Small towns and attitudes on regulation

imo-blogMark Thoma, a University of Oregon economist, uses his own small-town upbringing to explore why there is a difference in attitudes toward regulation between more conservative rural areas and larger cities that are generally much more liberal.

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As many of you know I grew up in a small town, it was just a bit under 4,000 people at that time, the same town that my mom was born in. I recently went back there for a high school class reunion (35th). While I was there, something struck me that I’ve been meaning to write about.


In the town I grew up in, pretty much everyone knows who the best doctor is, the best dentist, the best painter, the best carpenter, and so on. There were sometimes disagreements about exactly who was best, e.g. who had the best restaurant, but we all knew who to choose if you needed something done, something to eat, your house cleaned, lawn mowed, legal work, child care, whatever.


The people who didn’t weren’t very good at these kinds of jobs didn’t survive for very long. I can think of three lawyers off the top of my head, and if I needed one, I’d know who to choose, or certainly who to ask (growing up, my next door neighbor was the county clerk, and she could be very helpful in navigating anything related to the courthouse — she saved me once when I was in court for going 95 mph and the judge thought a night in jail would be a good lesson — thanks to her I escaped jail, but I did get the message — losing my license for a month helped with that).


I thought about this again yesterday as I was trying to change dentists. I’ve lost confidence in the one I have, but have no idea who to choose. I asked a few people, and they had recommendations, people mostly say the like who they have, but it was nothing like the kind of comprehensive knowledge I had where I grew up. Same for choosing a painter, a car mechanic, or most anything else. I never really know if I can trust them when the initial choice is made.


In an environment like I grew up in, there is little need for many types of regulation, it is largely redundant. If I still lived there and needed a room added onto my house, I have a friend I grew up with who does that type of work and I would trust him to do it right. Period. And if it wasn’t right, he would make it good. These are people you see frequently around town, or hear about from others, people you grew up with from kindergarten through high school (even college since many of us ended up at Chico).


Sure, the doctors and dentists and the like came from outside, but my grandmother was a nurse, one of my mom’s good friend worked for a dentist in town, people played golf with the doctors, dentists, etc. at the local 9-hole course, socialized with them at the Tennis Club — you knew what you needed to know. If someone got sick at your restaurant, it was over for the owner. Word would spread quickly and everyone would know. If you had a good story and a good reputation — being good in grade school and being known as honorable has its rewards — you might survive. The town, person by person, would make it’s call. That call wasn’t always correct, small town rumors, cliquishness and the like are known menaces, but for the most part the town took care of itself. So while it wasn’t always perfect – there are parts of the town I don’t miss at all — it managed well enough.


What I’m wondering is whether this can, at least in part, explain differences in attitudes toward regulation between more conservative rural areas and larger cities that are generally much more liberal. In a larger city, you are much more vulnerable to predatory type behavior, unfair treatment, much more likely to be dealing with strangers you have never seen before and will never see again. That uncertainty, and the experience of being taken advantage of if you aren’t continuously on guard, and sometimes even if you are — maybe a contractor did a lousy job and refuses to fix the flaws or refund money — might lead you to declare “There ought to be a law!” or that “Someone needs to stop this!” You would be much more inclined to think that regulation was needed.


That’s not to say that things are perfect in small towns, they’re not of course, or that exploitation of the weaker by the stronger isn’t present. It is. Farm labor comes to mind. And there is still a role for safety and other types of regulation. But there does seem to be a much stronger sense that people can take care of themselves without the need for a bunch of rules and regulations, and without the need for police looking over your shoulder to make sure that you comply.


And that’s just the town. If you add in all the farmers who live in the vicinity — the reason for the town to exist at all — farmers who are their own bosses and think they ought to be able to do as they please with the land that has often been handed down for generations, it’s easy to see how a “Leave us alone to take care of ourselves” attitude comes about.


Just a thought.


Mark Thoma is a professor of economics at the University of Oregon and the author of the blog Economist’s View. He can be reached at [email protected]. This blog is reprinted with permission.


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