Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The Great Wal-Mart Debate

Jason and I have an ongoing debate about Wal-Mart vs. Small Town America. He is disgusted by towns that pass legislation designed to keep Wal-Mart out of their municipalities. I think that those towns are acting according to American principles; therefore, they are well within their rights.

Neither Jason nor I is a particular fan of Wal-Mart; especially of Wal-Mart in Renton, WA, which is an unappetizing cross between dirty dishevelment and sullied skankiness. On the other hand, we both adore Sam's Club. So, this is not an issue of loving or hating Sam Walton and all his legacy of low prices and mass quantities.

The crux of our disagreement is an understanding of what constitutes freedom of association. I have no problem with zoning laws, especially when they're established very locally. I think that people have a right to determine in what sort of town they want to live. Jason thinks that it is usually small, arrogant groups of elitists that punish people in their communities by limiting consumer choices. I grant him this point. He asserts that laws designed for the sole purpose of restricting one type of business are anti-freedom of association, because they do not permit the market to decide what sorts of businesses succeed in an area -- rather, it is political pull, which is pushes against every kind of freedom.

I return with the idea that, just as a community has every right to decide that they do not want strip clubs, casinos, prostitution, liquor stores, etc. in their town makeup, they ought to have every right to decide against other types of retail that they see as hurting their town's branding, values, charm, business climate, traffic congestion, and so on.

Jason cannot believe that I put Wal-Mart in the same league as strip clubs and casinos. Believe it, baby. I've been to Renton's Wal-Mart. It makes strip clubs and casinos look classy.

Seriously. Say I lived in one of those small towns in Vermont that only seems to convene its city council either to put out a warrant for the arrest of President Bush or bar Wal-Mart from building a local store. Say that I was determined to buy as many cheap products as I possibly could, regardless of their dubious quality and countries of origin. I have four choices: I can resign myself to buying from the overpriced, but awfully quaint, local General Store and shut up. I can move to one of the many places in this vast and varied land where there is a Wal-Mart within an hour's drive in any direction. I can run for the city council myself and fight to change the restrictive laws (and slap my fellow Vermonters out of their George W. Bush hysteria -- Calvin Coolidge would be ashamed of them -- though he wouldn't say much about it). I can order from http://www.walmart.com/, and pay a small shipping charge for all the Chinese-made crap my local UPS truck can carry. Sounds like representative democracy works, and I have as many choices as a person ought to have.

Jason usually responds at this point with something like, "You're just a communist!" (which is from the Ludwig von Mises school of argument stoppers*). He's joking, of course. He knows I'm not even a Democrat.

So, that's the gist of this argument we've let linger over the years. Each can concede that the other has a point. I mean, I don't like Wal-Mart very much, but I don't like snooty, whiny elitists who really hate Wal-Mart even more. While part of me abhors their general attitudes, I cannot help but acknowledge that at that very local level, government usually represents the will of the people. And neither of us would want to see Renton's Wal-Mart move any closer to our home. That's just not the kind of thing you want your kids exposed to.

*See: The Making of Modern Economics by Mark Skousen (Chapter 12, page 299), M.E. Sharpe Inc., Armonk, NY, 2001.

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