We Always Buy Local and the Contrary

“Buy local” is one of the most simplistic political slogans. It obliterates complex analytical ideas such as the division of labor and comparative advantage. As I wrote in another article,

If something costs less to import, it is better to send the money out of the community and to bring more money back into the community by exporting what local producers have a comparative advantage in.

Google’s Books Ngram Viewer suggests that the expression “buy local” started spreading at the end of the 19th century and grew rapidly only after the mid-1970s (see figure below). It looks like it reached its peak in 2010, although perhaps its occurrence in books (which is what the Ngram Viewer measures) does not correctly measure the phenomenon in popular culture.

Merriam-Webster online defines “local” as “primarily serving the needs of a particular limited district.” Whether something is local depends on how “district” and “limited” are circumscribed. The online Oxford US dictionary defines “local” as “belonging or relating to a particular area or neighborhood, typically exclusively so.” Until you determine which “particularly area or neighborhood” is referred to and to which extent the good or service is “exclusive” to that area, you don’t know whether it is local or not.

I remember, in my Maine suburb, following a Maine-registered Japanese-made (or Japanese-brand) car with a bumper sticker saying “Buy Local.” An online survey showed that Canadian consumers consider beef to be local if it comes from less than 100 miles away. A few days ago, I saw a sign at Whole Foods in Portland, Maine, saying, with a heart symbol for “love” (see the featured image of this post):

We love local. Supporting over 850 farmers and suppliers from across New England

From northern Maine to the south-west point of Connecticut, New England is 500 miles long and up to 300 miles wide. That’s a large place to buy local. Not to mention that buying anywhere on Earth is buying very locally in the Milky Way, and that the James Webb telescope gives another scale to the concept of local.

Let’s keep our feet on Earth. However you define “local”, it is likely that at least part of what you buy there comes from far-away places. This was true even in the “good old times.” In Laura Ingalls Wilder’s delicious novel Little House on the Prairie (1935), Charles had to travel 40 miles on his horse-drawn wagon to the nearest city (Independence, Kansas) when the family needed such things as nails, sugar, seeds, or a plow. The steel for the nails and the plow must have come from England or Ohio.

The injonction “buy local” is only meant to elicit political emotions or, as Hayek would have likely said, tribal emotions.