More than a few times I have heard pastors say something to the effect of: "shop local," "buy local, rather than from the big box stores," "buying local is an investment in people," etc. Moreover, I've heard this from people that I very much like and respect, from people that I think are great pastors and doing phenomenal work. However, I would like to offer some resistance, as I think that this is not only an economically dubious position, but also a potential pastoral pitfall.
I'd like to consider the issue from two perspectives. The first is an economic perspective, and the second (in part 2) is a pastoral perspective. .Economics
First, let me say that I understand the appeal of buying local. Buying local sounds good, it feels good, and it is good. That's right. I'm not anti-local. That's not what I'm saying. When I visit a new town or city I'm the one in my family that insists on visiting the local hole-in-the-wall rather than the tried and true Applebee's or Chile's. I think there are all kinds of good reasons to buy local: you get to talk to the person that made your product, you know more about it's history, you've got a better chance of buying hand made if that's what you're looking for, etc. My problem is when people argue that it is economically or morally superior to shop local. Here's why.
The first question to ask about buying local as a maxim is: what is local? How do we define this, and why? Does it need to be made in my town? In my state? In my country? Where are we to set the borders? And this begs the question, why do we set them where we do? A lot of people argue that we should buy American to preserve jobs. But that is just a form of protectionism, and you'll be hard pressed to find sound economic theory that defends protectionism. Protectionism is just voluntary sanctions, and we can look to countries like Cuba and North Korea to see what sanctions do to human flourishing.
Yet a dogmatic insistence on buying local is not that different from a dogmatic insistence on buying American. In fact, from an economic standpoint it's worse. The reason protectionism/sanctions are so devastating is that they limit the pool of trade and they force a smaller number of people to do more things, thus precluding specialization which allows people to do things more efficiently and thus trade them at a lower price. Specialization makes everyone richer because it allows a few people to focus on doing one thing efficiently while knowing that others are doing the same and thus trade can occur among the various specialists. The simplest example remains the assembly line.
So, my first point would be that protectionism is bad for everyone. It simply means higher costs, harder work, longer hours, etc. And a serious commitment to buying local is a commitment to something not unlike protectionism. But that brings to the fore another point. No one is consistent on this. No one insists on buying a computer, or a car, or all their children's toys, or even electricity that was produced locally. Why not? Why are certain things priviligeged, and why are we encouraged to buy certain items locally? Why don't we encourage folks to buy cars from the fellow down the street whose dream it is to invent a new type of automobile? Well, because we live in the real world. But the point is that the calls for shopping local not only draw some pretty arbitrary geographical boundaries, but they also draw some pretty arbitrary boundaries in terms of what items they are applied to.
The second point that I think is worth making on the economics front is this: often the idea of investing in people or supporting the community is invoked in favor of shopping local. The questions I would ask are: do big box stores not support the community when they hire dozens of people and offer cheap goods to the less well off in your community? Are people that work at them not supported by your patronage? I know that there are a plethora of horror stories about the treatment of employees by big box stores, but it seems common-sensical to me to recognize that small stores likely treat there employees poorly at times too, but it simply isn't a story when they do. They are too small to be noticed. (I have personally experienced this.) Further, the people that work at the big box stores took the jobs voluntarily, and while they may not like them much, they like them/value them enough to keep showing up, so they are apparently valuable to people in your community.
While the economics of Wal-Mart and the like is far too complicated to get into here, I think it is very important to remember that those big box stores employ a lot of people from your community. While you may see and greet your butcher at a small hometown store, there are many people drawing a wage from Wal-Mart that you never see. I would submit that those big box stores have invested in your community (no doubt to make a profit, but that is the nature of business), and that patronizing them is as much an investment in people as patronizing the little boutique or bakery on the corner. The point is, you can't draw these arbitrary distinctions about what constitutes supporting your community (assuming you mean by that the actual people that make up the community who have jobs at places like Wal-Mart) based on how home-town or local the place feels.
Capping off the section on economics I'd like to say a few things. On the one hand, I understand the preference for shopping local and I share it. It's enjoyable to go into a local farmer's market, talk with the farmer, and buy some carrots and tomatoes. It's nice to meet the person that made your Christmas decorations.
Furthermore, I recognize that these folks play a significant role in creating the culture of the place where you live. They keep traditions alive, and create a sense of nostalgia and cultural uniqueness that isn't kitschy, or silly, but real and authentic. I support local, Ma & Pa business, and value this contribution that they make to communities.
But my concern is with suggesting that it is a moral right to shop at that kind of place rather than another. For one thing, I hope to have at least hinted above at some of the difficulites with defining what is local, and why it is preferable from an economic standpoint, if the goal is to be a supportive member of the community. I haven't gone deep into issues of efficiency and cost partly because I think that will come up in the next section and partly because I think it requires a fuller treatment than I can give here. I do think it would be helpful for pastors to read Economics in One Lesson
by Henry Hazlitt, or some similar classic economic text just to dispell some common and seemingly intuitive notions that are actually false and can even be destructive to those they are trying to serve.