Dying Community

What happened to the strong American community, as depicted, for instance, in Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town?”  Why is that a relic of the past rather than a reflection of the present?

Take the town I live in now.  My wife and I moved in about five months ago.  One neighbor gave us some banana bread as a moving in gift.  We appreciated and returned the favor a couple of days later.  We also went around with some holiday gifts to our nearby neighbors.  Very little enthusiasm or appreciation was showed.  We feel a little isolated.

Now I am not in need of pity.  But I would like to point out that this is not atypical.  Most communities I have lived in the last few years (about five different ones in four different states) are about the same.  Individuals and families seem isolated from their neighbors.  Why is this the case?

There are probably many factors.  Leviathan, our bloated government, I am sure, is at least partially responsible.  How?  There are several ways.

One reason is zoning.  I like to talk to the old timers about this area.  Back in the 1950s, kids could play anywhere in the neighborhoods.  There wasn’t really a bad part of town like there is today.  If there was, it was much much smaller.  There were corner restaurants and neighborhood grocers.  People could (and did) walk to work, to shop, to school, and for recreation.  Cars were primarily used for weekend excursions, of which there were plenty.  There was an optimistic, positive energy associated with the town.  Businesses were booming, families were growing.  People were connected.

Downtown shopping declined sharply once a farmer in the outskirts of town (in another neighboring town, actually) sold his farm to a developer to build a mall.  More farmers sold land to residential developers.  Large residential areas were built, and people started moving out of the downtown area.  Renters started moving in.

I have a hard time believing that zoning had no part in the development of large residential areas and a large commercial mall.  Cars, of course, were a necessity, to shop, to go out to eat, to go to work, as well as for recreation.  The pedestrian has become an endangered species.  This is in contrast to Wilder’s “Our Town,” where residents walk to the grocer and the drug store and soda shop daily and interact with a real person they actually know, instead of a face with a nametag.

Today, farmers are selling off their land.  There’s still some farmland close by, but that is getting more and more rare all the time.  Strip malls gradually fill in the spaces, and shoppers go to an impersonal Sam’s Club or Walmart to get groceries, Lowe’s for hardware, and Best Buy for electronics.  I wonder how many strip malls we’d have if there was no zoning.  Today I get amused when I hear about zoned “mixed-use developments,” where city planning commissions try to remake the traditional American town structure with residential, commercial, and recreational interests all within walking distance.  It’s the same sort of pattern we see with the government nearly everywhere.  For instance, they hunted wolves nearly to extinction in the early 20th Century, and then spend much of the rest of that Century up to today trying to get them back.  Which leads us to ask, “Why didn’t they just leave things alone in the first place?  Wouldn’t they have been better off?”

Another reason for the declining strength of the community is surely the tax burden.  How can a family live off of one income comfortably when 35 to 40% (or more) of their income is gobbled up in various taxes and tax-related expenses?  And so both parents feel the need to work to provide for their families.  In Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” the women were really the glue that kept the community connected, in neighborhoods and the church choir, for instance.  Take them away and a ghost town is left, at least during the day.

Of course, inflation is part of this, too.  Prices don’t go up all by themselves.  They need some help from the Federal Reserve.  And the good ol’ Fed is glad to comply.  Most of us think inflation is a necessary evil, and so we go along.  It wasn’t always so.

A third reason is the overall mindset.  A community used to actually take care of its citizens.  It was the safety net for anyone involved, like a mutual society.  Along the same lines, I like hearing Ron Paul talk about church-owned hospitals.  But now we have another safety net, Uncle Sam, Leviathan, or just the gov’mint.  They are here to take care of us!  Haven’t you heard?  Tax dollars can pay for school breakfasts and lunches, for health care, for gas and food and rent.  It’s a miracle!  And so the gov’mint, for many, has replaced the need for voluntary societies.  What is the incentive to have a voluntary society when a compulsory society accomplishes the same purposes?

And so what is the mindset?  Instead of, “I’ll go ask my neighbor for a cup of sugar,” it’s “I’ll just use my WIC coupons.”  Instead of, “I’ll ask my neighbor for a ride to the doctor’s office,” it’s “I’ll use a taxi and charge the taxpayer.  It’s free, right?”  Why do we need a village as our community when the government fills that function?

A fourth, related to the third (maybe 3b) is a pessimism about life in general, which is a partial reflection of foreign and domestic policies which make our country more dangerous and expensive, both within and without.  Hearing the news barrage us with information about the latest violent crimes surely doesn’t help.  It certainly doesn’t help me.  Nor am I amused to find about the latest foreign adventures our government is embarking upon, nor the billions of foreign aid that frequently goes (sometimes to both sides) in a regional conflict not of our concern.

In short, by a forceful effort to “globalize,” our communities are marginalized!

As a Mormon, it is important to maintain strong community ties, especially within a ward organization.  Such is Zion!  And yet in the world, despite all of our “progress,” it feels like there are more barriers between individuals and families than there have ever been.

I recognize that if enough individuals were willing to maintain strong community ties (and there are those) that strong communities would remain, despite high taxes, bad policies, and a distorted mindset.  The government cannot meet every need, especially the most important ones: those involving human interaction.  But for those swimming upstream just to provide a good life for their families, it sometimes seems as if the deck is stacked against them.



Filed under Austrian Economics, fiscal policy, foreign policy, Libertarian, Paleoconservatism, Personal, politics, role of government, Ron Paul, Social Commentary

13 responses to “Dying Community

  1. jodi

    Loved the article!

  2. You might be interested in a book called Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community by Robert D. Putnam.

  3. plato04

    I’ll look into it.

  4. I live in a town that doesn’t believe in zoning–there are few sidewalks, junk in many yards, run-down houses, government & commercial buildings that fit half way into the street, telephone poles in the road (you could hit them with your car, so they put up cement barricades–still a major traffic hazard), and only 1 main road in and out of town with a speed limit of 35, which becomes a huge traffic nightmare in the morning and afternoon.

    Frankly, my city could greatly benefit with some city planning. With the poor zoning they’ve created a mess of this city. Wasn’t Brigham Young a city planner? Didn’t he zone Salt Lake City? I think city planning and zoning is a good idea.

    I don’t know if you’ve looked at London, Paris, and other European towns, or even Eastern US cities like Boston–they can be a nightmare to navigate. Salt Lake’s grid pattern was a great idea, and early church leaders including Joseph Smith zoned areas for temples, agriculture, etc in the city of Independence.

    I agree that zoning is not without problems, but it seems like “mixed use development” is a good idea to me. Better planning makes everyone’s lives easier, and I for one would enjoy living in some of these newer communities, with bike trails, recreation, and shopping closer together.

    Call me a moderate (you might say liberal, but I don’t go that far.) I think government CAN work for people, but agree that over-zoning and under-zoning also create problems. I prefer the middle.

  5. plato04

    The article was not really about how tidy and clean cities should be, but about the role of zoning in breaking down community ties, especially between neighbors. No question that Brigham Young and Joseph Smith were city planners, and that many Utah cities reflect that. The LDS culture and ward structure really builds community ties from the get-go, so community connections are more present than in many other communities where such commonalities are absent.

    One underlying issue in your community sounds to be government-run roads. Privatizing the road system would likely do wonders. Not that such a move is ever really considered by most. But you bring up a great example of the failures of road socialism.

    One of my points is that mixed-use developments are how traditional towns and villages were set up in much of the United States. Zoning practices from decades ago took that away and led to an overall decline in downtown living in many communities. Now we are largely trying to reverse the trend by using mixed-use developments. Much of this country-wide headache and hassle could have been avoided if zoning had a much weaker role in city development. Just like so many areas, government policies lead to a problem, which then leads to more government policies in an attempt to correct the issue. It’s a self-perpetuating problem.

  6. Thanks for the clarification. Originally it sounded to me like you were against mixed use development, but I see that I was mistaken.

    I keep hearing people say that privatizing is the answer to all the ills of society: education, mail, roads, etc. However, any economist will tell you that in some situations, monopoly is a good thing–in these instances a government monopoly. You are very against government intrusions.

    In concept, I support this idea. However, I am very concerned about the robber barons of the early 20th century. Teddy Roosevelt was the one who started breaking up these trusts, because they were anti-consumer. In that case, government played a good role. I’m a little leery or returning to some of these monopolies. Government does need to monitor, and keep capitalists under control.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for capitalism, but there must needs be opposition in all things. I think government can play a constructive role in regulating business. I don’t want Microsoft to rule the world. There are some who do.

    I also think that government could learn from people like Mitt Romney. Government and business working together for the good of society is the best of all scenarios.

  7. plato04

    The concept of 20th Century robber barons is an interesting one. America should allow for wealth to be created. It’s based on free enterprise. When it comes to monopolies, the role of government is misunderstood. Government is commonly seen as the antidote to monopolies, through regulation or trust-busting, etc. However, government is too often the facilitator of monopolies.

    For instance, consider farm subsidies. The government, through the Department of Agriculture, would parse out money to farms, in an attempt to keep prices high. (President Benson was never a fan of such actions, incidentally, and there is a moral issue here, in my opinion, in addition to the economic one being discussed here.) The idea was to keep family farms in the family. We fast forward a few decades and we see family farms declining as fast as ever. One reason is the subsidy. A larger organization has more resources to take advantage of subsidies. A family farm with fewer financial and temporal resources has a much more difficult time (and much less money to devote to) understanding how to qualify for subsidies, how to fill out the paperwork, how to get all the loopholes correctly navigated, etc. The result is that subsidies give larger organizations a competitive advantage, because they are more able to gather the available funds.

    And so we have declining family farms and increasing agribusiness: big bureaucratic organizations running farms, constantly lobbying government for more regulations, more subsidies, more favors. Through regulation and subsidies, the government has certainly helped to facilitate this economic migration. The same goes for land grants, which largely went to a few wealthy landowners for railroad construction in the 19th Century. Guess what? A monopoly resulted from this government-business alliance.

    As people influence government to increase regulations, this again benefits those with the most resources, as higher regulations are more expensive for everyone, but larger organizations are most able to navigate the course with their superior resources. They have, for instance, more money available for lobbying.

    As for Microsoft being number one, that shouldn’t be a problem. Pressure still exists from Apple, from Linux, and from any potential programmer. When government erects barriers to developing and maintaining competition (i.e. passing regulation to make it nearly impossible for a bedroom programmer to compete with Microsoft), then a monopoly is facilitated and strengthened. De-regulation is a key which allows for market entrants. Regulation just makes it more difficult for entrepreneurs to react, and slows down the economic reaction time. The incentives from competition are reduced, including lower costs and higher quality. Until we understand that regulations is detrimental, not helpful, then the trends will probably continue to add mountains of regulations to regulations of regulations by appointed (unelected) bureaucrats. There will almost always be problems associated with these types of government regulations.

  8. Platoo4, interesting comments. For the record, I am highly against farm subsidies, and agree with what you say on that issue.

    As for Microsoft, they have put Word Perfect, Netscape, Real Audio Networks, and many others out of business. Some may say this is good, some bad. Frankly, I was never a fan of Word Perfect, and was glad to see their demise. Word was always much better. On the other hand, Netscape was a great product, and it would have been nice to have some choices. Real Audio has other competitors, and is similar to Novell in that it is still alive, but not the same power broker it used to be.

    Frankly, I think Microsoft has used undue influence, as well as anti-competitive programming to gain its monopoly status. (For example, they have actually programmed Windows to cause competitors programs to run slower.) I think MS should be regulated more. To me this is comparable to the early 20th century when the Sherman Anti-trust Act was enacted. Some of these businesses have taken unfair advantage or market economics and are harmful to consumers.

    I hear what you’re saying–often regulations, such as farm subsidies, cause problems. However, no regulations also cause problems. If government doesn’t act as a regulator of the market, who else can do it? It is the citizens job to elect ethical politicians. Unfortunately, it is difficult for the citizens to monitor the politicians we elect. Perhaps term-limits would help solve this problem. If we limit the president, why don’t we limit the Congress? Or is that just another bad government regulation?

  9. plato04

    I still hold the admittedly iconoclastic belief that monopolies are largely government-facilitated rather than market-facilitated. The market, in general, does not lead to big business. A regulated market does. Government-business alliances do. And this tends to increase cost and lower quality.

    Netscape is still around (at least the shell) in the form of Mozilla, which I highly recommend. Cyberspace is full of Microsoft alternates. Openoffice.org, for instance, which I also recommend. There is a plethora of free software options which can serve a variety of purposes: anti-virus or spyware scanning, gaming, learning, online banking, record-keeping, and of course the ubiquitous instant messaging and emailing. The perfect blend of low cost (what’s cheaper than free?) and high quality is largely due to the unregulated nature of the internet. Take that away (i.e. start regulating things) and many products disappear. It’s easy to see this in the form of the Internet, because it is so new that government hasn’t gotten its dirty hands on it yet. There have been and probably will continue to be plans to regulate cyberspace. But these will largely hinder the internet, not improve it. Such is the case with other economic sectors as well.

    We certainly have differences in our view of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. I recommend you look into it a little deeper to see what it purported to do, what it really did, and what the potential negative consequences are. In my opinion, it stifled competition rather than facilitated it, as government regulation almost always does, and is therefore inherently destructive.

    By the way, Mitt Romney was not only for farm subsidies, but wanted large increases in the name of “energy independence.” I’m not entirely sure what McCain would do, but I’m guessing a reduction on farm subsidies is not on his list.

  10. plato04

    I should also say I am staunchly agreed with you that the Congress does not heed the will of the people. I admit they do a great job heeding the siren song of special interests in various forms. The statist way to resolve this problem is another amusing quandry. Once again, the answer is too simple for most people to even acknowledge, much less understand.

    My point with government regulation is that we need to re-think its role in our economy: what has it done in the past? What have been the desired outcomes as opposed to the actual outcomes? What unintended negative consequences have come about as a result of certain regulations? We have this collective hubris about the ability of government to solve all manner of problems, including what we perceive as market failures. It’s a little like the Titanic. Until we hit an iceberg and have a proverbial sinking, I’m afraid we may not understand how incorrect our philosophy is.

  11. You are definitely an idealist. You arguments are interesting. I am curious on your opinion as to regulations of lead in paint, seatbelts, EPA, ADA, affirmative action, cocaine, etc. Are you saying these regulations should be abolished, or am I going overboard with your theory of deregulating everything?

    In your world, is government only for armies and law enforcement? Aren’t you concerned about unethical market forces (snake oil salesmen)?

    Sorry about this threadjack–I know it was about zoning, but I’m curious what you think of term limits…

  12. plato04

    Mormon Heretic,

    Good questions. I should write a post (or several) about the role of government regulation in the marketplace in response to your queries. That would probably be the best way to answer your questions.

  13. plato04

    Mormon Heretic,

    In scanning my memory banks, I have already written some articles about regulation. I recommend “The Destruction of Taxation,” “Free Market Environmentalism,” “Faith in the Free Market,” and “Remembering Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.” Those should give you a pretty good idea of where I stand. I’ll post one about the drug war pretty soon here, too.

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