You’ve probably encountered the phrase “Think globally, act locally.” Maybe you’ve seen its close cousins, the “Buy Local” or “Fair Trade” campaigns.
David Brower, the founder of Earth Day, coined the phrase to empower local activists to see globalism, trade, and business creativity as threatening the planet’s overall health. It springs from a misguided understanding of economics.
Specifically (although correctly), its adherents recognize the key economic concept of scarcity – the fact we have limited goods or services, limited time, or limited abilities to achieve the desired ends. Such scarcity means that we make choices, and these create both trade-offs and opportunity costs. The study of economics is, essentially, a study of these ideas.
The problem is that those with Brower’s world view have hijacked the notion of scarcity and merged it with the concept of zero-sum gain – the claim that in order to get ahead, someone has to fall back. The environmental movement is this principle’s worst offender, viewing natural resources as a fixed pie, and human population growth as an obstacle to human achievement.
Applied to the food chain, if I’m purchasing a steak butchered in Idaho, I’ve somehow hurt the supply-chain of community in Virginia.
At dinner with a friend recently, the waiter offered us “free-range poultry raised locally”. The response? “Do you have anything that’s been kept in a coop from somewhere really far away?”
It’s unsurprising that community foundations take local dollars and apply them to local problems. The concept of thinking globally about problems but addressing them locally where one can is certainly well-intended (and people can feel empowered that they are “doing something”).
At the same time, let’s not get so focused on our own backyard that we neglect the lessons of global thinking. Just as we do when it comes to our long-term financial investments or retirement accounts, we should strive for balance – that spot on your overall comfort meter between risk and reward, opportunity and security. A balanced financial portfolio provides both, as does a balanced philanthropic approach.
Advancing Free Markets Worldwide
In that spirit, let me remind you of the global.
I recently toured the privately funded Universidad Francisco Marroquín in Guatemala City. UFM is unique among all schools of higher education in that it exists explicitly to advance classical liberal ideas. When you walk its halls, building are named after Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, Henry Hazlitt, Vernon Smith, Adam Smith and Milton Friedman. The Atlas Libertas is a bas-relief placed on the main façade of the UFM Business School – a high-relief sculpture of a human figure supporting the universe seen from the back from head to hip.
I met with seven of its scholarship students who, in addition to their studies in social entrepreneurship, medicine, economics and business, each owned or had recently started their own business of all types – one was butchering steers. While there may be similar students in Silicon Valley, I’m quite sure they are not being groomed to lead a life committed to the ideas behind a free society. And they certainly do not sell bulls.
Applying Our Principles to Global Problems
After the visit, I attended the annual Antigua Forum – a gathering of 51 business-folk, authors, entrepreneurs, philanthropists, journalists, and government officials representing 20 countries. We met to use the power of human ingenuity and free enterprise to improve the well-being of people everywhere – from the locally known neighbor to the far away faceless one. At the Antigua Forum these individuals share, compare, test and validate ideas and real-world projects and turn what are hoped to be game-changing initiatives into concrete action plans.
There were some good ones: challenging the stigma attached to low-wage jobs, using a block-chain receipt system to facilitate secure transactions, establishing private free cities to create government-to-government competition, or making legal services more accessible to US citizens by educating consumers and incubating new models to provide legal advice (smashing the monopoly of the state bar associations).
The power of the Antigua Forum is the celebration of human progress – and taking local knowledge and experience but applying it globally – for our improvement and for us to live better, fuller lives.
Just as supply chains serve a worldwide customer base, companies, be they large or small, want to keep their operations simple and standardized. But the successful ones also recognize that there is value created from the consumer’s perspective. Forget that, and you lose the customer, no matter how smart your brand or market may be. We have local preferences and specific tastes, so the supply chain acts locally to meet those needs, even though it’s actually global in scale.
In other words, it’s often the global that helps the local. The notion of localized knowledge is not necessarily a geographic one. Just because I live in Washington, DC does not mean I am an expert on all things political. Simply because I live in the United States does not mean I have the answers to all questions about “entrepreneurship and capitalism”. It’s a debate we are going to see play out in Congress and the White House in the years ahead.
It’s time we take our local, and make it global. As you consider your gifts, look beyond your own backyard, whether it’s in Guatemala, Guyana, or Geneva. As the world becomes more free, it only comes back to us in spades.