We all know that fulfilling our needs and wants through the most local means is a moral good, right? Working close enough to home to walk or cycle is better than driving (which pollutes and wastefully expends resources), right? Buying products produced locally is better than buying mass produced and/or foreign produced products, right?
Not according to Russell Roberts of the George Mason University Economics Department. Roberts blogs here about this article, which describes Drexel University design instructor Kelly Cobb’s effort to make a suit of clothes using only resources available within a 100-mile radius of Philadelphia. “The suit took a team of 20 artisans [eighteen] months to produce -- 500 man-hours of work in total.” And the results are quite comical (see here). One reader shows math acumen by pointing out that at $10/hour, the suit would cost $5000 wholesale. At $5.25/hour, it would be $2575. And think of the retail markup.
Roberts’ conclusion that “Self-sufficiency is the road to poverty” is a piece with many of his works, which claim that free market economies of scale are the only road to widespread prosperity. Roberts has also frequently claimed that the free market is by far the best tool for achieving the optimum balance of environmental good and human prosperity. He argues (here) that some in the environmental camp have a world view where “humans are a poison on the earth and the reason we should put on a carbon tax or discourage fossil fuels is that our use of the earth's resources is somehow immoral.” Some of Roberts’ readers severely take him to task on that post.
On the blog about the rustic suit, one of Roberts’ readers suggests that an econ professor should assign students to make something simple, such as a pencil, using only local resources. In response to that suggestion, another reader posts a link to this provocative 1958 essay by Leonard E. Read (founder of the Foundation for Economic Education) that delves into the making of a pencil in great detail. It’s also cleverly written from the pencil’s perspective. Milton Friedman thought Read’s essay was the best work ever produced to explain both the importance of the invisible hand of dispersed knowledge and the importance of the freedom to act in one’s own best interests.
Read’s essay suggests that government is involved in some ventures that would more effectively be handled by the free market. He concludes with a passionate plea that laws and society be organized in such a way as to “Leave all creative energies uninhibited” (ellipsis original). He pleads and asserts, “Have faith that free men and women will respond to the Invisible Hand. This faith will be confirmed.”
For me, this essay was far more important than Dr. Roberts’ post. Read’s example of the pencil is easy to comprehend and is loaded with obvious truths. Extrapolating Read’s main point a little further, it can be said that many governmental control systems exist due to lack of trust of free people. Of course, history is replete with examples of some free people making bad choices. But it seems that government’s default behavior is to overreact to those instances, thereby, imposing more control on those that are not culpable.
By the way, some (not all) of the comments on Roberts’ suit post are quite astute. A professional clothing pattern maker chimes in, noting that the suit was junk because Cobb had a bad pattern and sourced the wrong people to do the job. She suggests that it would be difficult to find a better U.S. location for this project than Philadelphia, but that Cobb squandered excellent resources in favor of amateurs so that she could exert complete control over the entire process. In other words, the project was simply handled badly.
It would be interesting to see a project such as this undertaken in a professional manner. But I think you’d have to go back to the hunter-gatherer mentality to be a purist about it. To see why, let’s do a thought experiment on just one minor aspect of the project. Did the garment makers use crochet hooks manufactured locally from locally mined ore? Were the machines that manufactured the crochet hooks developed using only local materials? Perhaps artisans carved wood crochet hooks from a local tree. Where did the knife to do that come from?
I have been involved in mountain man reenactment. I have tried my hand at brain tanning leather from locally harvested deer hides. I have sewn my own leather clothing. But even when people were doing this in the early 1800s, some of the resources were not locally derived. In fact, non-local items obtained through trade were among the most prized. Where did the lead for the shot come from? The black powder? The rifle? The tub in which to soak the hides? The steel for the drawing knife? The needle used in stitching?
Sure, you could use a locally built bow with locally built arrows. And you could use a bone knife and a bone needle. But people (including Native Americans) gave these rustic tools up as soon as better tools presented themselves. There are good reasons for that. People tend to use the tools that are the most advantageous and obtainable.
I’d have to say that most efforts to operate in local purity for its own sake (believing it to be a higher moral good) are illusions of reality. They are like Ghandi’s poverty, which was actually very expensive to maintain. In other words, the illusion of local purity can be maintained only by using many non-local resources. The end result is that some consumers feel smug and some shrewd business people (that may not even be local) have profited from the sale of high margin products. But if you're willing to pay for it, go right ahead.
Thus, buying local for morality's sake is kind of like a religion in which one achieves redemption by appearing to do all of the right things. The mantra could be, “Save your soul by buying local.” (Or, at least feel superior to your mass consuming neighbors.) I’m not arguing for wasteful consumerism, but buying local does not necessarily mean you are contributing less to non-local sources, and it is often more expensive. Smugness has a cost.