Saturday, October 10, 2009


Buy Local?

Today was the ISI conference on "Freedom and Virtue: Challenges and Prospects in a Time of Economic Crisis." It was fun for me because (a) it's my first ISI conference and (b) one of the speakers was Hillsdale College's Gary Wolfram, who was my professor and then boss. I'll post the videos when they're available.

One of the speakers, Andrew Abela of the Catholic University of America, was giving a qualified defense of Hilaire Belloc and G. K. Chesterton's program of "distributivism" [.pdf].

Abela's talk was really good, and I don't want to dismiss the things he was talking about with a libertarian wave of the hand. However, he was defending the idea of "buying local," and during the Q&A I relayed a true story (and you need to know that the conference was held in Indianapolis):
Last night when we all went out to dinner, the waiter was explaining to all of us that the meats were all raised within 25 miles. But I thought, "Why did I care about supporting Indiana farmers? If the waiter told me the meat came from Tennessee, then that would be an extra reason for me to buy it, if I want to support people in my community."
Obviously I was mostly making a joke, but the point is a serious one: People are actually supposed to feel good about "buying local" even when they're from out of town. Do you see how ridiculous that is? Would the waiter have objected if I ordered a cut of meat, raised in Indiana, while sitting in a restaurant in Nashville?

I know I know, one of the reasons you're supposed to prefer locally grown vegetables etc. is that it is fresher. Fair enough. But a lot of the "buy local" people aren't simply saying, "You should do this because it tastes better and is better for you." No, it is a moral argument, that you should provide income to people who live down the street from you, rather than providing income to people who live in other states, or--gasp!--people who live in other countries.

P.S. It just occurred to me that the word Indianapolis is the name of the state with "polis" added. I'm guessing everyone else knew that when he was 3 years old. Well good for you. It was also relatively late in life when I realized Thanksgiving was a giving of thanks; up till then it had just been a blur of syllables to me that arbitrarily referred to a holiday.

One thing I try to point out to people when they get on the "local" soapbox is that everyone who works for the Walmart or Starbucks across the street is local. So if they give business to these stores, they're still helping the nearby economy, it's just that some of the profit goes to people in different places.

And yeah, whoever named Indianapolis was lazy. Either that, or he was tired of coming up with original names for the other state capitals.
I've actually heard a different argument for buying "local" that actually makes some degree of sense.

The claim: transportation burns gasoline, resulting in CO2 emissions. If everyone buys local, then less gasoline is burned, and CO2 emissions are decreased.

That makes sense, and doesn't rely on the silly "Keep Indianapolis money in Indianapolis." The only real problem with the argument is that it assumes that cutting CO2 emissions is a goal of the person doing the purchasing, and that may or may not be true.

Thanks for posting this - it gives me another chance to try to answer your question.

I think it's important to distinguish between small and local. My talk was about the dangers of concentration of economic power, and so I was mostly focusing on supporting small businesses. Small and local often go together, but the rationale for local is somewhat different. Yes, it's more environmentally friendly, as one of your commentators noted. Yes, in terms of food it also means more freshness, as you noted. More important than freshness, though, is food security. If I buy my milk from a local farmer, the chances of it being contaminated with melamine are infinitesimally smaller than if I buy milk that has been shipped from China, because the local farmer knows that any such trick would spell the end of his business, whereas a global supplier can easily start again under a different name. And therefore (here's an argument a libertarian can love) there is less call for regulation when transactions are local.

I think you can generalize this point: local transactions are easier to monitor by the parties involved, and therefore there is less justification for state regulation, be it for product safety, workplace safety, truth in advertising, etc.

I will post this exchange on my own blog, at
"Obviously I was mostly making a joke, but the point is a serious one: People are actually supposed to feel good about "buying local" even when they're from out of town."

No, Bob, this is not ridiculous in the least. "Buying local" means supporting more humane, personal ways of dealing with other people, rather than supporting giant, mechanistic corporations, whether one does it as a Chinese resident shopping in Brooklyn or a Australian shopping in Norway.
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