The (Potential) Hypocrisy of the Buy Local Movement

Over the past few years, I’ve seen lots of “Buy Local” bumper stickers and hashtags popping up all over.  I’m intrigued by the “Buy Local” movement in some ways, but I also find some inconsistencies in the logic of the people who heartily subscribe to this movement.

Asking some questions about you will help me outline the issues: Do you like the “buy local” movement? Probably. I’m pretty sure college kids who live on a mountain with lots of bluffs and trails to take pictures on, whose most frequently listed Facebook hobbies include “hiking, biking and anything else outside really” (ostensible by a commitment to study exclusively in an ENO in the Crater)  and who just discovered Wendell Berry are bound to support this movement. These characteristics don’t of course cause anybody to buy local, but I’m willing to bet there’s a positive correlation there.

Moving forward to the second question: Do you like Donald Trump’s economic policy?  As it is outlined in his economic plan on, he wants to: “Appoint trade negotiators whose goal will be to win for America [by] narrowing our trade deficit, increasing domestic production, and getting a fair deal for our workers” (i.e. reducing trade with other countries so that certain industries in our economy see more business). You can call it protectionism, isolationism, economic nationalism, etc., but the point is, I’d wager that a significant portion of the student body thinks it’s stupid.

The punch of protectionism is to discriminate in trade based on country. So instead of buying steel from the Chinese, who happen to make desirable steel at a lower price than producers in the U.S., Trump wants us to buy from American producers. The same goes for lots of other goods which the U.S. imports.

The mechanisms vary from quotas and tariffs to embargos. Fundamentally, this is saying that we should prefer the well being of American workers over that of all workers abroad since, if we don’t buy their stuff, they’ll have fewer orders to fill, and therefore, need fewer workers, and workers will get laid off. This doesn’t sit well with me because I believe that foreign workers are just as much people as my fellow American workers are.

What does this have to do with Buy Local? You Comm Dev majors out there probably don’t think it’s cool that DJ Trump wants America to quit trading with other countries just so that Americans benefit, right? Well, it seems to me that the logic of the Buy Local movement is at its core the very same as that of Donald Trump: Consumers are supposed to discriminate against goods based on their geographic origin. So when we’re picking up some goods, and we have a choice between something made in our town or something made in Iowa, we should be regionally prejudiced against the guy in Iowa and pick something just because it comes from somewhere close to us, even though buying local products is more costly.

And what is the out of town producer supposed to do after that? He thought he already did his job by yielding the product for a lower price than the local person did. Back to the fundamental statement of protectionism, we should care more about producers who are close to us rather than those who are far away, even if that’s a few states over.

What if the choice is between something from a neighboring state and something from across the country; does the neighboring state count as local? What if the “local” good costs $5 more? $10 more? How far away must a good be produced before it is no longer local? 100 miles? 400? Even beyond the moral implications of preferring one person’s welfare over another’s just because you live near the first, the Buy Local strategy is dicey since the spectrum of “local” quickly becomes confusing.

I agree that a connection with things in a person’s immediate vicinity has a deep appeal, and I’m part of it too. I enjoy swinging by the Amish folks’ stand for particularly fresh tomatoes, strawberries and rhubarb in Pennsylvania summers, and I prize my pocket knife that was made a couple counties over from my own.

I don’t at all want to belittle the benefits of interacting more with people around us or the freshness that propinquity of origin can accommodate. That’s great, but don’t be appropriated by the fallacy that you have to buy locally to befriend people around you. And it’s not absurd to consider that the welfare of workers who made a satisfactory product for pretty cheap across the country might outweigh the romanticized picture of creating an unbreakable spiritual bond by handing someone within your county a twenty dollar bill.