“Buy local” is a popular slogan, but if you stop to consider it, it isn’t sensible.

The Twisted Logic of "Buy Local"

Sanford Ikeda is a professor of economics at the State University of New York, Purchase College. He is an expert on the economy of cities, taking an Austrian School approach to the subject. He is the author of Dynamics of the Mixed Economy: Toward a Theory of Interventionism (London: Routledge, 1997) as well as articles in the Southern Economic Journal, Journal of Economics and Humane Studies, American Journal of Economics & Sociology, Cosmos + Taxis, the Review of Austrian Economics, and the Independent Review, Forbes, and others. He received a B.A. from Grove City College and a Ph.D. from New York University.

Nothing would seem to be more different, and more fundamentally at odds, than the progressive admonition to “Buy local!” and the reactionary cry to “Go back where you came from!” But the progressive admonition entails the reactionary cry.

First of all, the idea behind “buy local” is to give more business to local vendors at the expense of vendors outside our own community. It often means paying more for these locally sold goods and services, but the boost to the local economy in general and to our sense of virtue is supposed to outweigh the private loss from paying extra. In essence it’s an act of charity.

There are a number of problems with buy‐​localism that I won’t discuss in detail here, such as the following:

  • That not all goods can be produced locally at low‐​enough cost for a given quality to be affordable for very many: coffee in North America or Europe is a good example.
  • That if you make an exception for coffee, who makes these decisions and on the basis of what criteria?
  • That few businesses can support themselves with only local demand using only locally produced tools and other materials they need to produce and sell locally.
  • That since the people in another locality use the sales revenue they earn when we buy from them to then buy things from us, then buying exclusively local, if that were even possible, would mean fewer sales to them and so they will not be able to buy as much from us. In other words, buying local also reduces our exports.
  • That any definition of “local” is arbitrary. In New York City, for example, does local mean the neighborhood of Red Hook (pop. 37,000) or all of Brooklyn (pop. 2.5 million) or the City of New York (pop. 8.4 million), or the entire Metro area (20.3 million)? Where do you make the cut‐​off without being completely arbitrary?
  • That if the focus is on local vendors (who may get their wares from outside the community) and not on promoting local production of goods (although advocates don’t make this distinction), then it’s hard to see how this differs from merely saying “Buy where it’s most convenient for you.” Clearly, that hardly gets to the virtue that Buy Local is apparently aiming for.

So, putting all these issues aside, what does “Buy local!” mean? And how would buy‐​localism impact our attitude toward visitors to our community?

1) Does “buy local” mean “sell local,” that local sellers should only sell to local buyers? Note that if you’re allowed to sell to outsiders then you are violating the buy local strictures of those places where outsiders live. But if we must buy all of our goods and services locally (those of us able to, that is) but it’s okay to sell to outsiders when they come to town to visit, or to export to other communities, then the slogan should really be “Buy Local, Sell Global!” In which case buy‐​localism wouldn’t be a universal moral principle but a narrowly self‐​serving policy. So to be consistent, buy‐​localism should apply equally to all localities everywhere, and that would mean no exports as well as no imports.

2) One implication of this is that if we travel outside our own community, we’d better be prepared to buy locally and take with us everything we expect to consume on the road, including food and housing, if we don’t want to violate “buy local.”

Wait, housing? Yes! Housing—e.g. motels—is a local service, and on the principle of buy‐​localism we should not buy those services in other locales. Of course, this means that those motels will likely go out of business for lack of patrons, and so of course will those local businesses—e.g. coffee growers in Central America and Africa, apple growers in Upstate New York, actors in Hollywood—whose customers are almost entirely outside their own communities.

3) What about the bucolic images shown in buy local campaigns of city folks stopping on the roadside stocking up at a local farmers’ market? Forget it! Or ruralites coming into our cities for an evening’s entertainment? Go entertain yourself in your own towns (presumably by watching your locally produced plays, music, and television programs)! And if you’re communing from, say, Manhattan to work in Brooklyn? No way you’re taking jobs away from us! Go back where you came from!

If everyone everywhere practices buy‐​localism, it’s hard to see why we would want to travel at all outside our own communities, or why we would tolerate outsiders coming into them.

Each of these cases assumes of course that farm produce, entertainment, jobs, and so on can all be produced locally—because if they can’t be, and I’ve noted that in reality most of the goods and services we consume daily can’t be, that means the businesses that you won’t now be buying from and the people working in them will be worse off, without any gain in local economic activity to compensate for it.

4) Okay, well, maybe we’re thinking that this is all too extreme, and that we don’t mean all commerce with the outside world should be cut off. Rather, what we really mean is Buy local more often when you can,” or as an economist would say, “buy local at the margin.”

First, if that’s all it means, then the slogan is practically empty because buying local at the margin, where the margin is determined by the benefits and costs facing a person making a decision at a given point in time, is what each of us does anyway all the time without thinking about it. Second, if the watered‐​down version of buy‐​localism does cause people to shift their spending toward local products by a little more than they otherwise would have, then the consequences I’ve described will less drastic than the strict version. But the forces behind those consequences would still be in play

The point is the more universally and consistently people follow a buy local policy, whether voluntarily or through coercion, the more exclusionary and reactionary the consequences will be. Buy‐​localism limits our interactions with people outside the social spheres we’re used to moving in—the people outside our bubbles. The more seriously we take buy‐​localism, the more we must discourage inter‐​local mobility and exchange, otherwise we’d be tolerating or even encouraging violations of buy‐​localism by someone somewhere. The strenuous advocate of a consistent, principled application of buy‐​localism should thus adopt the more brutal but honest slogan: Buy local, go home!”

The freedom to trade across geographic boundaries is inextricably tied with the ability to move across those boundaries, and when we restrict one, we are of necessity forced to restrict the other as well.

Of course, excluding and conserving is exactly what some people want very much to do, especially those who fear the unpredictable changes that inevitably accompany contact with outsiders and their novel products and ideas, changes that result from a world without arbitrary limits on our freedom to exchange. This, evidently, is where many progressives and conservatives can agree.