26 November 2008

The Color of Automagic

The Angry Economist: Local is not automagically better

A bias in favor of the local is similar to a bias in favor of purple. If you want to buy mostly purple-colored products, fine, go ahead. Feel free. I won't stop you. But don't try to claim that purple products will make me a better person, make my community better, cure aids, and create world peace. They just won't. There's nothing magic about the color purple. Nor is there about local trade. It's just an irrational preference that requires sacrifice on your part, not a favorable attribute.
Well put.

I feel the same way about the Slow Food movement. If that's what you like, great. I agree that that food really does taste better etc. than the common alternative. I sympathize with the whole motivation of enjoying the process of creating and consuming your meals, rather than just treating them as a pit stop. Just recognize that these are personal, almost aesthetic decisions. Just like buying local, or eating local, there's nothing about slow food that is objectively better, and certainly nothing that is going to rescue society and save the world.

You can throw into the same category the well-intentioned "I only buy handmade gifts" thing* that crops up this time of year. If you think the receiver would prefer a hand knit sweater to a (mass printed) book, then that's a sweet thought. But there's nothing particular noble or moral about it beyond buying someone something they would like. At best, this movement is thoroughly specious. At worst, it contributes to destructive, arrogant Luddism like this:
Every item you make or purchase from a small-scale independent artist or crafter strikes a small blow to the forces of mass production.
Attention neo-Luddites: Mass production created the modern age. All of it. Mass production has lifted (and is lifting) humanity out of the poverty it has spent the entire rest of history mucking about in. Henry Ford has improved more lives by several orders of magnitude than Mother Teresa would have in a dozen lifetimes. If you aren't freezing to death, or starving to death, or spending your time trying to squeeze a few extra calories out of tiny plot of uncooperative soil, then there's a damn good chance you have mass production to thank.

It is the height of egotistical, bourgeois arrogance to think that since the Patrick Batemans of the world have too much stuff already we ought to just shut down the factories. Forget about all the people in the world who haven't got enough clothing, or books, or furniture, or cookware, or farm equipment, or anything else we mass produce. Striking a blow against "the forces of mass production" is ever so much more important than making sure some poor schmuck in Ulan Bator can get enough affordable, mass produced clothing to last the winter. Stick it to the man, you self-centered counter-reactionary zombies.

I'm willing to hear arguments about whether the capital for mass production should be directed by private or state action, and to arguments about how the benefits of mass production ought to be distributed, but there is no denying that the productive capacity achieved through a combination of capital accumulation, skill and technology is a massive net benefit for humanity.

* They need a catchier name.

Electric lighting is no great boon to anyone who has money enough to buy a sufficient number of candles and to pay servants to attend them. It is the cheap cloth, the cheap cotton and rayon fabric, boots, motorcars and so on that are the typical achievements of capitalist production, and not as a rule improvements that would mean much to a rich man. Queen Elizabeth owned silk stockings. The capitalist achievement does not typically consist in providing more silk stockings for queens but in bringing them within the reach of factory girls in return for steadily decreasing amounts of effort.
— Joseph Schumpeter, 1942

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