In the comment section of this post, Evan inquires about my reference to the sometimes rough relationship between libertarian bloggers and the "buy local" movement. I've seen lots of posts on this over time, particularly on Cafe Hayek, but the recent series of posts started with Stephen Landsburg's post (cleverly interchanging "loca-" with "loco-") suggesting that locavores are wrong because more often than not, locally grown produce is more energy-intensive than non-locally grown produce (this shouldn't be too surprising to people who know about comparative advantage and scale economies and can put the two together for both agriculture and transportation). Don Boudreaux follows up on it here, and Arnold Kling follows up on it here. Their argument rests on the basic point about the information content of market signals. Markets know more than locavores about the costs and benefits of different food production, so when locavores eschew non-local foods they are somehow going against the market. I have two main complaints about this criticism - the first is economic, and the second is more philosophical.
First, the whole problem with the market for carbon is that the market doesn't have reliable informational content, as it doesn't with any product where externalities prevent markets from accurately communicating information. That doesn't make locavores who make the energy efficiency point right - I wouldn't be surprised at all if locally grown food was still more energy-intensive despite the externality problems associated with pricing it. I simply wouldn't go out on a limb to defend the market on accurately pricing anything having to do with fossil fuels. It seems a little odd, though, that Kling and Boudreaux are criticizing locavores for ignoring market signals even as they participate in a market. Clearly they use market signals, and they have different assessments of the value of non-locally grown food than Kling and Boudreaux do, and they act in the market accordingly. Most locavores don't eat entirely locally grown food. I don't even come close. Usually the margin I'm concerned about is price. I'm much more likely to purchase locally grown vegetables than meat because it's a cheaper product in which I can express my localist preferences. Crabs I often buy locally, other meat less often. I buy wine and beer from local producers far more often than I do from non-local producers. I'm taking my subjective value judgements to the market and interacting with market signals in all of these purchases. Nobody is bucking market judgements of the cost of non-locally produced foods. It's just not the only information that people use. The other side of the market process is consumer demand. So the juxtaposition of locavores and market signals was a little odd in that respect.
The second critique I had is actually my primary critique: people who buy locally generally speaking don't do it for energy-intensity reasons, in my experience. Maybe there are some environmentalists that give this justification primacy (although even for them I doubt it's the only reason), but I really don't get the sense this figures very prominently. I certainly don't - I don't get the impression Evan does - I've never heard the friends I mentioned in the previous blog post bring the energy-efficiency point up. In fact, it's precisely the energy intensity of local production that is praised in many circumstances. There's an ethic to the work involved in small-scale, unmechanized farming. There's an ethic to the work involved in gardening. The additional work of craft production is seen as a labor of love - a humanizing toil. It's the "shop class as soulcraft" idea. I could understand why people who live and breath neoclassicism might get confused about how to incorporate this subjective value into a framework where leisure is always considered a "good" and labor is always considered a "bad", but I'm surprised so many self-styled Austrians or Austrian sympathizers are tripping over this point.
Aside from the simple points that (1.) the market may very well be wrong in its pricing of carbon, (2.) just because you have subjective values doesn't mean you ignore the market, and (3.) in some cases energy and work-intensity is considered a feature, not a bug, there seems to be a lot Landsburg, Boudreaux, and Kling don't understand about the motivations for localism. My impression is that the major drive behind the movement is to personalize and diversify production and make local communities and social interactions more robust and fulfilling. One of the things our friends liked about the local cheese cake shop they told us about was that they knew both of the proprietors. I think I'm going to take this community-building point up in a subsequent post, because it's been featured on Cafe Hayek recently as well, and it's really a post in itself.
I think I may have blogged this before, but...
21 minutes ago