The latest liberal crusade

Thomas Sowell

5/12/2005 12:00:00 AM - Thomas Sowell

 The latest liberal crusade is against the Wal-Mart stores.
 
A big headline on a long article in the New York Times asks "Can't A Retail Behemoth Pay More?"

 Of course they can pay more. The New York Times could pay its own employees more. We could all pay more for whatever we buy or rent. Don't tell me you couldn't have paid a dime more for this newspaper. But why should any of us pay more than we have to?

 According to the New York Times, there is a book "by a group of scholars" due to be published this fall, arguing that Wal-Mart has an "obligation" to "treat its employees better."

 This can hardly be called news. Nothing is easier than to find a group of academics -- "scholars" if you agree with them -- to advocate virtually anything on any subject. Nor is this notion of an "obligation" new.

  For decades, there has been lofty talk about the "social responsibility" of businesses or about a "social contract" between the generations when it comes to Social Security. Do you remember signing any such contract? I don't.

 What all this pious talk amounts to is that when third parties want somebody else to pay for something, they simply call it a "social responsibility," an "obligation" or a "social contract."

 So long as we keep buying this kind of stuff, they will keep selling it.

 In order to make such demands look like more than just the arbitrary notions of busybodies -- which they are -- some of these busybodies refer to the official poverty level, as if it were something objective, rather than what it is in fact, simply an arbitrary line based on the notions of government bureaucrats. 

 According to the New York Times, Wal-Mart's average employee earns an income that is above the poverty line for a family of three but below the poverty line for a family of four. What are we supposed to conclude from this?

 The fashionable notion of "a living wage" is a wage that will support a family of four. And, sure enough, the New York Times finds a Wal-Mart employee who complains that he is not making "a living wage."

 How is he living, if he is not making a living wage?

 Should people be paid according to what they "need" instead of according to what their work is worth? Should they decide how big a family they want and then put the cost of paying to support that family on somebody else?

 If their work is not worth enough to pay for what they want, is it up to others to make up the difference, rather than up to them to upgrade their skills in order to earn what they want?

 Are they supposed to be subsidized by Wal-Mart's customers through higher prices or subsidized by Wal-Mart's stockholders through lower earnings? After all, much of the stock in even a rich company is often owned by pension funds belonging to teachers, policemen and others who are far from rich.

 Why should other people have to retire on less money, in order that Wal-Mart employees can be paid what the New York Times wants them paid, instead of what their labor is worth in the marketplace? After all, they wouldn't be working for Wal-Mart if someone else valued their labor more.

 Nor are they confined to Wal-Mart for life. For many, entry-level jobs are a stepping-stone, whether within a given company or as experience that gets them a better job with another company.

 Think about it: What the busybodies are saying is that third parties like themselves -- who are paying nothing to anybody -- should be determining how much somebody else should be paying those who work for them.

 It would be devastating to the egos of the intelligentsia to realize, much less admit, that businesses have done more to reduce poverty than all the intellectuals put together. Ultimately it is only wealth that can reduce poverty and most of the intelligentsia have no interest whatever in finding out what actions and policies increase the national wealth.

 They certainly don't feel any "obligation" to learn economics, out of a sense of "social responsibility," much less because of any "social contract" requiring them to know what they are talking about before spouting off with self-righteous rhetoric.