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Here is a note I shared with my students after delivering a talk on the economics of buying local last week:

For those of you wishing to read a clearer exposition of the Buy Local idea, please see this. I published it for AIER a couple years ago.

Just a reminder, if the mass of people wished to buy local, there is nothing wrong with that either economically or morally, nothing whatever. The point of the buy local discussion today, as well as the green jobs discussion in general, is that these things are costly. But rather than be honest about the costs, the green jobs advocates and “locavores” try to convince the rest of us that you can get some sort of a free lunch by promoting “green jobs” and “sustainable local living” and at the same time have higher standards of living.

You cannot get this free lunch.

My point is that when you guys are out there advocating on behalf of green jobs and local living, as many I suspect will, is not to be misleading or distorting reality. Be honest about the costs as well as the benefits. If people understood that there are costs to certain activities, they can be persuaded that the other benefits are actually worth the costs. If people value environmental quality and a world safer from the ill effects of global warming, they ought to know what it will cost to do something about it. Hiding those costs under the lofty rhetoric of the green jobs banner does not do a service to the cause.

However, and this is not to be taken lightly, some of the environmental and economic arguments for green jobs and buying local are flat out wrong. No amount of wistfulness can change that. No amount of demonizing me for teaching about it will change it. It is simply not true that large scale farming consumes more resources than millions of local farms, particularly when you consider the amount of land that would need to be plowed under to do it. It is simply not true that you can have high wages with low productivity without seriously injuring taxpayers who are being paid their actual productivity.

Finally, a point not made in my piece above, and mentioned in class, is that for as much moralizing as is done in the effort to persuade people to buy local, contradictions in the moral arguments seem to be unappreciated. Everywhere is local. But so long as no one is being coerced into buying local, we have no problems. However, coercive efforts to promote buy local are no different than saying someone that lives near you is more worthy of your attention and patronage than someone that lives further away from you. Coercive efforts to promote buy local (e.g. my old school district mandated that the school buy “as much food as they could” from local producers) seem to be arbitrarily applied. Why is the local farmer more worthy of our concern and not the local deskmaker or papermaker? Coercive efforts to buy local ignore the possibility that people like consuming things from other places. Do we not like Persian rugs? Indian tea? Brazilian coffee? Why is it OK to consume these things non-locally but not others? We could make these things here ourselves, so that is not a good argument for why.

A better way to argue against the globalized system (or to support the local movement) is the way McKibben does it. I don’t think he deludes himself into thinking that we could live the way we do now, just in a slightly more localized and higher cost way. He believes, correctly, that in order to live in a more localized world, we would have to substantially reduce the amount and quality of the things we currently enjoy. That is absolutely correct, and the discussion in my article and in class is an attempt to demonstrate to you just how much you would have to scale back.

On the other hand, the lesson of our economic past is that it is not necessary to believe that we cannot both improve the environment in the future AND enjoy living standards far greater than we enjoy now. There is no policy to guarantee it, but relying on strong property and legal institutions, respecting the rule of law, allowing entrepreneurs and political actors to gain from good decisions and suffer from bad ones, and allowing prices to allocate resources when possible, is a good start.

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