Susan Witt on Independent Local Economies
If our common interest is to help establish a more independent Vermont Republic, then part of that effort will be to build a more independent Vermont economy—one in which, as economist Fritz Schumacher advocates in Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered, the goods consumed in a region are produced in a region. Therefore, as the brilliant regional planner and intuitive economist Jane Jacobs argues in Cities and the Wealth of Nations, the strategy for economic development should be to generate import-replacement industries. She would have us examine what is now imported into the state and develop the conditions to instead produce those products from local resources with local labor. Unlike the branch of a multi-national corporation that might open and then suddenly close, driven by moody fluctuations in the global economy, a locally owned and managed business is more likely to establish a complex of economic and social interactions that build strong entwining regional roots, keeping the business in place and accountable to people, land, and community.
Leopold Kohr suggested that small markets were like harbors in a storm, insulated from the worst effects of large, anonymous commodity markets and financial fluctuations. The smaller the market area, the more likely that there will be ongoing relationships between buyers and sellers, regulated by local social ties; the expectations of sellers in regard to their market, and buyers in regard to their source of supply, will likewise be more stable and predicable. And local economic networks like LETS systems enable providers of goods and services to deal directly with one another, and translate their skills directly into exchange-value, without depending on the whims of an institutional employer.
Look at it this way: if a market gardener exchanges produce for the services of a plumber, that exchange relationship won't provide either one with an outlet for all his produce. But the farmer will have a reliable and stable outlet for the portion of his produce consumed by the plumber, and be able to reliably meet his plumbing needs--and vice versa. If they participate in a small LETS network, the more trades that are incorporated into the network, the more goods and services each participant will have a reliable source of, and the larger the portion of his own output will have a predictable outlet. The members will all be securing a major part of their need for goods and services, and obtain employment directly from one another, without any danger from the vagaries of the national economy, banking system, or currency.
Whatever economic needs you currently meet through the subsistence, barter, and gift economies, you'll likely continue to be able to meet even in a depression.
What then, is the responsibility of concerned citizens to help build a sustainable Vermont economy? An independent regional economy calls for new regional economic institutions for land, labor, and capital to embody the scale, purpose, and structure of our endeavors. These new institutions cannot be government-driven, and rightly so. They will be shaped by free associations of consumers and producers, working co-operatively, sharing the risk in creating an economy that reflects shared culture and shared values. Small in scale, transparent in structure, designed to profit the community rather than profit from the community, they can address our common concern for safe and fair working conditions; for production practices that keep our air and soil and waters clean, renewing our natural resources rather than depleting them; for innovation in the making and distribution of the basic necessities of food, clothing, shelter, and energy rather than luxury items; and for more equitable distribution of wealth.
Building of new economic institutions is hard work. Most of us rest complacently in our role as passive consumers, not co-producers and co-shapers of our own economies. But it is work that can be done, and fine beginnings are being made right here in Vermont in the development of local currencies, worker-owned businesses, community land trusts, and business alliances for local living economies.