The Conservative Case Against Wal-Mart

Steve Bainbridge disagrees with Hugh Hewitt on the benefits of Wal-Mart to the economy, making an extensive conservative argument to the contrary. Essentially, he argues that Wal-Mart drives out competitors, crushes the entrepreneurial class, and destroys the landscape with “butt-ugly” buildings. Kevin Drum essentially accepts Bainbridge’s points but thinks the bucolic vision Bainbridge embraces is not worthy of government action, although he would like to see Wal-Mart “accept unionization and pay better wages.”

We seemingly have a Bizarro World, with a prominent lefty blogger arguing for laissez-faire economics while a prominent righty blogger argues for statism. (Add to that, a long discussion thread at Drum’s that is actually readable. What is this world coming to?!)

Actually, though, we don’t. Bainbridge (who ultimately rejects a statist solution to the problem) is arguing from a true, classic conservative position, citing Russell Kirk and everything. Hewitt, while labeled a “conservative” in the current American discourse, is actually arguing from a small-L libertarian (or, if you prefer, Classical Liberal) perspective. Drum is also relatively libertarian on economic issues, although more inclined toward governmental regulation to smooth out the vagaries of the market than those of us on the libertarian right.

One often hears that conservatives call for small government and yet they want to regulate what goes on in people’s bedrooms. There’s no contradiction there, just confusion because of a changing language. Modern American “conservatives” are really composed of two major wings: social conservatives and economic conservatives. The former tend to be motivated by religious teachings and a desire to rein in the more libertine impulses of modernization. The latter tend to be “small government” focused, wanting government to largely get out of the way of the market. The two aren’t mutually exclusive in membership. There are many people who are socially conservative and also free market oriented. But dual membership gets complicated from an intellectual perspective, having to simultaneously favor and oppose “big government,” depending on the issue.

Generally speaking, as regular readers will guess, I’m with Hewitt on the Wal-Mart issue. Most of Bainbridge’s criticisms of Wal-Mart are valid, with the major exception that I’ve seen little evidence that prices go back up to extant levels once they’ve crushed the Little ManTM beneath their boot heels. But the people have decided this one. They prefer low prices, good selection, convenience, and the other things that Wal-Mart brings and are willing to put up with the ugly stores, lack of customer service, and other bad aspects of the Wal-Mart experience to get them.

I am in agreement with Drum and Bainbridge, though, that corporate subsidies, for Wal-Mart or anyone else, are generally bad. That’s something that conservatives (of both stripes) should agree with liberals/progressives on.

Bainbridge will be on Hewitt’s radio show at 5:20 Pacific (i.e., about an hour from now) to hash it all out.

Update (2-26): Joe Carter examines some of the economic assumptions in the research cited by Bainbridge and finds them problematic.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Kirk also thought that conservatism was the negation of ideology. At times he was highly critcal of the free market while defending private property.

  2. On legitimate conservative complaint against Wal-Mart is that they’re one of (if not the) largest beneficiaries of emminent domain abuse.

  3. Zendo Deb says:

    Except when shopping in a small (expensive) upper crust store, when was the last time you had what you would consider “good customer service?”

    Someone in Wal-Mart can almost always tell me where something is located, about the only service I ever get anywhere, and sometimes I can’t even get that level of service.

    Oh, if you are going to spend 20,000 bucks – or more – redoing your kitchen, then sure, you can get some service someplace else. But if you want to buy a cheap microwave, where are you going to shop? At a big box, probably WM because they still have better prices and more low-end microwaves than Home Depot.

  4. James Joyner says:

    ZD: One gets better customer service at Home Depot, a chain music store, a camera store, a stereo store, Best Buy, any clothing store, etc.

    Wal-Mart and company are better, though, for commodity goods or if you already pretty much know what you want.

  5. MikeF says:

    If you buy a lot of you stuff online you can often find even better deals than you would at Wal-Mart. For example, I have found no better place to buy computer parts than ZipZoomFly. They have free 2nd day shipping on almost all of the parts that they sell and they have very low prices to begin with. If I had to go buy a 128-512MB key drive, I’d probably buy it from Wal-Mart out of convenience, but I’d never buy something like a video card or sound card from them.

    The only reason that many of the people in my town of about 55,000 (includes 15,000 college students) likes Wal-Mart is that we have 2 super Wal-Marts that provide very cheap groceries. Last night I was able to buy enough hamburger and chicken to last me at least two weeks for less than $20.00. It’s good meat, and being a student myself, it’s great to have the low prices.

    Beyond that, Wal-Mart isn’t good for much. Their electronics selection is terribly limited, pretty much every selection is very limited. The only things I buy there on a regular basis are food and DVDs since they’re $8-$13.44 each.

    Stormy Dragon’s point is one that drives me up the wall. I have been reading up on the Kelo v. New London case it makes me exasperated that America has come to this. It’s part of the reason that I think that what America really needs is to outlaw eminent domain entirely.