I briefly discussed a mildly popular internet meme earlier in the week; a second set of images/admonitions asks us to refrain from purchasing Christmas gifts from large chain stores and to instead buy local. One I saw said “HERE’S AN IDEA: let’s buy Christmas presents from small local businesses and self-employed people…Let’s make sure that money goes to individual people and not multinational companies. This way more LOCAL people will have a better Christmas.”
Some concessions at the outset: first, if you wish to personally pursue the locavore strategy, go for it. If you have the disposable income to pay the premiums associated with avoiding economies of scale and comparative advantage, that’s wonderful. Second, there clearly are many situations where local businesses provide superior products to chain or corporate products. The hickory burger at Windrush Grill near my house is a delicious example, but I could also mention credit unions, barbers, and lawyers, among others.
I’m sure people will quibble that the comparison to locavores is unwarranted since the push is for people to buy Christmas gifts and not food specifically, but the principle is the same. We are supposed to keep our money local to most benefit the local community. Of course, the absurdity of the principle appears pretty quickly by extending it; if we should not buy grapes from California but from a farm in our same county, then it should be even better if we not buy grapes from that farm but grow grapes ourselves in our own backyard. That would be keeping the money as local as possible, in our own house. I imagine locavores would agree with that suggestion as well, since it is so easy for people to consider only the benefits of proposals with which they agree and to neglect the costs, or to consider only the costs of proposals with which they disagree and to neglect the benefits.
Three points, one historical, one theoretical, and one religious, reveal the flaw in the do-it-all-yourself philosophy. Historically, we see absolutely zero long-lived societies where all individual citizens are autarkic; we see pretty clearly that a division of labor, even if relatively limited, is evidently preferable. Theoretically, given that people do not possess all skills and talents equally, it is clear that autarky forces a person to spend time and effort doing things for which they are ill-suited and for which another person is well-suited. Religiously, we are the Body of Christ, even if we live in different regions, countries, or hemispheres; should concerns over energy usage and corporations prevent me from improving the lives of people who live in very poor conditions but who produce products I desire?
Is it morally superior to buy local? I don’t see how, nor do I consider it superior to buy only from multinationals. As long as the trade is entered into voluntarily between buyer and seller, it becomes a prudential judgment whether you buy local or not. Again, given the efficiencies that large-scale production typically offers, small local businesses usually have higher costs and therefore higher prices than substitute products offered by chain stores. Is it morally superior to have people pay higher prices when they don’t need to? You will respond “Money isn’t everything; you should be willing to pay a higher price to help out a local business owner.” Okay, but should local people near or under the poverty line be forced to pay that same premium? It’s not a matter of helping local business owners or not; it is a matter of helping them at the expense of local customers. As I said earlier, for those with enough disposable income the choice to stay local is a perfectly fine one, but those folks should not look down their noses at others who prefer the cost savings.
Consider this thought experiment: I have $100 to spend on a widget, and two stores offer widgets for sale. Mom-&-Pop offers the widget for $100, and Sprawl-Mart offers the widget for $70. The locavore option gets me a widget; the evil corporate option gets me a widget and $30 to spend on something else, like a hickory burger. The locavore option doesn’t help Windrush Grill at all. My standard of living improves by going the non-local route even though I’ve spent, and sellers have received, no more money than if I’d gone the local route.
Is it morally superior to “make sure that money goes to individual people and not multinational companies?” Again, I don’t see how, since multinational companies are not run by robots, angels, or demons but by individual people. Perhaps the criticism is against “multinational people” which is particularly morally offensive. Does it present a dilemma if a local store we frequent later becomes so successful that it grows into a large corporation? If Windrush Grill becomes popular and expands to other neighborhoods, cities, states, and countries, am I morally obligated to stop buying from it?
There is a romanticism about buying local food, but the reality is that local-food policies destroy wealth and institutionalize prejudices for one human over another based on such arbitrary criteria as the location of their farm. Local-food advocates imagine the movement providing a host of non-economic benefits, promoting a sense of community and “belonging.” But buying local food limits one’s community to only those we can physically see and imparts trust to only those whom we personally know. However, a shopper involved in the global food chain is part of a much larger community—one that requires a great deal more trust than one is required to muster at the farmers’ market. If we want to foster the civic virtues of trust, trustworthiness, and community, the local-food movement is a move in the wrong direction—it is little more than nativism.