“Buy local” is one of the simplest political slogans. It eliminates complex analytical concepts such as division of labor and comparative advantage. As I wrote in another article,

If it costs less to import something, it is better for local producers to export what they have a comparative advantage to send money out of the community and bring more money back into the community.

Google’s Books ngram viewer suggests that the expression “buy local” began to spread in the late 19th century and grew rapidly after the mid-1970s (see figure below). It seems to have reached its peak in 2010, though perhaps its incidence in books (which Engram Viewer measures) does not accurately measure its incidence in popular culture.

Merriam-Webster Online defines “local” as “serving primarily the needs of a specific limited district.” Whether something is local depends on how “district” and “limited” are defined. Online Oxford The American Dictionary defines “local” as “pertaining to or pertaining to a particular area or neighborhood, usually exclusively so.” Until you determine what is referred to as “particular area or neighborhood” and how good or “exclusive” the service is to that area, you don’t know if it’s local.

I remember, in my Maine suburbs, following Maine-registered Japanese-made (or Japanese-branded) cars with a bumper sticker saying “Buy Local.” An online survey found that Canadian consumers consider beef to be local if it comes from less than 100 miles away. A few days ago, I saw a sign at a Whole Foods in Portland, Maine, that said, a heart symbol for “love” (see the featured image in this post):

We love local. Supporting more than 850 farmers and suppliers across New England

From northern Maine to the southwestern tip of Connecticut, New England is 500 miles long and up to 300 miles wide. This is a great place to buy local. Not to mention that shopping anywhere on Earth is shopping very local in the Milky Way, and the James Webb Telescope gives another scale to the local concept.

Let’s step into the world. However you define “local,” it’s likely that at least a portion of what you buy there comes from far away. This was true even in the “good old days”. In Laura Ingalls Wilder’s delicious novel A little house on a treeless meadow (1935), Charles had to travel 40 miles in his horse-drawn wagon to the nearest town (Independence, Kansas) when the family needed things like nails, sugar, seeds, or plows. Steel for nails and plows must have come from England or Ohio.

The “buy local” directive is only meant to express political sentiment or, as Hayek might have said, tribal sentiment.

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