Dan Gardner is the New York Times best-selling author of Risk, Future Babble, Superforecasting (co-authored with Philip E. Tetlock), and How Big Things Get Done (co-authored with Bent Flyvbjerg). His books have been published in 26 countries and 20 languages. Prior to becoming an author, Gardner was an award-winning investigative journalist. More >

Controversial Ideas? Think Local

Many people hate the idea of clinics where people can inject illicit drugs under the supervision of nurses and counsellors. Others want them set up immediately. They include the University of Toronto researchers who recommended this week that supervised injection sites be opened in Toronto and Ottawa.

Which view is more popular varies from place to place. A recent Forum Research poll found that there was even considerable variation within the city of Toronto, with a strong majority of people (62 per cent) in the downtown core in favour, while people further out are just as strongly opposed.

That's life in a diverse country. Downtown Toronto isn't Scarborough. Ottawa isn't Cornwall. Alberta isn't Nova Scotia. Circumstances, opinions, and values all change down the road.

If we insist on applying public policies universally, that's a problem. We will never entirely erase our disagreements, no matter how much we talk, argue, and shout. And so, inevitably, when a policy is implemented, or blocked, people in some places will feel that people elsewhere have imposed their views on them.

Sometimes that's unavoidable. The Bank of Canada can only have one monetary policy, and, if it doesn't suit your local circumstances, tough. But there's far more room for decentralization and variation than we realize. We should make more use of it.

Consider the only safe injection site in the country, "Insite," located in Vancouver's bedraggled Downtown Eastside neighbourhood.

Before Insite opened its doors in 2003, popular opinion varied much as it does now in Toronto, with strong support in the downtown and opposition rising in the suburbs and beyond. If the municipal and provincial governments had insisted on a universal policy, they would have either denied downtown residents what they wanted or scattered clinics all over the map, in defiance of much local opinion. Instead, they did something modest and simple.

They opened one clinic in the downtown neighbourhood where support was strongest and need greatest. And they had scientists study the clinic's effects on drug users and the city.

In short, it was a local experiment with local support.

In the years that followed, Insite delivered impressive results that were reported in the world's leading peer-reviewed medical journals. And its support grew substantially, across the city and beyond.

It was a textbook demonstration of the wisdom of decentralization.

Provinces, cities, and neighbourhoods vehemently opposed to the policy did not have it thrust upon them. A neighbourhood that very much wanted the policy was not denied it. And, as a result, a valuable experiment was conducted, producing research which other jurisdictions can consult.

So local views were respected. An experiment was undertaken. And everyone learned. What's not to love?

Of course this argument is far from new. The phrase "laboratories of democracy" was coined in 1932, when United States Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis noted that American federalism meant "a single courageous State may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory, and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country."

And 11 years ago, two gentlemen wrote that decentralization would ensure that "the policies in all parts of Canada will better reflect local economies and local desires - and that cannot but lead to a stronger country." One of those gentlemen was conservative policy analyst Ken Boessenkool. The other was National Citizens Coalition president Stephen Harper.

Of course Prime Minister Stephen Harper tried very hard to close Insite and would have if the Supreme Court hadn't intervened, and that underscores a key problem.

We tend to think local control and experimentation is grand when we like what the locals propose to do, but not so much when we don't. This hypocrisy can even be seen in strong advocates of decentralization. Like Stephen Harper. Or, in the United States, the Republican party, which loudly and proudly supports the authority of states except when states make decisions (like Oregon's legalization of euthanasia) that offend Republicans.

Another problem is the sheer scale of our jurisdictions. We have provinces the size of European countries and amalgamated cities that sprawl across the map. Each may be closer to "local" than the federal government, but they're still a long way from your neighbourhood.

And then there's the Constitution. It doesn't even recognize cities. And it gives power over the criminal law - which is connected to so many values-laden decisions - to the federal government.

But these difficulties are not insurmountable. As was done with Insite, the federal government can grant exemptions from the criminal law in some cases. Discretionary law enforcement can also make room for local experimentation, provided the discretion is exercised formally and openly. (That last bit is critical. Discretionary law enforcement is actually far more common than people realize - there are caf├ęs in Toronto where marijuana is openly sold and smoked, for example - but it's usually done with a wink and a nod. That's no basis for well-constructed, publicly supported, supervised policy experiments.)

But, most of all, we have to collectively accept the idea that local is better, even when we don't happen to like what those people over there want to do.

We can start with prostitution. Key laws have been tossed by the courts. And good riddance. They were an incoherent mess. But what will we replace them with?

It's ludicrous to think we can find one answer to prostitution that will satisfy the circumstances, opinions, and values coast to coast. So let's decentralize: The federal and provincial governments should sit down with municipalities to discuss policy frameworks that would allow cities to take the lead and innovate.

And supervised injection sites? Thanks to Insite, the discussion is focused at the city level. That's good. But when we say "should this be in Toronto?" or "should this be in Ottawa?" we're still not thinking local enough.

Metro Vancouver doesn't have safe injection sites. There isn't one in Burnaby. Or Port Moody. Or Kitsilano. But there is one in the Downtown Eastside, where people want it.

That's local. National Citizens Coalition president Stephen Harper was right: We need more of that.