The freedom to hate Wal-Mart

Posted: Nov 20, 2005 12:05 AM

Some folks don't like Wal-Mart. Okay. Fine. It's a free country. No one should be forced at gunpoint to shop at Wal-Mart. Or to work there.

And no one is. That's what a free market is all about: the freedom to trade goods and services, to trade one's time and labor as an employee, one's dollars as a customer. Or not to.

Wal-Mart has found enormous success in the marketplace only because many people have voluntarily chosen to shop and work there. Wal-Mart employs more than 1.6 million people worldwide and, according to the company's published calculations, its lower prices saved the average American family $2,329 last year.

Now I know why, when my wife sends me to the store, she says, "Go to Wal-Mart."

Still, we witness a sustained and hysterical assault against the company. There's even a newly released documentary by Robert Greenwald, Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price. Greenwald's previous credits include an anti-Fox News documentary and he clearly stands in the Michael Moore tradition of filming political rants and calling them documentaries.

How on earth is offering lower prices so evil?

We're told Wal-Mart doesn't pay its employees enough. It doesn't offer generous enough benefits. It puts small mom-and-pop stores out of business. Wal-Mart isn't environment-friendly. And the company uses government to help it expand.

As for employee pay and benefits, if Wal-Mart is so terrible, why didn't these employees choose to take the better jobs offered elsewhere? Or, were there no better jobs available? Is it remotely possible that Wal-Mart should actually be given credit for creating jobs? Could it be that the company has helped its employees escape unemployment and poverty?

However, this is all moot. The free market offers Wal-Mart haters an easy way to hit Wal-Mart right where it hurts. These wizards should start their own companies and pay entry-level retail workers as much as they think is "enough," and of course offer a generous package of health care and other benefits to both full and part-time employees. Problem solved!

Isn't the free market great?

Critics have every right to criticize, but no right whatsoever to interfere in the rights of Wal-Mart, its employees, or customers to make their lives better through trade.

But interfere they do. Unions and Wal-Mart's competitors are pushing a bill in Maryland that would require businesses with over 10,000 employees to provide health benefits to every employee. The only company affected? Wal-Mart.

All over the country Wal-Mart is being attacked and blocked by a cabal of union bosses and corporate competitors teamed up with politicians. And when Wal-Mart is forced to defend itself, they charge the company with throwing its weight around. Still, despite all the roadblocks and attacks, Wal-Mart's basic business model continues to win in the marketplace.

What about the charge that Wal-Mart puts lots of mom-and-pop stores out of business? While there is evidence that Wal-Mart creates more jobs than are lost by its competition, that's beside the point. If mom-and-pop stores cannot win enough customers, what are we to do, force citizens to shop where they would prefer not to?

And there seems to be an assumption that these mom-and-pops pay lavish salaries and benefits. That's just not the case. Here's an idea: go to a small town, walk in to a corner market and ask the clerk what his or her salary and benefit package are. And then, towards the end of your survey, let your coat slip a bit to show a Wal-Mart name tag. I bet you the employee will begin asking about job opportunities at Wal-Mart. For good reason.

Still, talk of poverty is not off point. It may be that much of the hatred of Wal-Mart is a byproduct of a fear and hatred for the poor. Lots of folks don't want to shop around poor people. And poor people do shop at Wal-Mart. I, too, would prefer to shop at the fancier stores, where the employees and fellow customers are slimmer and better dressed.

But my wife tells me to save a buck . . .

This is not to say that the problem with Wal-Mart lies entirely within ourselves. Some of the charges against Wal-Mart on environmental concerns have merit. Yet, the companies' transgressions have often been minor, like failures to file government-required paperwork, or lapses on the less-than-life-threatening order of allowing too much storm-water runoff during construction. There exists no Wal-Mart-created Love Canal.

And yet attacks on Wal-Mart often go over the top. An attack by Lindsay Robinson with the Illinois Student Environmental Network and Students for Environmental Concerns offers a peek at the prism through which some demonize Wal-Mart:

Wal-Mart and other "big box" retailers gobble up prime farmland and other natural habitat every day. While we worry about feeding the more than six billion people on this planet, our cities and counties allow the destruction of lush farmland that could provide sustenance for more people. The problem, generally referred to as "urban sprawl," continues to grow. . . . Sprawl also increases car-dependency for a community, raising the amount of greenhouse gases emitted and causing consumers to use more gas.

Apparently, Wal-Mart is the prime example of the butterfly effect: build a store in the U.S. and children starve in Africa. And if that weren't bad enough, the company is somehow especially responsible for global warming. Robinson went on to lambaste Wal-Mart for only giving away $190 million to charity last year and only $1.3 million to environmental causes. Ahhhh, there's the rub.

Wal-Mart has even been demonized as totalitarian. Harold Meyerson recently wrote in The Washington Post that, "Wal-Mart is in China because it's been able to forge a symbiotic relationship between its own dirt-cheap and inherently abusive labor practices and the Chinese government's totalitarian suppression of worker rights."

Imagine lumping the late Sam Walton, the company's founder — who, even while a billionaire, drove around his hometown of Bentonville, Arkansas in a beat-up old pickup truck — in with the butchers of Tiananmen Square! For some Wal-Mart haters, there's no limit to the hysteria allowed. They'd even side with ritual murderers over Wal-Mart.

The most serious charge — in fact, the only serious charge — made against Wal-Mart is that the company has received subsidies and favors from government . . . in particular, with use of eminent domain to gain valuable land on which to build stores. The company is not unique in allowing government to bully folks on its behalf; lots of big companies have benefited from government's abusive power to take land from one owner and give it to another.

But this is something left and right and center should all be able to agree upon: such subsidies corrupt the marketplace as well as politics. They should be ended not just for Wal-Mart but for all businesses everywhere at all times. To the extent that Wal-Mart planners and managers seek to use government power to get ahead, let's stop them. Neither Wal-Mart, nor the forces arrayed against Wal-Mart, should have any special governmental powers on their side.

Is there something more to do, after establishing rules of fair play? Sure. To those who talk trash against Wal-Mart: Boycott the company. Teach Wal-Mart a lesson. That's your right.

And it'll leave a little more room for the rest of us to get our shopping carts through those crowded and narrow aisles.