I recently returned from a long weekend trip to my hometown (made longer by one voluntary bump and one involuntary missed connection), and have been turning over in my head something that has come to seem more and more important to me.
Here it is: small-town life is so obviously superior to big-city or suburban life that the suggestion that big cities or suburbs are better places to live feels like it can only be a strawman argument designed to attract ridicule.
Now, I know intellectually that this is not true. I’ve lived in big cities all over the world since I was 17, and it would be hard to imagine moving back to a small town at this point. But when I interrogate my feelings, I still come to the same conclusion: big cities and suburbs are obviously, patently inferior to small towns — preferably your hometown.
This is not, on its own, a particularly striking observation: people prefer the kind of place they grew up. But I think ignoring or dismissing it drives a lot of muddled thinking. For example, it’s often suggested with varying degrees of condescension that people living in struggling communities should move to where jobs are available. If all communities of a given type are struggling, however, this is implicitly the suggestion to leave the kind of community you want to live in and move to a kind of community you don’t want to live in.
Likewise, you can find lengthy exegeses of the problem of affordable housing in America’s most economically dynamic cities. It would no doubt be good for America’s economy if more people who wanted to were able to live in the places where their productivity is highest. But that’s not a solution for the people who don’t want to live in big cities, who don’t want to move at all, because they like the place they live.
You can find truly vile characters like Kevin Williamson of National Review arguing that it is the duty of the poor to move to where jobs are available, and government assistance should be targeted at achieving that goal. But the problem with communities struggling with the loss of manufacturing or mineral extraction jobs isn’t that the citizens don’t know there are better jobs elsewhere. The push out of small communities is strong and omnipresent (I left town to go to a “better” university even though there’s a perfectly good university in my hometown). The “problem” is that people don’t want to leave.
There’s no question you can force people out. The widespread sabotage of state universities and community colleges has been extremely effective at forcing young people with a shred of talent or ambition out of their communities. Allowing trade to devastate small town industry, and making it so hard to start businesses that it’s out of reach for most people, has made it hard enough to survive that people do, indeed, pick up stakes and move from the communities they love.
But it also comes with costs. People left behind resent the forces that push their children and neighbors out of their communities. Those who leave find themselves in unfamiliar cultural milieux and struggle to adapt to new norms.
I’ve written this from the perspective of a small-town boy, since that’s my perspective. But if you grew up in a big city, imagine being lectured your whole life that you should move to West Virginia because that’s where the coal mining jobs are. You’d say, “that’s crazy, there’s no nightlife in West Virginia” (with apologies to West Virginia, it’s a lovely place). If you grew up in a leafy suburb, imagine being told you need to move to downtown Las Angeles and that actually having a yard and a spare bedroom isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. You’d say, “no, actually yards are great.”
Those of my readers who are libertarian-inclined will no doubt come up with something pithy about life being full of despair and suffering and so economically devastated towns don’t deserve any special sympathy. But as long as we’re in charge of governing ourselves we have to find a better answer to suffering than that, because if we don’t, we might be stuck with the answer those who suffer come up with.