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Think locally, act locally

Commentary | The eleventh column of a twelve part series on "the next conservatism"

For many years, one of the left's slogans has been, "Think Globally, Act Locally." I think the next conservatism needs to answer this with a new slogan of our own: Think Locally, Act Locally.

Think Globally, Act Locally reflects the left's centuries-old belief in "one world." Just as the Jacobins of the French Revolution wanted, everyone in the world should be forced to abandon their old traditions and fit one "globalist" model, based on some ideology. Today, we even see some people who call themselves conservatives (neo or otherwise) promoting globalism. Sorry, but that is not what the word "conservative" has meant.

On the contrary, conservatives have always supported local variation. We value local cultures, traditions and ways of life, based on what has grown up in a specific place over time. We want Maine to be Maine and the Deep South to remain the Deep South, rather than every place becoming California. To conservatives, a homogenized world is a danger, not a promise.

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Here again we see the power of culture. Many of the forces promoting globalism are not political but cultural. Television is one of the most powerful. How can old, local ways survive when children grow up in front of the television, which reduces everything to a single, uniform (and low) common denominator?

The "world economy" works to the same end. Local producers reflect local traditions, but when they are driven out of business by cheap imports, everything local is lost.

The next conservatism needs to help Americans see the value of what is local and traditional. Much of that is not political, but real conservatism has never just been about politics. Conservatism is not an ideology, it is a way of life. That way of life needs to be grounded in local traditions and in preserving and, where necessary, restoring those traditions.

At the same time, politics plays an important role here. The next conservatism needs to revive an important conservative truth that has to some extent been lost, even among conservatives: subsidiarity. Subsidiarity says that decisions should be made at the lowest possible level. As much as possible should be decided at the local level. Only when the local level clearly cannot cope should state governments get involved. And federal involvement should be rare, because it is dangerous. Decisions made in Washington often run roughshod over local needs, traditions and realities. The public schools offer a sad example. Have America's schools gotten better since state governments and the federal government have given them more and more directives? No, they have gotten worse.

The next conservatism could take one powerful action that would do much to restore subsidiarity. It should put an end to all unfunded mandates, on both the state and federal levels. Today, state governments and the federal government lay more and more requirements on local schools, local governments, local transit systems and so on, but they do not provide any funds to meet those requirements. The things local people know are more important go without funding because the local level has no choice but to give these mandates money. They are required by law to do so.

Of course, it is easy for state and federal lawmakers to please this or that interest group by creating a new mandate in law. It would not be so easy if they had to pay for those mandates themselves. A rule of "No unfunded mandates" would move many decisions away from state and federal governments and back to the local level, where they belong. It would also reduce the power of government generally, which conservatives have always seen as a good thing.

"Think Locally, Act Locally" goes well beyond putting an end to unfunded government mandates (on industry as well as on local government, I would add). Again, as conservatives, we should never think that we can stop with politics: we must always look at the culture, too. But I do believe the next conservatism could do our country a great deal of good by laying down a new commandment: Thou shalt decree no unfunded mandates. I suspect the Founding Fathers would agree with us heartily on that point.

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