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Living Little and Local

Fr Dwight Longenecker - published on 02/26/13

Big government and big business both tend to create big problems

I recently heard a point made in a debate on health care in the United States that I thought was a sensible proposal: instead of solutions for health care insurance being masterminded by the federal government, why not solve the problems at a local level?
Whenever big government or big business is involved, big problems follow. Too often, there are not enough checks and balances with big government and big business solutions. The former has little accountability – budgets burgeon and waste and inefficiency multiplies. The latter is motivated by greed, causing prices to skyrocket, lawsuits to multiply, and corruption to fester. Small, local solutions mean more immediate accountability and involvement. Corruption can be rooted out and economical solutions can be implemented more easily.
What if our health care problems were solved at the state level or even at the county level? We are used to local school districts raising taxes for education. Local school boards are elected by local people, and school board members are held accountable by their neighbors. What if the local hospitals were grouped together in a “health care district”? They could raise a local health care insurance tax to fund the health care and all would benefit and all would pay.
Unfortunately, my ideas were not immediately taken up by the President and Congress.
The idea that “small is beautiful” when it comes to economics and social responsibility goes back to the British economist, E. F. Schumacher. His 1973 classic collection of essays,
Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered, championed the human person, meaningful work, and local communities. E. F. Schumacher was an atheist who was greatly influenced by the social teaching of the Catholic Church and eventually converted to Catholicism. Catholic social teaching was promoted in practical ways by G. K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, and other prominent British Catholics in the 1930s under the economic framework of ‘distributism’. It was these writers who greatly influenced Schumacher, whose 1970s book had such impact.
Distributist ideals are not very complicated. Like the subtitle of Schumacher’s book, they promote “people-centered” economics. Because they are people centered, they are small and local as opposed to large and global. According to distributist ideals, the government’s role is to continually devolve power down to the most local levels possible, encouraging private ownership of property, businesses, and wealth. Taxation should encourage the ‘little guy’, and elected power should be held at the local level. Big government should be downscaled while economic principles rein in the growth of big business.
Unfortunately, given human nature and the lust for power and wealth, those who hold the wealth and power – whether they are in big government or big business – legislate and rule to consolidate power and wealth among the elite. Both big government and big business trample on the individual and make the ‘little guy’ the servant of the ‘big guys’. History shows that when this trend continues long enough, revolution and social upheaval follows.
Schumacher’s ideas are important, but most of us aren’t economists. We do, however, have our own financial and life choices to make. So if small is beautiful, how, then, should we live?
Some will decide to ‘go native’ or be Amish. There is one group of Catholics, for instance, who are called ‘plain Catholic’ because they try to combine Amish and Mennonite lifestyle ideals with Catholicism.
However, not all of us can head for the hills, plant a vegetable patch, nurture chickens, buy a cow, keep a few pigs and get back to nature. Not only is it back breaking work, but most of us suburbanites don’t have a clue how to milk a cow and don’t have the time or money to maintain our own small holding.
There are plenty of practical ways, however, to “live little and local.” The first thing is to think “little and local” – look around and see what businesses are locally owned and operated. Use them. If they are a bit more expensive, simplify your life and buy less. Avoid the mall. Avoid the big box stores. Avoid the fast food joints. Go to the local farmer’s market. Buy your clothes at the Goodwill – it’s a great exercise in humility.

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