Thomas Sowell

"Is Wal-Mart Good for America?"

That is the headline on a New York Times story about the country's largest retailer. The very idea that third parties should be deciding whether a particular business is good for the whole country shows incredible chutzpa.

The people who shop at Wal-Mart can decide whether that is good for them or not. But the intelligentsia are worried about something called Wal-Mart's "market power."

Apparently this giant chain sells 30 percent of all the disposable diapers in the country and the Times reporter refers to the prospect of "Wal-Mart amassing even more market power."

Just what "power" does a sales percentage represent? Not one of the people who bought their disposable diapers at Wal-Mart was forced to do so. I can't remember ever having bought anything from Wal-Mart and there is not the slightest thing that they can do to make me.

The misleading use of words constitutes a large part of what is called anti-trust law. "Market power" is just one of those misleading terms. In anti-trust lingo, a company that sells 30 percent of the disposable diapers is said to "control" 30 percent of the market for that product. But they control nothing.

Let them jack up their prices and they will find themselves lucky to sell 3 percent of the disposable diapers. They will discover that they are just as disposable as their diapers.

Much is made of the fact that Wal-Mart has 3,000 stores in the United States and is planning to add 1,000 more. At one time, the A & P grocery chain had 15,000 stores but now they have shrunk so drastically that there are probably millions of people -- especially in the younger generation -- who don't even know that they exist.

An anti-trust lawsuit back in the 1940s claimed that A & P "controlled" a large share of the market for groceries. But they controlled nothing. As the society around them changed in the 1950s, A & P began losing millions of dollars a year, being forced to close thousands of stores and become a shadow of its former self.

Let the people who run Wal-Mart start believing the talk about how they "control" the market and, a few years down the road, people will be saying "Wal-Who?"

With Wal-Mart, as with A & P before them, the big bugaboo is that their low prices put competing stores out of business. Could anyone ever have doubted that low-cost stores win customers away from higher-cost stores?

It is one of the painful signs of the immaturity and lack of realism among the intelligentsia that many of them regard this as a "problem" to be "solved." Trade-offs have been with us ever since the late unpleasantness in the Garden of Eden.

Thomas Sowell

Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute and author of The Housing Boom and Bust.

Creators Syndicate