Friday, December 02, 2005Oliver Willis and Ed Kilgore have done a brave thing. In recent posts, they have suggested that Wal-Mart, with all of its labor and market abuses, remains an essential part of contemporary American life. Whatever we may think of its business practices, Americans - particularly working class Americans - simply like Wal-Mart. So bashing it isn't going to help our cause in winning over those voters.
I have two objections. The first is that, contra Willis and Kilgore, there is no necessary link between condemning Wal-Mart as an institution and condemning anyone who shops there. Shopping at such stores is a good example of a collective action problem. While in my capacity as a citizen I might dislike big box retailers, it isn't necessarily hypocritical to shop there anyway. As a consumer, I am after the best product for the lowest price. As a citizen, I have a different set of concerns.
Those of us who attack Wal-Mart are NOT attacking people who shop there - people who are only acting rationally. What we are attacking are the policies that make Wal-Mart as destructive as it is. I don't shop at Wal-Mart, but I don't judge people who do. We should have policies to make it economically rational to do the socially constructive thing. Right now we have incentives to do the destructive thing. This isn't the fault of consumers, but of public policy which requires people to be heroes if they are to pursue the public good. That's just asking too much of folks.
My second objection is that I don't necessarily think Wal-Mart is as popular as Willis and Kilgore assume. Or at least, its popularity isn't greater than the popularity of competing values. Yes people like the convenience and low costs of Wal-Mart. But they also want the ability to start a small business, to make a decent living, and to buy American-made goods. Wal-Mart's critics have failed to make the essential conflict between big box retailers and the American Dream explicit. In the last few years, we have made progress in that direction - and you see a decline in Wal-Mart's approval ratings. But a great deal remains to be done.
I would suggest that an accomodation with Wal-Mart and its ilk is indeed possible. If we make them pay for the externalities they are generating (labor, health, environmental, local businesses, international trade, etc.), then their magical low costs will disappear - or at least the profits will be re-distributed to the workers and communities. But such an arrangement is only possible if Wal-Mart is willing to take responsibility for its actions, which in turn will only happen if we make the American public realize the consequences of the proliferation of big boxes.