moment. He would too, perhaps, if he was a man speculation, enter into many reasonings concerning the effects which this disaster might produce upon the commerce of Europe, and the trade and business of the world in general. And when all this fine philosophy was over, when all these humane sentiments had been once fairly expressed, he would pursue his business or his pleasure, take his repose or his diversion, with the same ease and tranquility, as if no such accident had happened. The most frivolous disaster which could befal himself would occasion a more real disturbance. If he was to lose his little finger to-morrow, he would not sleep to-night; but, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren, and the destruction of that immense multitude seems plainly an object less interesting to him, than this paltry misfortune of his own.
The “little finger” description may upset you, but it is true. How many of us lost any sleep over the latest atrocities — Sri Lanka, for one?
What sorts of interactions do we have that benefit from sympathy? Within the local sphere, there’s a wide range. Listening to others tell a story and truly understanding it. Providing a kind of social insurance for the community by helping others in need (and in return receiving help). Treating others with respect to develop a guarantee of civil rights. Tipping. And buying our food, which recently has become an important topic.
Does sympathy hold well over a distance? Definitely not. There’s the problem of foreign aid. We want to help those in need but very often our efforts backfire. It’s clearly better to think in economic terms and hard statistics for solving global poverty rather than in emotional or narrative terms. Our moral barometer just doesn’t have access to enough information from that distance. For example: we read a story in a newspaper about a suffering people; we want to help them, and so we donate a sum of money to a charity. Did we assess all of the relevant facts and is our money doing the most good? Did the newspaper publish that story because it was the most important one or because it sold more newspapers? To say the least, if we really want to help, more investigation is needed.
When we peruse a list of Amazon sellers, we don’t check up on which one most deserves our sympathy — we prudently look for the best deal. Businesses that do appeal to our sympathy should be further examined and critiqued: are we dealing with them for the right reasons, or so that we ourselves feel better?
And vice versa: we don’t bring a $20 bill as a gift to a dinner party.
The other issue for localism is the regulatory one: how much do we benefit from protectionist/localist laws and regulations? I’m not sure there is an argument for local interactions being a more valuable public good than global interactions. We clearly need them both. There are exceptions, perhaps: but that’s the subject for another post.