Local knowledge (part 1)

As I’ve been saying, I think the privileging of local knowledge is a bipartisan issue, or a cross-cutting cleavage, one that elements of left and right can agree on.

From the right: lefty-liberal plans for social engineering are based on the fallacy that human nature is perfectable, and subject to rational planning and persuasion. But the truth is man is flawed by nature (or by original sin), and top-down approaches don’t take into account local realities. “Unintended consequences” are the inevitable byproduct of social engineering, and can be avoided by greater reliance on market dynamics. It’s hubris and folly for a central government to try to plan an economy, much less dictate cultural norms that have developed idiosyncratically over time in local communities. As Ronald Reagan said, “The ten most dangerous words in the English language are, ‘Hi, I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.'” (Quote from this New Yorker article, toward the end.)

From the left: the corporatization of culture, food, and everyday life are a homogenizing force that threaten to erase the diversity that make our communities and nation great. “Grassroots community organizing” is a way to empower everyday people to make their voices heard and have a positive impact on the conditions of their lives through obtaining changes in policy, whether local, state, or federal. To be a locavore is to reject the evils of factory farming, which is an environmental disaster, an animal-welfare nightmare, and a public-health time-bomb. Eat local, know your farmer, avoid GMOs, celebrate the diversity of a specific place.

What they agree on: Top-down solutions are bad, bottom-up initiatives are morally and practically preferable.

What they disagree on: When to go against these principles (or preferences). For many on the left, federal enforcement of rights trumps local practices. For some on the right, the sphere of government action should be absolutely minimal, and there might not be a time when local norms (states’ rights?) should be abrogated – except perhaps in the protection of private property.

The upshot for philanthropy: Foundation grantmaking has an almost inherently top-down tendency. Many on the right and the left would be in favor of promoting greater involvement of local stakeholders in the learning, and maybe even decision-making, processes of foundations. Community foundations, with their collection of individual donor-advised funds that let a thousand flowers bloom, might appeal to the right, while funding collaboratives, where individual donors try to overcome collective-action problems to coordinate and amplify their grantmaking, might appeal to the left. The question becomes, when if ever should central oversight trump local norms. (Hint: it starts with a “D,” ends with a “y,” and rhymes with “Shmaversity.”)


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4 Responses to “Local knowledge (part 1)”

  1. The Blog Briefly Known as "Democratizing Philanthropy?" » Blog Archive » Fall into the gap (local knowledge, part 6) Says:

    […] there a way foundations could leverage local knowledge and local modes of dispute resolution to create a penumbra effect in places where they fund – […]

  2. The Blog Briefly Known as "Democratizing Philanthropy?" » Blog Archive » Attack of the Kohnasaurus Says:

    […] about 3 areas of common ground between progressives and Tea Partiers. One I would add to the list, as I’ve been saying, is valuing local knowledge over centralized administration. This is a variation on a point Sally […]

  3. The Blog Briefly Known as "Democratizing Philanthropy?" » Blog Archive » What’s mine is yours…maybe Says:

    […] and politics in a way that gets beyond pat political talking points. So for instance, I’ve looked at the way the privileging of local knowledge happens both on the right and left, and some important […]

  4. The Blog Briefly Known as "Democratizing Philanthropy?" » Blog Archive » Only a Fool Would Say That Says:

    […] that actually make sense (!!!!) and some of which I agree with (the ! key just broke). As I wrote exactly a year ago today: I think the privileging of local knowledge is a bipartisan issue, or a cross-cutting cleavage, one […]

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