Localism and free trade
Will asks a few good questions about markets and economies of scale, to which Kevin Carson (among others) provides some very good answers from his own unique, mutualist perspective.
Will asks, “are localism and a free market economy reconcilable?”
This is a good question. When I began blogging at the League I was on a big localist kick, and walked down the localist/protectionist path about as far as I could before I bumped up against too many inconsistencies in that philosophy to ignore. Nevertheless, I remain convinced that local politics and strong communities are essential to a prosperous, healthy society, and that decentralization – though not a perfect solution for every problem – remains the best way to avoid amassing too much power into specific regions, entities, or industries. To my mind, free markets are the best way to ensure this, though the sad fact is that rarely are markets truly free, and so we continually find ourselves in semi-free market situations, with large corporate interests and “too-big-to-fail” players reaping far more benefits from the state than they should.
Nevertheless, I do think localism and free trade are reconcilable, even if we can never feasibly return to the counterfactual Carson imagines – to a world without state-subsidized roads and rail (and so on and so forth). Government, whether we like it or not, will remain involved in our infrastructure and I doubt that the state has any plans to further disentangle itself from the web of protectionist policies now in place. The special interests have a pretty tight hold over those policies – whether we’re talking about agribusiness or tire manufacturers or Goldman Sachs.
The German model of artificially preserved local communities is certainly one approach to maintaining the character and charm of German places. It lines up nicely with some Front Porch ideas and with the Red Tory arguments laid out by anti-liberal, anti-capitalist Phillip Blond. But there are other ways to ensure local character is preserved. The Swiss have adopted competitive federalism, which pits Swiss “cantons” against one another (a canton being like a very small state, probably more akin to a US county) by letting each canton determine its own tax policies and state-provided services. Most taxes in Switzerland are collected at the local level, and most spending policy is determined from the bottom up rather than in our system which is increasingly top-down. This brings real competition between local governments into the picture. Local governments compete for citizens and businesses.
And here’s the thing – I’m not against local governments working with businesses to create better towns or a better “sense of place”. This is where government can and should do the most after all. So I’m not going to argue against all government involvement. I would just argue that government should play as non-interventionist a role as possible, by laying some of the ground work to create a competitive and attractive city without unfairly giving advantage to specific players (though yes, this is always difficult).
If governments – local or otherwise – can subsidize private interests or locales by spurring competition and laying the foundation for a competitive market, then more power to them. If local governments want to keep big box stores out of their dense urban areas and in more drive-intensive spots, I see no reason to argue against that. There are sensible market-based reasons for this, at least if you view your local community as a brand which needs to compete against other towns for residents, tourists, and businesses.
(Local currencies may have a role to play as well. Ithaca, NY has “Hours” which are local dollars. This is an interesting idea which helps keep currency in the local system).
I understand the argument that state-subsidized transportation systems disproportionately advantage large-scale retailers and producers. But the benefits of economies of scale would still exist without an easily-accessible interstate transport network, right?
Of course. But the scale itself would be different. It’s very unlikely that many of the big corporations we have today would have emerged in their current form without the rails and interstate highways. Sure, some very big companies would exist, but I imagine they would have been far more regional. Whether this is good or bad is harder to pin down. Certainly Wal*Mart may disrupt our sense of charm but it provides cheap goods for people who can’t afford charm.
I would argue that once transportation costs become prohibitively expensive and micro-manufacturing becomes much cheaper and efficient than it is today, we’ll begin to see something of a return to a more regionally based production economy. Transportation costs have been extremely low for a very long time, in part due to cheap oil, and in part due to the infrastructure that the state helped establish. To make shipping great distances worth the expense of shipping those distances, you have to be able to produce on a large scale and ship on a large scale. Once the cost of shipping out-paces the savings of mass production, you’ll start to see production closer to home fill the demand. Couple this with better micro-manufacturing technology and you’ll start to see a return to more localized production of goods.
Here’s the equation –
- if cost of (C)heap foreign labor + cost of (T)ransportation ? cost of local (P)roduction then we’ll see a (R)eturn to local production
- if C + T ? P then R
So the question is would C + T have ever been less than the cost of local production without state subsidies in the first place? And at what point will fuel costs render those subsidies meaningless? Or will green technology and green fuel be cheap enough to make local production still prohibitively expensive?
Labor costs in a globalized system will slowly rise along with transportation costs. Once labor costs plus transportation costs in China, for instance, are equal to or more expensive than the combined labor costs and transportation in the United States, you’ll see a return to manufacturing in the United States – though at least theoretically it will also continue in China, where workers will have become consumers of these goods as well. (and so on and so forth)
And maybe big corporations will simply do less shipping and more local production, basically maintaining economies of scale one way or another. It’s hard to say.
Given the inter-connectedness of subsidies and local communities and the inherent advantages of large-scale producers and retailers in any economic context, I think that the localism versus globalism debate is about what we should subsidize rather than whether we should subsidize, period. I think we can (and should) argue over what local features are worth preserving through active government support. But suggesting that localism represents some return to an idealized free market state of nature strikes me as pretty naive.
Maybe so. And this simply cuts to the question of implementation. The government will always have an interest in framing markets, setting up the rules of the game, etc. The point should be that we keep this involvement as neutral and decentralized as possible. A return to localism, then, is simply a return to a more decentralized system of subsidies and rules that promote, rather than discourage, competition. Even though the freeways benefited economies of scale, they did so fairly neutrally. Big companies may have an advantage over small ones, but they nevertheless have to compete against one another.