Stuck in traffic?

If you're headed east on Highway 20 in northern Iowa, right around Sac City, you might notice a billboard along the side of the road. The message is a public service announcement on the part of a perfectly reasonable health concern: Checking for diabetes. But it's written in a way that makes no sense in the context at all. That's because the message refers to you, the reader, as being stuck in traffic.

Now, even before Highway 20 was widened to four lanes across the state, that message would have been totally out of place. The worst traffic jams I've ever encountered in a quarter-century of driving that highway were due to slow-moving combines moving from field to field back when it was mostly a mere two lanes. But today? There's almost no U.S. route where a driver is less likely to be stuck in traffic.

It just goes to show just how different circumstances can be across this vast nation. In places where 80% of Americans now live, being stuck in traffic is at least an occasional hazard, if not a daily one. But just because a message makes sense in many or even most cases doesn't mean it fits all.

Take it as a small but useful illustration why local decision-making still matters, a lot. Americans in the 21st Century are in the habit of escalating everything we seem to care about to the national level, and that's a terrible mistake. We share some powerful, enduring things in common with one another -- like a written, contractual commitment to the preservation of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But we are free to live far differently from one another if we so choose. And ultimately we are far better off when we agree to disagree about those differences.

Take, just for example, the case of guns. There are places in America where the local police have every rational cause to want guns taken off the streets and out of the hands of wrongdoers. Yet there are other places in America where the police may be 20 or 30 minutes away under the most ideal of circumstances -- maybe more. In fact, there are places that fit both descriptions just within the boundaries of Iowa.

This doesn't mean that we shouldn't have any national policies about guns, nor that we shouldn't have well-informed opinions and vigorous debates. But we should have the humility about our own limitations -- and a sufficient respect for the choices of others -- that we might at least try to see why gun ownership may look a little different in Chicago's Lincoln Park than it does 15 miles outside of Leon, Iowa.

This understanding of local differences is certainly not a matter limited to the reach of the Second Amendment. Above all, it's our job as good Americans to recognize that most of our fellow citizens are free to move about if they wish -- because that implies that most of us have, consciously or not, made a choice to live where we do.

That's a really important fact of life. Americans today move freely and often. Respecting the choice people make to live wherever they do is the first step toward defending the right of local communities to make sensible decisions for and about themselves. This doesn't mean that local communities possess the right to trample on the liberties of others; in fact, it is expressly provided both in the main body of the Constitution and in the 14th Amendment that the Federal government has the duty to step in to preserve the rights of individuals when they are threatened -- even by local majorities. There may be no greater domestic use for the Federal government than to step in to ensure that individual rights and dignities are preserved when they are threatened by local or state interference.

But in the end, America is far healthier and stronger when it is a place where most decisions are made closest to the people affected by them. We don't always need a national plan to do "X". In fact, most of the time we probably don't. If "X" is such a great idea, then we should be excited to see communities, counties, states, or even regions put "X" into action in ways that suit their local conditions. We should be especially reluctant to get worked up about "X" on a national level (whatever "X" may be), because the more we try to nationalize, the more we are reminded of our differences.

Just as it's jarring to see a reference to being stuck in traffic on Highway 20 outside of Sac City, so is it out of place to embrace a one-size-fits-all answer to many of our biggest questions as Americans. This is a big, big country. We should give ourselves -- and each other -- the breathing room to tackle our big questions at liberty, avoiding divisive national fights so that we can devote more of our energy to celebrating the common bonds that really are important.

Brian Gongol

Brian Gongol

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