Two arguments for a better ice cream shop

1. Marx

2. Berry

Good localists do not simply fetishize the familiar for its own sake. They also aren’t totalizing some partial argument, about valuing local people, into some catch-all of all things local. Here are two ways to look at value interactions that might help:

1. The first of my arguments can actually sound a lot like Karl Marx, with different results. To start, Marx is criticized for thinking that the “means of production” explains everything. But the converse is no more true. Social relations really are altered by various ways of economic alignment – and furthermore, the way we view the world is often connected with its social structure. No determinism or 1:1 relations here, but real relationships nevertheless. From this argument of partial economic materialism, we see that a preference for local isn’t just about the kind of experience I can obtain, or about the moral relationship I have with the cashier. It is also about (a) the moral relationship I have with the cashier’s chain of command, through the cashier, and (b) me reinforcing, with my dollars, the kind of economic (and consequently social) relationship between the cashier and her chain of command.

2. But you don’t need to be Louis Althusser to be a local lover. The second argument is the argument from Wendell Berry, which is a little more spiritual, a little less like French philosophy, and related to ontology. I might begin by making the agrarian point about how a man is connected to the land – that his personal identity, and moral being, cannot be dissociated from it. That is, the things I physically do shape my values, and vice-versa. It is not that man is one with land, but that land is integral to his nature. If that is the case, there is a difference between local and Super____ not merely because of the social relationships, but because it recalls us to the physical connections of our souls. Tools and oranges do not simply appear in stores, but someone worked to prepare them, even if it wasn’t me. And it is good for that fact to be in my mind; not just theoretically, but even better if I have an idea of who that person might be, or what the work might be like. This is true to varying degrees of a chain store, which derives not just its name but its practice, form, and goals from corporate.

There is no need to make blanket statements here. If your neighborhood entrepreneur is selling the same things as CVS – well, he has a plus and a minus on his moral economic ledger. Not that it is sinful to sell the things CVS does, but it adds problems to our moral being, such as the Berry-an alienation I describe above, or the ability to dissociate ourselves from the moral exchange of the vast supply chain. Similarly, chains like Trader Joe’s and even Starbucks can do a lot of good things to “particularize” there progeny. Every store has a variety of value elements that affect our soul-ish being, and all these are weighed against actual cost.

Too complicated? It’s the price we pay for a complicated world.

3 Comments

  • April 7, 2010

    Adam D'Luzansky

    You argue that we are disassociating ourselves from the moral nature of the supply chain when we buy things of unknown origin. I think the genesis of this argument places an unreasonable and impossible epistemological burden on man. We cannot always know the circumstances in which something was made and we shouldn’t be held responsible. A necessary caveat, of course we should strive to when when possible and appropriate. But it feels like your setting a philosophically pure standard.

    But beyond being unreasonable, I think it is also an inappropriate burden.

    For example, perhaps your local butcher is in dire financial straights. One could interpret the argument you make as a call to pay more when you buy meat. But you can, and I would argue should, fulfill your duty to aid your neighbor outside of the commercial transaction. It would be more personal and appropriate to approach the butcher as a person outside of your economic transaction and seek to aid him.

    Along the same lines, we do not praise a boss who gives his family members preference in his company, even though we each have a duty to our families. That’s not virtue, it’s nepotism.

    We should not think of commercial situations as morally equivalent to non-commercial situations. That is certainly not a call to treat commercial situations as amoral, they are indeed moral. But I don’t see in your argument (or the arguments of Marx and Berry as you describe them) an understanding of the differences.

  • April 7, 2010

    Bryan Wandel

    The burden placed by this kind of argument is one of awareness. Most of us would stop purchasing from a company that whipped its child-laborers on a daily basis. Or maybe even if the abusive company supplied one of our favorite producers. In such an interconnected economy, the need to boycott probably diminishes at some point down the line. But the moral burden of awareness exists in some sense.

    It may not be possible to know everything about everything you purchase, but the demand to exert some amount of effort or awareness is still there.

    You distinguish between personal morality and commercial morality. Presumably this is due to the good of efficiency in production that Adam Smith discovered to result best from self-interest. This is an issue of proper information being exchanged as much as anything else. I think, though, that this moral distinction is simplified in order to create easier data collection. For example, when I trade my rabbit furs for some corn, the best information balances when each of the traders desires with the amount available. If I pay an extra dollar for locally grown coffee, I am also expressing my desire for what I believe to be a more valuable transaction, on the whole.

    As regards nepotism, I should therefore think inheritance to be corrupt as well, solely on your grounds. In business, it is up to the nepotizer to bear the financial burden of his unfairness, compared to his benefit of, say, giving his nephew a chance to prove himself. The genuinely open market contains a check (unlike, say, bureaucratic nepotism).

  • April 28, 2010

    Why I am a Hypocrite «

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