McCain, Palin and the Republicans have been pushing the theme of small town values. Since McCain and Palin are politicians and not philosophers, they have been rather vague about these small town values. Being from a very small town (Old Town, Maine) and also being a professional philosopher, I thought I’d step in and help them out. After all, that is what we small town folks do.
The view that small towns are havens of moral goodness and cities are cesspools of moral decay has along tradition behind it. When America was a rural nations, people praised the virtues of the rural folks. Philosophers even got in on the game, perhaps the best known being Rousseau. On his view, the youth should be raised in the country and kept from the corrupting influence of the cities. Of course, the belief in small town virtue seems to be mainly the result of a romantic view rather than the result of a proper investigation. In this regard, it is similar in other ways to the wonderful myth of the noble savage.
As noted above, I grew up in a very small town. I also did my undergraduate degree in a small town (Marietta, Ohio). I’ve visited many small town in America and know people from them. I’ve also visited big cities ( such as New York, Boston and Pittsburgh). I did my graduate work in a big city (Columbus, Ohio) and have met many big city folk over the years. While this does not count as a thorough empirical investigation, it does give me a basis from which to assess small town and big town values.
Based on my experience, a person’s place of residence is not a good indicator of their ethical values. I know of plenty of small town folks who are not good folks and I know plenty of big city folks who are morally upright. Naturally, I know plenty of good small town folks and bad city folks. Of course, my experience could be biased in some way and my sample is fairly small: just the thousands of people I have interacted with over the years. As such, it would be wise to not just rely on my experience and judgment.
Of course, there are some reasons to suspect that small town people might be better behaved that city folks.
One factor to consider is that people in small towns have additional incentives over city folk to behave better. As a small town person, I can attest to the fact that what a small town person does in his small town (or beyond) becomes generally known fairly quickly. The anonymity of the big city is absent. Further, a small town person has to interact with the same people regularly in his small town. Big city folk can find other people to interact with if their reputation goes bad with one group. While it might be believed that these factors merely make small town folk better at concealing their misdeeds, it is also reasonable to think that these factors help habituate small town folks to behave better. It is not that small town people are better-they are just better observed and have a harder time avoiding the consequences of bad behavior.
Another factor to consider is that the small populations of small towns means that they have a smaller number of corrupting people and influences. Hence, there is less chance that a small town person will end up under a corrupting influence. Also, bigger cities have more money and the sort of things that tend to attract those with lower moral standards. Hence, it is not that small town folks are morally better. It is just that small towns provide fewer opportunities for the corrupters and the potentially corrupted.
The above is, of course, speculative. Considering the two factors does not tell us whether small town folk consistently behave better than big city folk. To determine this, some empirical investigation would be in order.
One empirical way to examine the question of whether small towns have better values (and follow them) is to look at the crime rates. While this is not a perfect measurement, it does serve to provide a reasonable indicator of the moral conditions in an area. This is especially true in regards to crimes that are not economically based. After all, the frequency of rape in an area says more about the moral values of the inhabitants than does the frequency of speeding tickets.
Interestingly, Palin’s state Alaska does dismally here. Alaska leads the United States in incidents of forcible rape, is 5th in aggravated assault, and is 17th in murder. In contrast, my own home state of Maine has an extremely low crime rate. As with towns in Alaska, Maine towns tend to be small and even our biggest city, Portland, is a rather small city. As such, I certainly hope that Palin is talking about the small town values of my home state and not the state she governs. Of course, perhaps the conditions in Alaska are such that it is harder for those small town values to influence behavior. After all, everything is supposed to be tougher in Alaska. Presumably this applies to not engaging in criminal activity, too.
Based on my own experience and arguments, there does not seem to be a special set of small town values that make small town folks better. As such, the appeal to small town values is what sensible people know: just an empty piece of political rhetoric.