Every Saturday morning, I wake up around 6:30 or 7:00, take a shower, and head to my local farmer’s market. We live in North Carolina, which is helpful – our staple crops are generally substantive. Sweet potatoes are king here, which is much more useful than, say, corn.
We try to buy as much of our produce and meat as we can from the local farmers who gather together every Saturday morning in the parking lot behind City Hall. You can’t get everything you need there. But you can get a lot, and it helps.
We started going to the farmers market largely as a fad. We are young 20 somethings, and therefore very susceptible to FOMO (That is youth-speak for Fear Of Missing Out): The cool kids are eschewing the supermarkets for the farmer’s markets; we jumped on the bandwagon.
More than that, though, we were drawn to the farmer’s market after I went on a Wendell Berry binge. Berry is an acclaimed farmer and essayist from Kentucky who has spent roughly five decades drawing attention to the importance of maintaining strong local economies.
The case for localizing the economy is so obvious that most of us overlook it entirely: When the businesses operating in your town are owned by local residents (rather than, say, the Walton Family), the bulk of the profits enjoyed by those businesses remains within the community. In other words, the benefits of commerce actually trickle down in a local context. As the local shopkeeper prospers, your community prospers. As more money floats around your community, more local businesses are able to get off the ground – and consequently more jobs become available. It’s a virtuous cycle.
Not so with the hyper-globalized commerce of the present day. In the mid-70s, the Institute For Local Self-Reliance found that roughly two-thirds of every dollar spent at your neighborhood’s national fast food chain left the community entirely. In the same study, they found that although national chains like McDonald’s create large numbers of jobs in the short run, they ultimately reduce the number of available jobs in your community in the long run.
None of this is actually surprising if you’ve read your Adam Smith. His calling card, The Wealth of Nations, is one of those books that is frequently cited but rarely actually read, and as I opened the much-revered but oft-ignored text, I was shocked to find that the Adam Smith who wrote The Wealth of Nations bore little resemblance to the Adam Smith on Ronald Reagan’s ties.
“To make a re-localized economy viable, one of the things that needs to happen is that most people, most of the time, begin to gravitate towards Mom and Pops where possible.”
Smith is a fascinating character whose politics are enigmatic. Today, he is generally regarded as the patron saint of Capitalism, on the one hand, and as the origin point of what many people now derisively call “globalist economics.” That is, the notion that every community should specialize in exactly one export, relying on other communities to produce other necessary goods, which can then be imported at a lower cost than could be produced locally. This is the reigning economic dogma of our age.
Both conservative and progressive politicians generally presuppose that a hyper-globalized economy is ideal. Thus, both Republican and Democratic politicians served as cheerleaders for the remarkably swift process by which the American private sector shipped most American production jobs overseas. Only recently has the tide begun to turn away from the rigid dogma of hyper-globalization, as exemplified in Donald Trump’s admittedly-mostly-empty rhetoric about “bringing our jobs back home,” and Joe Biden’s admittedly-mostly-empty attempts to piggyback off that rhetoric and one-up the former president.
Thus, among non-libertarians – and among liberals who aren’t Thomas Friedman – Adam Smith has developed a bad rap.
It’s not really deserved, though.
Reading The Wealth of Nations, he certainly places more emphasis on exports than did, say, the medieval economists who pressed for ultra-localized economies and a robust guild system. Smith hardly passes G.K. Chesterton’s muster, that’s true.
But it is not at all clear that Smith would have approved of the profoundly tenuous, globalized economic system that we have mutated into. Smith simply wanted to shift from the Empire’s awkward mercantilist system into something more streamlined – his goal was greater self-sufficiency for local communities, not less. If you had told Adam Smith that the average American community was dependent almost entirely on imports from other states, or other countries, for its food supply, he might have had a heart attack.
In short, we aren’t actually following the Adam Smith blueprint. We’re doing something else entirely, and it is wounding us deeply.
Hence, Wendell Berry has covered the problem of globalization, and our resulting hyper-dependence, almost obsessively for the last 50 years. Berry argues strenuously that the only way to create sturdy and independent communities again is to gravitate away from the mass production of necessary goods with export markets in view, and instead to gravitate towards building up local production from the ground up: Subsidize local farms, empower residents of your town to own their homes rather than to be perpetual renters, remove the barriers of entry that prevent people from developing necessary businesses – the list goes on.
Americans may know the Declaration of Independence by heart, but that independence is purely hypothetical until the average American is reasonably self-sufficient. To hold political independence in your hands, you need some degree of economic independence. To make that a reality for most Americans, we need a re-localized American economy, and you can’t re-localize the American economy if most people shop at Walmart. You can’t re-localize the American economy if most people order all of their goods from Amazon. You can’t re-localize the American economy if most people eat at McDonald’s, or Applebee’s, or Pizza Hut every time they go out to eat. To make a re-localized economy viable, one of the things that needs to happen is that most people, most of the time, begin to gravitate towards Mom and Pops where possible.
That is, go to the pizza place run by that Italian guy who moved to North Carolina in the 70s. Go to the General Store run by that long-time resident who’s also a volunteer firefighter. Buy your carrots, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, watermelons, cabbages, peaches, blueberries – whatever you can – from that local farmer whose accent is too thick for you to understand most of what they’re saying, and who only accepts cash. Re-localizing the American economy will take so much more than just shifting your consumption habits towards locally produced goods and locally owned businesses, but that is the starting line. Consuming locally is step one.
Ryan Ellington is a pastor in rural North Carolina. He is the cofounder of Grindhouse Theology and The American Commons. He has a B.A. in Religion from Oklahoma Baptist University and a M.A. in Ethics, Theology, and Culture from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is distantly related to Johnny Cash, but not in a cool way.