“Buying local” is the shortest known term for economic illiteracy

“Buying local” is the shortest known term for economic illiteracy.

There are things that are sensible to make locally. Like bottled water. Nobody can tell the difference between Evian and decent tap water blindfolded, just like nobody can hear any difference between a golden audio cable and a coat hanger outside their own imagination, so it’s time to stop pretending. Hauling water from another continent when the identical thing comes out of your kitchen tap, or a nearby spring and bottling plant, is idiotic.

There’s a decent enough, completely free system for hauling water around the planet in place. It’s called clouds.

Then there are things that even the smelliest, localest, most artisanal hipster accepts are only really feasible to make in one or two places for the whole world. Like iPhones.

Where he goes wrong is assuming most things are category 1. In fact most things are clear category 2, and the amount of stuff you can and should sensibly be making nextdoor is a microscopic sliver of exceptions. There is a limit beyond which, the benefits of sourcing locally are outweighed by the benefits of economies of scale and specialisation.

Even food is deep in category 2. Which is why developed countries spend billions pretending farming is a 21st century profession.

When a rich-world citizen can make enough money to buy a sack of potatoes in five minutes on a plushy indoor job, it is hard to convince him to spend half a year of back-breaking labor growing it instead – even for money. Which is why we’re all taxed to hell and the EU spends almost half it’s budget on agriculture subsidies so that Jacques the plowman can get paid fifteen times market rate to stay on the job. And yes, the potatoes have to come from somewhere, but there’s no intelligent reason why it shouldn’t be a huge factory farm. Or India.

The only halfway decent argument for farmer subsidies is food security. We want to make sure there’s food on the shelves even if somebody on the other side of the globe gets a bit cross with us. Which is why even economically sensible Switzerland does it. Usually, it’s some bloke called Jean-Piérre blocking the freeway because he was bad at school instead. But that’s food. It doesn’t justify the sudden obsession with having your chair made by your nextdoor neighbour at five times the price and half the quality of mass production.

It boils down to specialisation, division of labor and comparative advantage. In other words, the bedrocks of why we aren’t wading about in dysentery and feudalism anymore.

Because the reason iPhones are made in China, really weird pornography in Russia and cotton in California is the same reason you don’t drill your own teeth, smelt your own ore or blow your own glass.

The point is to do something that you’re better at and trading it for stuff you’re less good at, such as growing food, so that in the end both you and the farmer are better off.

The end result of you being whatever you are and the farmer being a farmer is that you have more potatoes than you would growing them yourself, and he has more of…whatever it is you’re doing than he would if he were doing that himself. Whether the farmer is a guy or a country is immaterial.

This is the foundation of the modern economy. It’s why we go to space instead of chasing auroch through the hoarfrosted undergrowth.

The logic by which you import stuff from southeast Asia is the same logic by which a village will have a blacksmith doing the smithing for everybody, and why you have specialised accountants doing your tax return and dentists fixing your teeth. It’s on a bigger scale, but the same fundamental principle.

And nobody in their right mind would dream of doing otherwise. The only thing de-specialisation achieves is making people worse off. The logic of having your food grown in Ukraine is the same as having it grown by a farmer in your own village instead of growing it for yourself.

The reasons division of labor is a good thing within a community of people are exactly the same why division of labor is a good thing within a community of nations. It’s just zoomed out a bit further. Doing business with China is as time-consuming and difficult and dangerous as doing business with the next village was 200 years ago. And nobody would have seriously suggested that Scotland should be growing its own tea then.
Everybody agrees that having specialised people for food and blacksmithing and pottery is better than everybody trying to do everything by themselves, so the only reason anyone refuses to support global trade is failing to appreciate it’s the exact same thing.

There are a few explanations why people fail to appreciate this.

It is either protectionism, where people prefer paying more for a loaf of bread from their neighbour than an identical loaf from the next village – in other words, a form of nationalist chauvinism, where we take care of our own first. Interestingly, the bearded sandal-wearing types who evangelise local produce are also universally vociferous anti-nationalists, in everything except their 18th century mercantilist economics where those smelly foreigners assault our nation by selling us stuff we need.

Or it is wrapped in some strained environmental argument that folds under the lightest scrutiny. Like that trade produces a few carbon dioxides that go on to warm the planet and thereby make it colder and add billions of tons of new ice to the polar caps, or something.

Or it’s having spent Econ 101 inspecting some pornography on an iPhone under the desk and not paying attention.

“Thank you very much Mr. Globalisation, I’d rather pay twice as much for a version of this that is not very good than lift some Papuans out of poverty”. Of course, they will instead say something about “multinational corporations”, but it amounts to the same thing.

This protectionism is a not-so-subtle shift from thinking of the world as an interconnected web of cooperating countries to a view where international trade is a form of war. But global trade is the alternative to wars, and obviously one of the most beneficial things in human history, second only to the scientific method.

The world isn’t made better off by doing things worse and at higher cost.

The main point of all this local artisanal idiocy isn’t economics, or even the environment. It’s a romantically sentimental longing for “the roots” and getting in touch with dirt. Mind you, not real dirt. A sanitised, tolkienesque quaint fantasy that has fairies in it. City dwellers want to feel rustic without wading through goat shit.

Unfortunately, actual farming is way more goat shit than creative typography and brownpaper wrappings.

There’s a reason we ran away from our “roots” and into air-conditioned monoliths of steel, glass and living past twenty. It’s better.

And anyway, making something “locally” is impossible. Everything you will use in the process will have come from five different continents.

Yes, the ecoartisanal orange confit is local, except that the oranges in it are South African, the sugar is Brazilian, the glass is Czech and the spices are from India. The only vaguely local thing in it is the producer’s stray armpit hair.

Which means the world would have been better off just importing the finished thing from one place and not feeding a hipster for pretending her overpriced worseness is somehow saving the planet.

“Support local producers” really translates to “pay more for less at no discernible benefit to the environment or anything else while entrenching the smug pretentiousness of a few leninist luddites”.

Of course, this is all perfectly fine if what you’re trying to do is return everybody to Victorian purchasing powers and make sure the third world starves.

I see no reason why the farmer in the next village should get my money more than a family in New Guinea. Maybe I’m not racist enough to be an ecomentalist hipster.

People will tell you they “can taste the difference”, but there’s good science saying it’s rubbish. Because it only works when they know what bit came from what jar. Blind testing reveals Dolores the staunchly organic vegan is imagining it. It’s exactly like tasting the massive difference between a regular and an extravagantly expensive wine, as long as you can see the labels. Take that away and experts prefer swill from Tesco to multi-thousand dollar vintages.

Or Champagnes/sparkling wines, which all taste exactly the same.

At this point, my own liver is 90% wine sediment, and the “Oooh flowery notes with a touch of lemongrass” phase is ten years behind me, so I have considerable credentials. Like most things in life, once wine is free from major fault, the differences are negligible and mostly imaginary, and certainly not worth the geometric progression of pricing. That also goes for food. There’s more – locally sourced organic food is actually more unhealthy than the Monsanto stuff.

Bottled water from a Swiss glacier, golden audio cables, expensive champagnes and local products – all exactly the same kind of bullshit for different strains of pretentious suggestibility.

If you want the most sensible consumer guide in the history of humankind, read this.