economies of scale19 May 2009
If we take it as a given that many of our societal ills are due to overextension of various institutions (e.g. “big” government, “big” business, etc), the obvious conclusion is that it’s a result of various forms of subsidization causing an artificial inflation of the natural economies of scale. Businesses, governments, et al become artificially inflated by externalizing costs in ways that are absorbed or accumulate in other areas. Put more simply: they get bigger than they “should” be in a “naturally” competitive capitalist economy (whatever that hypothetical beast might be). This seems to be accepted by a lot of “progressive” (anti-status-quo) types: particularly by libertarians/anarchists, obviously, but I think even many left-leaning liberals, as well. The former tend to focus on big government, whereas the latter tend to focus on big business; but “big” is the unifying negative attribute.
But it seems that the backlash found in a lot of those outlooks sometimes has swung too far the other direction. That is, it has culminated in the operating assumption that everything is better if it’s small, local, or exceedingly individualistic. It’s important not to forget that economies of scale really are a valuable thing. People do really work better in groups; specialization is a good thing for efficiency, and quality of life does go up when we work together. You know, our entire civilization is sorta based on that fact.
I think this occurred to me when I was attending a meeting last week about urban gardening. The emphasis in the CSA/local agriculture movement seems to be focused tightly on locality as a measure of negative or positive impact – that is: the more local, the better. This isn’t always strictly true. Granted, our food distribution system is really messed up in a lot of ways, but that doesn’t preclude the possibility that sometimes, in the right economic conditions, it might make more sense (that is: be better for the environment, people and economy) to ship a truckload of oranges from Florida than to grow them here. Similarly, the idea that growing a self-sufficient garden on your personal property in the nooks and crannies of your urban yard may be pretty cool, but it’s probably actually not all that efficient. A community garden is probably a much better idea and use of time and resources (environmental and economic).