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.