Journalist Bob Mercer makes clear his distaste for Rutland, South Dakota. Oddly, he expresses this distaste in a "buy local" paean that rambles into a sloppy mishmash of quasi-capitalist socialismÂ that suggests he doesn't really believe in small towns or the free market.
We'll get to Mercer's Rutland-pounding in a moment. First, socialism:
Mercer's latest political column exhorts us all to shop locally. He argues primarily from a socialist perspective: we should buy from our local merchants not because it is the most economically efficient choice, not because local goods and services provide the best value for our dollars, but because your money will help local businesses pay their taxes and support public services. Mercer is absolutely right that shopping locally supports the local tax base... but can free-market purists base their actions on that argument?
Against the evils of Internet commerce, Mercer argues we should have our local merchants order things for us. Again, Mercer is right: local merchants may not have everything we want in stock, but they can get it for us fast, thanks to the Internet and overnight delivery. But so can I. From a free-market perspective, why would I engage the unnecessary services of a middleman when I can more cost-effectively obtain goods and services directly?
Mercer can't sustain his argument for local shopping unless he acknowledges that the free market cannot establish our primary values. Mercer's argument rests on the assumption that the social welfare is more important than individual liberty and market efficiency.
Perhaps Mercer's economic philosophy gets all tangled up because he's not really trying to express an economic philosophy. He's just setting up a broadside of the nefarious Rutland School District. He groans that "Rutland depends on the rest of us more than its local taxpayers to pay for its school system." He notes that under the current school funding formula, Rutland levies $298,000 in local property taxes for education while receiving $448,000 in state aid to keep its school open. Mercer contends that Rutland further drains our collective coffers by encouraging people to shop through a special online portal that donates a portion of online purchases to Rutland School District.
Mercer notes that Rutland also sends a bus to Madison to spirit away the children of that fair community, just to get more dollars from the state (just like South Dakota puts more Indian kids in foster care to get more federal grants, right, Bob?). Never mind that no one has reported armed guards forcing Madison kids onto the Rutland bus. Those Rutland scum are offering students in neighboring districts choices and opportunities, and Bob Mercer won't stand for it!
Mercer patches everything together to issue this stinging indictment:
Rutland is encouraging people to shop over the Internet. Madisonâ€™s community leaders work every business day to encourage people to shop in MadisonÂ [ironic link mine; Bob Mercer, "A Better Way Than More Tax to Help Ensure a Place's Future," Mitchell Daily Republic, 2011.11.28].
That's how Mercer's ramble ties together. He adopts the mantle of buy-local advocacy mostly just to show what bastards folks in the Rutland School District are.
Now let's distill some grains of truth from Mercer's complaint. Rutland's leaders encourage local shopping as well. Alas, Rutland has all of two places to buy anything: Black Studios and the school-operated Rambler Stop. If you need something other than wedding photos or gas and chips, you need to shop elsewhere. To get a piece of the commerce pie, Rutland has to reach for a slice of online sales through things like the donation program in which it participates.
Perhaps there is an argument that if a town is too small to support its own retail sector, it's too small to be a viable community. Maybe that's Bob Mercer's real argument: that some towns are too small for the state to support. That's the reasoning behind every push for school consolidation South Dakota has seen: maintaining little country schools in every rural township uses tax dollars far too inefficiently. The state must stretch its limited dollars to provide the best educational value it can to as many students as possible.
If Mercer wants to argue that some schools and some towns are too small to survive, he should say so. He may be right. Maybe we need to eliminate more of the school "middlemen" in small towns and consolidate education in larger education clearinghouses. Perhaps we can make education even more efficient by replacing more brick-and-mortar schools with online courses.
But if we decide as a state that certain small towns aren't worth our while, we don't get to soothe our consciences by vilifying those smallest-town boosters. They're just trying to survive, and it's hard to fault a community for that.