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The Law and Political Economy of Rural America


Ann M. Eisenberg (@Prof_Eisenberg) is Associate Professor of Law at the University of South Carolina School of Law and author of Reviving Rural America: Toward Policies for Resilience (forthcoming).

This post introduces a symposium on the LPE of Rural America.


In a recent editorial in the New York Times, economist Paul Krugman wondered, Can Anything Be Done to Assuage Rural Rage? In the piece, Krugman returns to talking points that regularly appear in those same pages: The idea that rural people are irredeemably, irrationally resentful and angry; that stagnant rural regions enjoy disproportionate public benefits subsidized by hard-working urbanites; and that “[t]he economic forces that have been hollowing out rural America are deep and not easily countered” (though, he adds, “it’s certainly worth trying” to counter them).

According to this perspective, economic forces—such as globalization and agricultural consolidation—are framed like natural disasters that have besieged rural communities. As a result, rural regions are cast as requiring artificial subsidies to stay afloat, while cities are depicted as self-sustaining and dynamic. Cities also seem worthier of investment as more efficient uses of public and private resources per capita, while population-sparseness dooms rural communities to appear wasteful and disproportionately expensive.

In treating recent economic developments as inexorable forces of nature, the unnecessary disturbance of which violates some fundamental principle of a well-functioning society, Krugman and his fellow Op-Ed columnists are not alone. Scholarship on law and economics often mirrors this sense of hopelessness and futility about the idea that place-based interventions or other policies targeting regional rural socioeconomic distress might make a meaningful difference. And, if we accept the priorities dictated by the law and economics movements – maximizing market efficiency, keeping public costs low, and embracing public-private partnerships and entrepreneurialism as avenues to service provision and economic development – it is easy to see why one might believe that little, if anything, can possibly be done to address rural economic decline and associated political tensions.

Recognizing Human Agency in Decision-Making

Thankfully, as readers of this blog are well aware, the law and economics perspective is not the only game in town. As I have previously argued in a blog post for the Rural Reconciliation Project, the Law and Political Economy framework offers the tools and the permission to emphasize competing, arguably more fundamental priorities: racial and economic justice, fairness, dignity, democracy, and the public interest. LPE is premised on the idea that law, politics, economics, and power dynamics are all fundamentally interconnected, rather than discrete spheres functioning independently.

This lens is particularly salient for questions facing rural communities. In contrast to the picture presented above, in which rural regions are the ultimate victims of well-functioning markets, the LPE lens reveals the market-centric story of the rural, while not entirely baseless, to be a red herring. If we want to understand the story of Rural America, we need to begin by examining the governing choices—the laws and institutions—that have disadvantaged rural communities. By revealing the human agency that shapes our collective fates, we can see that alternative decisions to better address geographic inequality remain within our collective control. 

Just some of the choices that have disadvantaged rural regions include President Reagan’s and Congress’s decision to deregulate intercity bus service in 1982, President Clinton’s and Congress’s decision to approve the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement in 1993, a more recent Congress’s decision to exclude high-volume hydraulic fracturing from major environmental statutes, and many state legislatures’ decisions over the past several decades to pass so-called right-to-farm laws shielding agribusiness from nuisance lawsuits.

These decisions reveal that transportation markets, energy markets, trade markets, and agricultural markets are creatures of law and policy. And while this emphasis on decisions’ consequences might sound like a blame game, this analytical process actually offers more hope than the discourse that often predominates. Laws and policies can be changed, and need to be changed radically, if crises of climate change, racial injustice, and economic and geographic inequality are to be addressed. Revealing markets for what they are—policy-driven manifestations of our collective values—helps reveal a path forward toward a more hopeful and equitable future.

Busting Market-Based Myths

In my forthcoming book, Reviving Rural America: Toward Policies for Resilience, I build upon these ideas to “bust myths” that declare rural America dead based on market-centric reasoning and related talking points. Three of these myths, in particular, are at the heart of the hopelessness narratives that so often grace the New York Times Op Ed page.

The first is the myth of rural unsustainability. Debunking the myth of rural unsustainability involves drawing attention to long traditions of utilities and common carrier regulation that helped keep rural regions on a more equal footing with urban ones from the late nineteenth century until the late twentieth century’s deregulatory era. Policymakers recognized the benefits of ensuring that less-profitable regions were not subject to the whims of the private sector for resources and services necessary, as infrastructure, to regional stability and prosperity. Although these social goods might require “subsidization” to reach less-profitable regions, like population-sparse rural ones, that does not mean such infrastructure deployment is not possible or worthwhile. Meanwhile, cities have their own dependencies on external inputs, like, for instance, food. In short, rural communities are sustainable if society decides to sustain them, and there are reasons to think it should. As Ohio Senator John Sherman opined in 1886 before the passage of the Interstate Commerce Act aimed to make railroad operators provide just and equitable service to disadvantaged regions, “One of the great evils of our times in commercial transactions is the vast concentration of capital and labor in great commercial centers.”

The second myth is that of rural radicalism. It’s undeniable that right-wing media on various platforms is spreading conspiracy theories and radicalizing people, in ways that seem particularly acute in some rural regions. But commentary that is quick to “ascribe irrationality” to rural behaviors or to lament inexplicable rural rage and resentment overlooks the many ways in which rural behaviors are perfectly rational. Sociologist Jennifer Sherman, for example, documents how in Paradise Valley, Washington, and Golden Valley, California, environmental regulations have, in fact, hurt people’s livelihoods in traditional land-based activities, with devastating regional ramifications. An unwillingness among some environmental advocates to acknowledge the class-based implications of conservation and the meaningful concerns felt in rural communities exacerbates urban/rural tensions and likely does not serve the environmental movement in the long term either.

Finally, and most importantly, is the myth of rural obsolescence. The idea that rural communities are no longer necessary to a thriving society overlooks rural America as “the locus of our nation’s ecosystem services, including food and fiber provisioning,” as well as a critical player in decarbonizing the economy through renewable energy. As I argue in a forthcoming essay, rural America needs to be reconceptualized as a commons. Taking this perspective helps us understand that rural America itself—not just the natural resources that sit within it—is a shared, collective resource, and that we need to govern it as such. How best to govern a commons is, of course, its own complex question, but no matter the ideal governance balance, a commons warrants stewardship. This means the wasting of rural America over the past several decades has been a collective mistake, and our society’s approach to managing it needs to be done radically differently.

LPE offers the theoretical tools to conceptualize a way forward in rural communities, not just for their benefit, but for the benefit of all. I am delighted to have the opportunity to kick off this timely symposium addressing LPE in Rural America on the LPE Blog.

The authors’ contributions offer a variety of perspectives on this essential topic: Ganesh Sitaraman, Morgan Ricks, and Christopher Serkin challenge prominent narratives about inexorable economic forces driving rural decline by illustrating how specific regulatory choices have played a key role in rising geographic inequality between prosperous regions and “superstar cities” and regions left behind; Emily Prifogle and Jessica Shoemaker discuss how a bias toward the urban obfuscates property law’s role in constructing and maintaining rural landscapes characterized by highly racialized ownership and wealth disparities; Christopher Ali demonstrates how broadband infrastructure continues to fail to reach many rural communities, due to the private sector’s unwillingness to serve less-profitable places and the Federal Communication Commission consistently exaggerating the extent of broadband availability; Judah Schept interrogates the multiple economic and ecological crises fueling a “carceral boom” in Central Appalachia; and, finally, Nicholas Stump highlights rural civil disobedience and resistance movements that are fighting against destructive fossil fuel interests and, in doing so, makes the case for a more radical a vision of civil disobedience.

These contributions, which range from property law to social movements to utilities regulation, and which include stories stretching from Kentucky to Alaska to Wisconsin, are tied together by the need for radical change in rural America.