It was a sad day last Sunday when I got rid of my ’97 Buick Ultra. My dad and older brother had both driven it before me. The breaks always squeaked no matter how often I replaced the pads, and the right mirror hung off the side from when I accidentally hit the garage. Every time I brought the car to the shop for an oil change, the mechanics informed me that there were several things wrong with it. I had dealt with these problems for four years, and it was finally time to let go.

So my parents and I became car buyers during a recession, when the auto industry has been the focal point of many discussions about economic recovery. This raised a tough question. Were we in some way obligated to buy a car manufactured in America? This question would be absurd to an economist. In a competitive market, consumers are expected to act in their own interest. But with so much talk about the need to fix the auto industry, someone has to buy those American-made cars, right?

Perhaps. But it’s not the consumer’s problem to worry about.

The economy just doesn’t work the way human reasoning does. In single producer-to-consumer transactions, our sense of social responsibility shouldn’t matter. Even if I have the intention to help the economy, my single transaction will hardly make a difference. The best thing I can do is buy a car that fits my own needs, and the aggregate demand of all the consumers in the market will signal to manufacturers what kind of car to make. After all, an economy’s fundamental purpose is to serve its consumers. Consumers shouldn’t have to focus on how to serve the economy.

And if American car companies really want consumers to start buying their cars, they need to offer more eco-friendly options. Eco-friendly vehicles are the cars that are selling. The Toyota dealers in my area actually had a waitlist to test drive the Prius, a hybrid that gets about 51 miles to the gallon. Of course, this isn’t news to any of the car companies. Last year, all the major auto manufacturers scaled back their production of pickups and SUVs. And even after filing for bankruptcy, it seems that General Motors still considers the production of the Chevrolet Volt its most important project. GM hopes that the completely electric car, due out in Nov. 2010, will give the hybrids a run for their money. Until then, the Prius will continue to be in high demand.

But it makes sense that someone without much of a background in economics (i.e. me) could think otherwise. Media discussions surrounding General Motors’s business decisions — its assets, loans and investments — usually make no sense to me. Such confusion, fueled by constant reminders that consumer confidence is low, causes me to feel absentmindedly guilty. For that reason, the thought of buying a car from a foreign manufacturer seemed wasteful.

But it wasn’t wasteful. The best choice for my family was to buy a foreign car — the Honda Insight. The new hybrid isn’t quite as fuel-efficient as the Toyota Prius (which is actually manufactured in the United States), but it was about $10,000 cheaper at the dealership I bought it from. The Insight was also more pleasant to drive than the Ford Fusion. The only thing I remember from that test drive was the loud turn blinker and engine.

I understand that the American car companies are in trouble, but it’s their responsibility to cater to the market demand — not the other way around. After four years of the Buick, I was ready for a car that fit my interests and I needed a compelling reason to go against them. Unless I knew it would directly benefit the economy, I wasn’t going to buy another “old-man-mobile.”

Jeremy Levy can be reached at jeremlev@umich.edu.

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