The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

April 24, 2019

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Allan C. Carlson - 10/31/11

Localism is the jealous defense of spontaneous, organic communities resting on custom or on “ancient” and distinctive identities. These bodies include vocational guilds, villages, municipal corporations, religious fraternities, communal hierarchies, and family or kin. Such localism builds on attachments to a particular place or geographic location. Its disposition is to favor that which is directly known or experienced and to limit sympathies and ideas to such attachments.

Conservatives have defended localism as a guarantor of liberty and the nexus for the good life. In contrast to liberals and socialists, the conservative holds that natural communities protect individuals from the overweening power of the centralizing state. They also nourish the personality in necessary ways. Accordingly, in the conservative view, these “intermediate institutions,” these “states within states,” should be able to administer their own affairs and to make binding claims on individuals, so limiting the latter’s freedom to act. This means that institutions such as families, which grow out of human nature, should enjoy autonomy; the public law should not cross the threshold of the home. Nor should it intrude on the church.

Localism as embodied in the civic association, town, family, and religious fraternity exist logically and historically prior to the state. Conservatives commonly view Europe’s classic medieval era (circa 1300) not as a time of chaos and disorder, but rather as an era when liberty, true pluralism, and fraternity flourished. As Richard Weaver explained in Ideas Have Consequences (1948), “Where men feel that society means station, the highest and the lowest see their endeavors contributing to a common end, and they are in harmony rather than in competition. . . . Such was true of feudal Europe.” Where liberals see “old prejudices and unreasoned habits,” the conservative finds “jealously guarded liberties” and an “immense range of legal autonomy” rooted in variety and privilege. Where the centralist favors uniform customs and laws, the localist delights in particularity and the differences to be found in moving from village to village.

Conservatives have also tended to admire the local economics of premodern Europe. These markets were neighborhood or municipal in orientation and had little inclination to render the whole of society in their image. Indeed, the chartered municipalities raised every possible obstacle to national or international markets, in order to preserve local stability rooted in ideals of fairness and economic justice.

While Aristotle may properly be cited as the great architect of a localist philosophy, the modern conservative understanding comes from Edmund Burke. He admired the local institutions found in the American colonies. As the French Revolution burned its way across Europe, Burke authored a classic description of the origins of localism: “We begin our public affections in our families. . . . We pass on to our neighborhoods, and our habitual provincial connection. These are inns and resting places. Such divisions of our country as have been formed by habit, and not by the sudden jerk of authority, were so many little images of the great country in which the heart found something which it could fill.” It was through this natural chain of loyalties, resting on spontaneous, organic units tied to place, that the good society emerged.

America’s great sectional conflict during the middle decades of the nineteenth century embodied for some conservatives this contest between localism and centralization, summed up in the debate over “states’ rights.” As Robert E. Lee wrote to Lord Acton: “Maintenance of the rights and authority reserved to the states and to the people [is] the safeguard to the continuance of free government. . . . Whereas the consolidation of the states into one vast republic . . . will be the certain precursor of . . . ruin.” From this perspective, the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution has served as the great desiccator of localism in America, sucking away the spirit found in local customs, statutes, and privileges in favor of the “equal protection of the law.” As Alexis de Tocqueville once explained, “the only condition necessary in order to succeed in centralizing the supreme power in a democratic society is to love equality.”

In the early twentieth century, American conservatives were frequently found in the ranks of those opposed to engagement in foreign wars, from the Philippine Insurrection to the 1939 war in Europe. Pejoratively labeled “isolationists,” their real concern was the preservation of local life, for looming behind war was the centralizing state. As the agrarian Donald Davidson explained in 1941, war could only feed the Roosevelt administration’s “highly industrialized, centralized, and socialistic order.” No matter what results might be achieved in Europe, American intervention “would probably be ruinous” to hopes for the preservation and reconstruction of localism.

In the second half of the twentieth century, some conservatives lost enthusiasm for aspects of localism. While still sympathetic to appeals on behalf of “family,” they found value in certain forms of central power. Some embraced the “national security state,” resting on a large standing military force and a vast intelligence network, as a necessary pillar for the American global struggle against communism and other rival ideologies. Others delighted in the triumph of global capitalism over countless local and regional markets as the surest creator of wealth and opportunity. Still others found the U.S. Department of Education and other federal agencies to be useful platforms for moral reconstruction from the center.

At the same time, there were also conservatives who held fast to a vision of localism rooted in the good community, one that placed “high value on neighborly love, marital fidelity, local loyalty, the integrity and continuity of family life, respect for the old, and instruction of the young,” one that “draws its life, so far as possible, from local sources” as Wendell Berry argued. These conservatives looked for ways to restore function-rich homes (e.g., through such seemingly insignificant measures as home-schooling and family gardens), to promote small-scale agriculture and family-held businesses, and to protect religious communities and other spontaneous associations from state interference.

Further Reading
  • Berry, Wendell. What Are People For? San Francisco: North Point Press, 1990.
  • Carlson, Allan. The New Agrarian Mind: The Movement toward Decentralist Thought in Twentieth-Century America. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction, 1999.
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