I know how to put Wal-Mart out of business forever. Stay with me on this one, because I’m going to make a gazillion dollars. You’ll want to say you knew me when.
First, I open up a retail store. Next, I stock it with the same name-brand goods people can get anywhere. Then (and this is the brilliant part), I charge higher prices than my competitors.
Can you see the profits roll in? Everybody knows Wal-Mart is evil. Nobody really wants to shop there, they just have no choice. Good thing Wal-Mart’s lousy business sense is an opportunity for smart people like me.
My higher prices will generate so much profit I’ll be able to pay my employees whatever right-thinking people say I should. My progressive attitude will earn me more customers, and the money will roll in. I’ll take the company public in a year or two. Investors will make a killing.
What needs to happen to put my family on easy street? One little attitude change: People have to prefer higher prices to lower ones. That’s the next big thing, I just know it. Once it kicks in, I’ll make a fortune.
OK, that was cheap rhetoric to make an obvious point. But sometimes you need to state the obvious: Wal-Mart and companies like it help people. Not out of the goodness of their hearts, although I’m sure most of their employees and stockholders are nice enough. They help people by increasing the amount of wealth in the world. That’s what successful businesses do. They make the world wealthier.
I’ve been dealing with critics of economic freedom long enough to know what their replies will be. “Economics don’t reflect values.” “People before profits.” “Right and wrong don’t come with a price tag.” “Small businesses deserve our support.” On and on and on.
All of these have an element of truth to them. There is more to life than consumption. Values do matter. The vicissitudes of the market are often harsh.
But none of that means it’s OK to make Wal-Marts illegal. Whether a ban is temporary or permanent makes no difference.
First, there are moral dimensions to property rights that we all recognize and respect. Just like you own your body and mind, you own what you earn with them. People shouldn’t be able to throw you in jail for spending your money in a way they don’t like. It doesn’t matter how many of them show up at the polls. Freedom is for everyone, including Wal-Mart investors, employees, and customers.
It also applies to Wal-Mart haters. No one is ever going to make you shop at Wal-Mart. That’s one of the great things about freedom. It works for everyone, including people who hate it.
The “help small business” argument is seductive at first glance. Small businesses feel good to patronize. They’re a powerful social icon in America, and when you go into a shop it’s nice to know who’s running the place.
But suppose you’re selling widgets for a buck. If the only way you can get customers to buy them is jail people for charging fifty cents, then you shouldn’t be in business. There is a moral, principled argument that says it’s not right to help businesses by hurting their customers. Big or small, it doesn’t matter. It’s still wrong.
So the next time you’re asked to vote on a “big-box” retailer, don’t just vote based on whether or not you like Wal-Mart. Think about the people you’ll never see but who could really use lower prices and convenience. They’ll spend a little less time driving around, a little less money on their kid’s bike, and a little less stress to make ends meet. Life is full of little things like that. They mean a lot.
A vote on Wal-Mart means that Wal-Mart’s investors, employees, and customers are asking for the same economic freedom the rest of us enjoy. We should give it to them. They deserve it. All people do.