April 11, 2007

A Philosophy of Shopping

Justin Katz

Marc recently raised the question of conservative imperatives bearing on local versus big-brand shopping habits. It's an interesting topic, because it lies at the intersection of various philosophical principles and general preferences.

Chief among the principles is the acknowledgment that we must work within, rather than deny, the incomprehensible forces that govern human society. In this case, that means respecting the market. If national chains can more efficiently provide goods or services in a way that society prefers or needs — more quickly, less expensively, more reliably — then the competitive odds will be stacked in their favor, and denying that reality will result in a loss somewhere in the economy and the society, not the least because smart, entrepreneurial people will be devoting their efforts in wasteful ventures.

Market forces should draw workers from occupations and locations in which it is difficult to compete toward those in which opportunities outnumber employees. People who are able to do so would greatly benefit society and themselves by creating new markets or discovering untapped demand for existing ones. And the market will require folks who are especially gifted at or tied to particular markets in which competition has increased to differentiate themselves by finding angles that the competition hasn't exploited or cannot exploit as effectively. One obvious strategy aligns with a social preference dear to conservative hearts: encouragement of a sense of community.

Clements' Market in Portsmouth is an example of a business that leverages its available differentiators well. Local produce compounds the "buy local" appeal. Familiar faces are behind the registers by day, and after the schoolday ends, checking out is like stepping into a pleasant 1950s cliché. A program involving register receipts can benefit local charities. The store also takes advantage of Portsmouth's upper middle class standing with high-end offerings, including a sushi bar.

All of this comes at a cost, of course, which is why it is strange for liberals to hate Wal-Mart so fervently. Granted, that company's executives are rich beyond belief, but people who prioritize distributed wealth ought to appreciate that the stores' efficiency and economy of scale have given families of average and below wealth an opportunity for a higher quality of life.

Of course, a reasonable response is that the proximity of a superstore raises the cost — often to a prohibitive degree — of Clements'-like values, putting a premium on what once was ordinary. The urge to block big-box development is therefore understandable — even were it to prove largely futile in context of the larger economy — and there are legitimate and conflicting claims across class lines.

Whether particular developments are good or bad depends on group perspective. To families struggling to get by, sushi and smiles weren't on the table to begin with, but to others, business ownership and community are critical, defining characteristics of our culture that ultimately benefit everybody. As Hayek argued in Road to Serfdom — observing that Naziism was socialism for the class that working class socialism had suppressed — attempting to manage these endless complexities involved is an act of perilous vanity.

Even just the common assumption that disproportionate wealth is nearly evil in its unfairness is fraught with crucial subtleties. It's occurred to me, as I've passed the obscene wealth on display along Ocean Drive in Newport, that the alternative might resemble one of those seaside teenage paradise boardwalk cities that litter the New Jersey coast. Such areas have their place (and I was one of the teenagers who thought them paradise), but just as the wealth of upper middle class suburbanites preserves aspects of our culture, the wealth of the ultrarich is not purely to their benefit alone.

(One implication of this that the populist in me feels compelled to note is that an elite that loses its taste for the refined and hand-crafted also loses part of its argument for being tolerated. At the same time, the Christian in me must note that wealth is not all, and that some rewards come at a cost that our culture has a tendency to ignore.)

What this all comes down to for the conservative who wishes for a practical rule of thumb when forming shopping habits isn't very conclusive, because all courses of action are acceptable given the individual's preferences and circumstances. My own thinking on the matter is that we do well to treat those values that come at a premium — whether they are atmospheric or community-related or what have you — as exactly what they are: cost/benefit considerations. And here, traditionalist leanings point toward the wise strategy of looking to one's own family and assessing its wants and needs as a prior concern.