Over at The Future of Freedom Foundation yesterday, the excellent ancap economist Steve Horwitz penned a brief essay explaining “Why [He] Defend[s] Walmart” against both left-liberals and libertarians. Hey, Steve, Walmart needs no defense—it pulls in nearly half a trillion dollars per year! Okay, okay.
The real danger of libertarians enthusiastically joining the Walmart-bashing is that we are providing aid and comfort to the enemies of freedom. Walmart’s critics are not concerned about eminent domain and subsidies because they want to eliminate them so we can have a freed market – it’s the freed market itself that they are unhappy with. When we cheer them on, we harm the cause of freedom and, in the process, the well-being of the least well-off among us.
Walmart is not a paragon of virtue, and even if, as one of my Facebook commenters recently said, “Every store looks like a Coen Brothers movie,” Walmart shoppers and employees are humans too, and they are often the folks who most need jobs and lower prices. They are also the people we as libertarians should be most concerned about. To that degree, the net effect of Walmart is clearly positive and a reflection of the power of the market. We should, enthusiastically but not uncritically, applaud what Walmart has done.
I have a number of problems with this, just like I do with many of the things that Dr. Horwitz writes. He’s right that “the least well-off among us” are among the chief beneficiaries of Walmart’s low prices and efficient business model, but of course that doesn’t tell us anything about the quality of the products Walmart sells, nor the moral soundness of Walmart’s business model, other than that the former are cheap and the latter is dedicated to selling things more cheaply than everyone else. To many people this is a magnanimous virtue, or at least a tolerable one, but this type of virtue can only be sustained if we assume that all products—groceries, clothes, houseware items, entertainment—are equal, and that the only difference one needs to consider is price. But of course this is false. I’ve seen ground beef for $1.99/lb at Walmart, which is a great price but also a reflection of the garbage quality of the meat, along with its general unhealthiness. Price just isn’t everything, and it never has been.
I suppose it could be argued that my stance is one of snobby, insupportable elitism; just because I can afford $6.95/lb ground beef from my farmer’s market doesn’t mean everyone can, and some folks are just going to have to buy lower-quality beef from Walmart if they want to eat any beef at all. This is entirely true, and we shouldn’t be snobbish towards people who can’t afford nicer things, but all it means is that we should be concerned that people are having to buy unhealthy food from Walmart instead of healthier food from other places. The problem then becomes not one of encouraging poor people to shop at Walmart, but rather raising poor peoples’ wages so that they can afford higher-quality products such as high-quality food. How will this be accomplished on a societal scale? I’m not sure, but I doubt the answer lies in building, or shopping in, another Walmart.
There is, of course, the argument made by many libertarians that low prices free up one’s wages to be spent “more usefully;” that is to say, if one buys cheap vegetables or clothing from Walmart, then the money one saved can be spent “more usefully” on something else. This sounds convincing; we should all be glad that today we don’t have to spend as much on cell phones, or simple first aid devices at the drug store, or computers, as we did twenty years ago. Still, many libertarians and free market types take this to a silly level: there is always something on which money could be spent “more usefully,” and thus always a justification for searching for the lowest price on any one product—which usually means searching for it at Walmart. We should, of course, be on the lookout for good deals and good prices, but when you are so manic about price that you end up substantially sacrificing quality, you’re going about it the wrong way.
I, too, find lefty or progressive arguments against Walmart to be tiresome, if only because they’re largely incoherent and seem to revolve around bills of attainder and uninformed screeds against capitalism. But I would still like to see Walmart one day gone, replaced by numerous businesses that focus more on quality than quantity, that pay and treat their workers better, and that offer a better experience and a better product for everyone. That is not harmful towards either “the cause of freedom” or “the least well-off among us;” Good Lord, Dr. Horwitz acts like the years before Walmart were marked by wastelands of despair. I would be interested to know what life was like before Walmart came along, but I don’t know anyone that old.