Topic: Political Philosophy

How Walmart Improves the Lives of Everybody, Especially the Poor

I recently had the pleasure of visiting northwest Arkansas. If you have the chance, go—not only to experience the beauty of the Ozarks, but to see the world’s only Walmart convenience store. This store offers groceries, a gas station, and a counter for a local business, Bentonville Butcher & Deli. The difference between Walmart convenience stores and other convenience stores: Walmart prices (read: excitingly low). Those low prices mean that the more these stores spread, the more lives will improve.

I realize that there are ongoing arguments about whether Walmart improves or reduces people’s welfare. For instance, some argue that Walmart reduces the number of jobs in locations where they open, while others find that Walmart creates more jobs overall. Some believe that when Walmart enters a town, competitors are forced to lower worker income or close. Others claim that the benefits of lower prices may result in higher real wages, even in the retail sector. Some write that Walmart costs taxpayers huge sums as their employees receive federal support. Others insist that these programs are operating as intended: boosting employment among low income families who would otherwise be jobless.

While those issues are still debated, one thing is clear: When we have access to cheaper goods, our quality of life improves because we can buy more with the same amount of money. This is especially true for the poor who spend a higher percentage of income on household goods and food. For them, daily savings on these items are necessary for survival. Shopping at Walmart leaves them with more money, which they can use to feed their families, pay for additional tutoring for their children, or work less as they can afford more leisure time. In that way, few forces have improved the lives of Americans, particularly poor Americans, as much as Walmart.

Top Catholics Take Aim at Libertarianism

The Washington Post reports that the leaders of the world’s most hierarchical, centralized faith don’t much care for the philosophy most closely aligned with individual liberty. Huh. What gives the Post that idea? Well, the cardinal sometimes referred to as the “vice-pope” just headlined a conference in DC titled “Erroneous Autonomy: The Catholic Case against Libertarianism.” In heaping scorn on those who celebrate free minds and free markets, the conference attendees accused libertarianism of being responsible for “selfies” and of being anti-poor.

And can you blame them? Think of all those notorious selfies by prominent libertarians.

Some prominent libertarians

And, really, you have to admit they have a point on that second accusation as well. Consider that when innovation, commerce, and entrepreneurship were unleashed on a mass scale during the Industrial Revolution, poverty went into a sustained decline for the first time in the 200,000 year history of humanity. In just the last fifteen or twenty years, the poverty rate worldwide has been cut in half. And the absolute number of people living in extreme poverty has been falling since 1980. The economics preferred by libertarians–the economics of freedom–has been quite hard on poverty. I mean, if this keeps up, in another few generations, there will hardly be any poor left.

Pareto on Piketty

“The man in whose power it might be to find out the means of alleviating the sufferings of the poor would have done a far greater deed than the one who contents himself solely with knowing the exact numbers of poor and wealthy people in society.”

—Vilfredo Pareto, “The New Theories of Economics,” Journal of Political Economy 5: 485–502 (1896–97).

P. J. O’Rourke on Moral Progress

For as long as I can remember, conservatives have been bemoaning “moral decline” in America. The reality may be different, as I’ve noted before. And now comes P. J. O’Rourke with a similar reflection. P. J., who has moved from editing an underground newspaper in the ’60s to writing for conservative magazines to cultivating a reputation as a curmudgeon, has a new book titled The Baby Boom: How It Got That Way (And It Wasn’t My Fault) (And I’ll Never Do It Again)

Talking with P. J. about the book, Will Pavia of the Times of London notes (gated page): 

I’m not sure [the baby boomers were] better or worse than the current crop of American teenagers, to judge from some of the things they post on YouTube. O’Rourke disagrees. “I would say there has been a considerable improvement in public morality. It’s probably been going on since the anti-slavery movement at the beginning of the 19th century.” He gives the example of his own son, Cliff. 

“Admittedly, he goes to a little private day school. You know, a gentle place. I don’t think he’s ever been in a fight nor shown any desire to be. Nor have I seen his friends get in fights; it’s not just him. It’s definitely a less violent world, a more tolerant world.”

Less violence and more tolerance is a pretty good slice of morality. Steven Pinker, author of The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, backs up O’Rourke’s intuition in the New York Times:

It’s easy to focus on the idiocies of the present and forget those of the past. But a century ago our greatest writers extolled the beauty and holiness of war. Heroes like Theodore Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Woodrow Wilson avowed racist beliefs that today would make people’s flesh crawl. Women were barred from juries in rape trials because supposedly they would be embarrassed by the testimony. Homosexuality was a felony. At various times, contraception, anesthesia, vaccination, life insurance and blood transfusion were considered immoral. 

Thailand’s Reverse Revolution: Angry Elites Target Democracy

Thailand continues its slow motion political implosion.  The prime minister has been ousted and a new election has been scheduled for July 20, but the latter will settle nothing unless traditional ruling elites are willing to accept a government run by their opponents.  If not, the country risks a violent explosion. 

Bangkok’s politics long leaned authoritarian.  However, in 2001 telecommunications executive Thaksin Shinawatra campaigned as a populist, winning the votes of Thailand’s neglected rural poor to become prime minister. 

Instead of figuring out how to better appeal to the popular majority, his opponents organized the so-called People’s Alliance for Democracy which launched protests to topple his government.  The military ousted the traveling Thaksin in 2006 and tried him in absentia for alleged corruption.  The generals then rewrote the constitution and called new elections.

Michael Sam and the Cost of Discrimination

Classical liberals and libertarians have always sought a world in which people are judged as individuals, not as members of groups. Over the centuries most societies have been arranged as hierarchies, with people assigned to classes by birth. The great liberal historian Henry Sumner Maine wrote that the history of civilization was a movement from a society of status to a society of contract — that is, from a society in which each person was born into his place and was defined by his status to one in which the relationships among individuals are determined by free consent and agreement. Liberals argued for “la carrière ouverte aux talents” (“opportunity to the talented”).

Individuals may also be classified by race, religion, sexual orientation, or other characteristics. One of the great achievements of American society has been the progressive extension of the promises of the Declaration of Independence – life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – to people who had been excluded from them. That process has included the abolition of slavery, the civil rights revolution, the women’s liberation movement, more recently the gay rights movement.

Lately some people have proclaimed victory in the battle for equal treatment of gays and lesbians. Last month a group of gay marriage supporters urged their allies to be magnanimous in the final period of the “hard-won victory over a social order in which LGBT people were fired, harassed, and socially marginalized” and not to seek to punish remaining dissenters from the new perspective.

But this past weekend has reminded us that we haven’t quite achieved “opportunity to the talented.” Michael Sam was the Co-Defensive Player of the Year in the country’s strongest football conference, yet many people wondered if any NFL team would draft the league’s first openly gay player. Turns out they were right to wonder. Here’s a revealing chart published in yesterday’s Washington Post (based on data from pro-football-reference.com and published alongside this article in the print edition but apparently not online).

SEC Defensive Players of the Year

Every other SEC Defensive Player of the Year in the past decade, including the athlete who shared the award this year with Michael Sam, was among the top 33 picks in the draft, and only one was below number 17. Does that mean that being gay cost Michael Sam 232 places in the draft, compared to his Co-Defensive Player of the Year? Maybe not. There are doubts about Sam’s abilities at the professional level. But there are doubts about many of the players who were drafted ahead of him, in the first 248 picks this year. Looking at this chart, I think it’s hard to escape the conclusion that Sam paid a price for being openly gay. That’s why classical liberals – which in this broad sense should encompass most American libertarians, liberals, and conservatives – should continue to press for a society in which the careers are truly open to the talents. That doesn’t mean we need laws, regulations, or mandates. It means that we want to live in a society that is open to talent wherever it appears. As Scott Shackford writes at Reason, Sam’s drafting is “a significant cultural development toward a country that actually doesn’t care about individual sexual orientation. The apathetic should celebrate this development, as it is a harbinger of a future where such revelations become less and less of a big deal.” Let’s continue to look forward to a society in which it’s not news that a Jewish, Catholic, African-American, Mormon, redneck, or gay person achieves a personal goal.

Piketty Should Focus on Increasing the Scope of Markets, Not Expanding the Power of Government

In his best-selling book Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Harvard University Press), French economist Thomas Piketty is concerned with equality of outcome, not equality under a rule of law safeguarding one’s unalienable rights to liberty and property. 

He finds that inequality of income and wealth is increasing as the return on capital assets exceeds the growth of real GDP.  His policy for reducing inequality is to use the power of government to impose very high marginal tax rates on the incomes of the rich and near rich, and also impose an annual wealth tax.  His goal is “to put an end to such incomes.”

Piketty’s leveling schemes in the pursuit of “social justice” would undermine the primacy of property rights under the U.S. Constitution, adversely affect incentives to save and invest, stifle entrepreneurship, and slow economic growth. He seems more interested in penalizing the rich than in thinking of ways to create wealth by expanding opportunities for market exchange.