The virtues of local ownership

When a town bands together to open a department store, we all have much to learn.

Chris MacDonald 0

There’s plenty in the news these days about the supposed virtues of “buying local.” Buying local usually means buying from small businesses. As I’ve argued before, in at least some cases buying local also means opting for small-scale, inefficient production processes. And in other cases, it means an unhealthy kind of insulation from the outside world.

But what about the virtues of specifically local ownership, when the ownership in question is ownership of what is otherwise a standard-issue department store, replete with goods ‘Made in China,’ as the stereotype goes?

The New York Times recently reported on an effort by a small town in upstate New York to ensure its residents have access to some sort of local department store. When the local Ames department store went out of business a few years back, residents of Saranac Lake—pop. 5,041—took matters into their own hands. They raised the capital, at $100/share, to open their own department store.

It’s a charming story, and an interesting experiment, but we ought to exercise some caution before attaching too much significance to it.

First, it will be tempting to see this as radical re-visioning of modern capitalism. To see examples of such a temptation, see the 2004 Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein documentary, The Take, about the takeover of a defunct Argentinian factory by its former employees. Lewis and Klein portray that takeover as an example of the pursuit of a real alternative to capitalism—despite the fact that the cooperatively-run factory is still buying inputs on the open market, selling goods on the open market, and so on.

Were it not for movies like The Take, it might go without saying that innovations in ownership structure don’t eliminate the fundamental challenges of capitalism, and certainly don’t eliminate the standard ethical issues that face all businesses. The department store in Saranac Lake is—setting aside a few nods to local sourcing—just a regular department store. It’s got employees, so it will face questions about how those employees are treated. It’s smaller than your typical Walmart, but it will still face questions (or at least it should) about where its products come from, the conditions under which they’re manufactured, and so on. And its managers will still face questions about how to balance the good of the community as a whole with their obligation to be fiscally responsible. And so on.

Not that we need to be entirely cynical about the Saranac Lake experiment, and others like it. There’s at least a prima facie case to make for the significance of local ownership. Managers of a locally-owned store have at least some sense of what kinds of things shareholders would want them to do, and hence seem less likely to violate the trust placed in them. When you know your shareholders by name, you can ask them what they want, and they can tell you what obligations they feel to the community, and they can then ask you, their representative, to make good on those obligations.

In the end, I think experiments in capitalism are good. Indeed, the way it fosters experimentation is one of the great virtues of capitalism. We ought to keep a careful eye on such experiments, both for what we can learn about their particular virtues, and for what we can learn about the nature and structure of capitalism more generally.

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