As Americans continue to face the disruptive effects of economic change, whether from technology, trade, or globalization, many have wondered how we might preserve or revive the regions that have suffered most.
For progressives and populists alike, the solutions are predictably focused on a menu of government interventions, from trade barriers to wage minimums to salary caps to a range of regulatory constraints.
For conservatives and libertarians, the debate has less to do with policy and more to do with the arc of the individual choices at stake — namely, whether displaced workers should remain and re-invest in their local communities or simply pack up and move to where prospects look rosier.
Last winter, Kevin Williamson lit a fire of sorts that put the core, intra-conservative debate on full display, arguing heavily on the side of geographic mobility for the poor. “If the work is not coming to the people, then the people have to come to the work,” he wrote. “There is not a plausible third option.”
The subsequent debate included the dividing lines and competing conservative camps that we’ve come to expect: “localists” vs. “traditionalists” vs. “communitarian conservatives” vs. “dogmatic free marketeers,” and so on. Yet amid the tension about Williamson’s Option #2, and whether there’s an Option #3, conservatives are prone to forget that there’s plenty we can do with Option #1: Bring work to the people.
At least, that’s the strategy of J.D. Vance, author of the bestselling book, Hillbilly Elegy, which mixes memoir with social analysis to explore the landscape of his working-class upbringing. (See Ray Nothstine’s review for more.)
Now, after the success of his book and a stint as a venture capitalist in California, Vance plans to return to his home state of Ohio, where he’ll seek to invest in “neglected areas of the country,” from the Rust Belt to Appalachia.
In a recent Ricochet podcast, Vance counters the false choice that headlines the current debate, noting that while many of these areas have plenty of struggles, they also have plenty of untapped opportunity and human potential:
There’s a mistake in treating it as an either-or proposition, that you either have to completely discourage all geographic mobility or that you have to completely give up on these towns…
On the private sector side, I do think that there’s a real business opportunity in the fact that you have really significant differences in regional growth curves. When you think about, for example, that 80% of the venture capital goes to California, Massachusetts, and New York, I don’t necessarily think that 80% of the good business ideas are in those three states. I think there’s both an opportunity to do some good, but there’s also a market arbitrage opportunity in that really heavy capital focus in certain regions of the country.
Ohio may not be the next Silicon Valley, Vance continues, but it may have the potential to be the next Austin or Denver, offering fresh and innovative ideas to a country that’s consolidated and concentrated its wealth in coastal cities. “Is there an argument that there is good capital to be put to work, that there are good entrepreneurs to invest in in these areas, where you can make a good return, but also create good businesses in the process?” he asks. “I think the answer is yes.”
In the past few weeks, I’ve highlighted early evidence of such a shift, from Bluefield, West Virginia, to Cincinnati, Ohio. Yet, as Vance reminds us, this doesn’t mean that “moving home” or “investing back home” or “buying local” is a one-size-fits-all solution. Again, the beauty of Vance’s approach is that it doesn’t ignore the weight of the pressures at play, just as it doesn’t pretend that artificial
In a set of reflections on his decision to move back home, Vance emphasizes the complicated web of decisions and exchanges that surround each of our vocational journeys, and the ways that geographic mobility can sometimes be the enabler of bringing us home.
Of course, not every town can or should be saved. Many people should leave struggling places in search of economic opportunity, and many of them won’t be able to return. Some people will move back to their hometowns; others, like me, will move back to their home state. The calculation will undoubtedly differ for each person, as it should. But those of us who are lucky enough to choose where we live would do well to ask ourselves, as part of that calculation, whether the choices we make for ourselves are necessarily the best for our home communities — and for the country
It may very well be that Williamson is right: “If the work is not coming to the people, then the people have to come to the work.” The rate of geographic mobility is down, and both Williamson and Vance agree that this is represents its own range of problems.
But as we look for ways to spur and communicate the idea or the option geographic mobility to those who feel trapped, we’d do well to communicate the same to those who rest comfortably in the bastions of wealth. Surely they’ve developed their own set of blind spots and insular methods of self-preservation.
Help the poor relocate? Yes. Help investors and entrepreneurs see economic opportunity where many refuse to look? Yes, indeed.