One Man, One Vote, One Culture: In Defense of Towns


We require goods on a human scale, including our political communities.

My family and I spend our summers in Nova Scotia, where the provincial news is dominated by what is going on in the HRM. That is what it is called, for short, but the alphabetical acronym, reminiscent of the IRS or the DMV, well suggests the impersonality and the placelessness of a bureaucracy. No one sings a song to the DMV, at least not one whose lyrics might be uttered in polite company. I doubt anyone will compose an anthem to the Halifax Regional Municipality, either.

The Haligonian development is common on either side of our border. Whole counties have simply been folded into the dominant city, on the promise of improved services, but entailing the loss of home rule. Since the people who live in the urban part of the novel entity outnumber the people who live in villages as far, sometimes, as fifty miles away, those city dwellers will have their way, for example on the one remaining school board, or the one remaining zoning board. The villagers scattered in small settlements here and there will have no mayor, no town council, no local police—actually, in Canada, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police are a nationalized force; on our island they cannot even respond to a local crime alert without first having their instructions relayed from a central station in Sydney, ninety miles away.

Americans for their part have nothing to crow about. Seventy-five years ago, there were more than twenty times as many distinct school districts and school boards in the United States, per thousand students, as there are now. But the single most significant feature of local government—the schooling of children—has been placed at a distance from the people most concerned; as indeed the school buildings themselves have been placed at a distance, along with the principals and the teachers.

The watchword, of course, is efficiency. A large factory may be able to manufacture plastic bowls at a cheaper rate than can two small factories. I defer to economists to tell me whether this is always true. But a human being is not a plastic bowl. We require goods on a human scale. If you spend a year with twenty people, chances are good that you will end up with a rival or two, and ten or fifteen friends. If you spend that same year with two thousand people, it is entirely possible that you will leave with the same invisibility and anonymity you had when you entered. If you can walk from one end of your town to the other in an hour or so, and you actually care about the potholes in the roads or the semiliterate textbooks in the elementary school, you stand a decent chance of knowing someone who might help you do something about it. And that very knowledge gives you a stake in the locality. It is almost impossible to feel at all responsible about anything when the influence of your single vote is exiguous—is but the weight of a hair on a twenty-ton scale.

All of which leads me to consider several paradoxes regarding the vote, as it is made manifest in entities—I cannot say “cities,” nor “suburbs,” nor “rural settlements”—like the HRM. The first is that the rule of one man, one vote is a bad substitute for the living customs, the “government” by habit and by friendships and even sometimes by enmities, of a people living in a recognizable place. I know well that the internet has made conversation, usually of a perfunctory sort, possible across the world. But this pothole is not going to be filled in by the internet; these fourth-graders are not going to be taught English grammar by a Facebook chat (to be honest, they are not going to be taught English grammar at all, but that is a complaint for another day); this restrictive zoning law is not going to be repealed by satellite. To the extent that small political paramecia like Enfield and Sackville are swallowed up in the amoeba of the HRM, to that extent do people lose the experience of self-government, regardless of how often their residents, no longer townsmen, vote.

There is another problem, that of domination by a large, conspicuous bloc. Democracy, said our own Benjamin Franklin, is when two wolves and a lamb vote on whom to have for lunch. It will not do to say that, in our current democracies, the rights of minorities are enshrined in constitutional law. For there are simply too many “minorities” to attend to, and they are too vaguely defined, and their prescriptive rights are too subtle and too numerous to recognize in law. Every erstwhile town or village in the HRM is a “minority” in relationship to the whole and to the city, Halifax, that dominates that whole. It isn’t enough to decree that the wolves shall not devour the lamb. The wolves will in a thousand less-dramatic respects have their wolfish way. They will do so, even if they constitute but a large plurality of the feral population. The school textbooks will be what urbanites in Halifax determine they shall be.

I am not implying that the genuine Haligonians always will make bad choices for the HRM. But they will be their choices, the choices of people who live in the central urban area. This entails the slow homogenization of culture: the effacement of ways of life that are sharply distinct from that of the city. Nor does the process end at the borders of the HRM. There always will be some bigger ectoplasm ready to engulf the smaller ectoplasm. In Ontario, a province of twelve million people, there are, I am told, no more than two dozen school districts. Perhaps in the near future, under the wise direction of UNESCO or a coalition of banks or Bill Gates, we shall see a Dean of Canada, responsible to the Principal of North America for well-behaved students in fifty separate Learning Gigacenters—or Gigacentres, to allay the patriotic feelings of traditionalists in the erstwhile dominion of the north.

I am only partly in jest. There was a time when city and countryside were distinct but interdependent, and the people of Enfield would no more tolerate intrusion by Haligonians into their municipal affairs than they would tolerate, let us say, their very processes of thought to be determined by urbanites a thousand miles away, in Toronto, or New York. But there it is. We are all urbanites now by the “instruction” of mass phenomena, in politics, education, entertainment, and the media. We are so, at the same time as the cities have ceased to provide the country with any real benefit.

But the converse is not true. Everyone depends upon farmers and miners and fishermen. People in Halifax have to eat. They have to drive cars made of metal and the plastics formed from petroleum and other minerals. They use electricity produced by hydroelectric dams or by power plants fueled by the various products of quarries, mines, derricks, wells, and shale fields. Everything must be provided for them from outside. The manufacturing that cities used to do—providing tools to people in the country—has largely migrated overseas, or can now be done more profitably away from large urban centers. The city, then, depends for its very existence upon rural ways of life that it does its best to infiltrate, to denigrate, and to enfeeble, while contributing almost nothing (except as relay stations for imports) to the people on whom it depends.

Is it all so pathological? Nay, perhaps more than I have suggested. For the city does export something, regularly. It exports disease. I am fully aware that cities have always fostered dens of iniquity, and I know well that sin is no respecter of political boundaries. But it seems to me that places like the miserable Detroit and the slick and rich Seattle, not to mention the HRM, are new things in the world. New York was long governed by the corrupt Tammany Hall—and yet New York worked, and provided real goods even to farmers, as did Detroit. Seattle was the hub of the lumber industry, and its people had a real and vital relationship with, let’s say, ranchers out toward Spokane.

But now Detroit, like Philadelphia, like Baltimore, exports more crimes than cars: it exports gangs, fatherless children, pornography, and all manner of vileness and stupidity, some of it on the airwaves, some in print, most passed along by bad example. The people of Michigan would be better off without Detroit, as the people of Pennsylvania would be better off without Philadelphia, and the people of the HRM would be better off without Halifax. But as long as we believe in electoral magic, as long as we fall for the absurd idea that two million voters in one Toronto are more important than a million or so citizens in thousands of separate communities with their last remains of cultures and economies, scattered over hundreds of thousands of miles—we are stuck with the wolves, and they will rule.

Anthony Esolen is Professor of English at Providence College in Providence, Rhode Island, and the author of Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child and Ironies of Faith. He has translated Tasso’s Gerusalemme liberata and Dante’s The Divine Comedy.


Related Reading


Web Briefings