Wal-Mart and Its Enemies

Wal-Mart has always had critics, but the company’s growing success in the grocery market has brought fresh howls of protest from America’s liberal elites and those who parrot them. Wal-Mart’s foray into groceries is great news for regular folks, promising to help keep prices low and bring new competition to a clubby old industry. Wal-Mart’s entry will raise everyone’s game. Trouble is, Wal-Mart is now competing with traditional grocery chains–and threatening the livelihood of union bosses flush with the dues of unionized grocery workers. These union fat cats have mobilized America’s liberal elites in a desperate bid to defeat union-free Wal-Mart not in the market but in the arena of public opinion. For years, liberal elites have blamed Wal-Mart for emptying historic downtowns, steamrolling competitors, and not paying well enough. Today, these old bromides are being trotted out yet again. Ketchup queen Teresa Heinz Kerry recently claimed that Wal-Mart “destroys communities.” Fact is, Wal-Mart began in 1962 and exploded in the 1980s. Historic downtowns began fading much earlier, with the rise of cars in the 1920s and shopping centers in the 1950s. Long before Wal-Mart arrived, mom-and-pop businesses were losing ground to mass merchandisers because consumers preferred larger selections and lower prices. Wal-Mart didn’t invent mass retailing: it perfected it. Liberal elites also complain that Wal-Mart competes unfairly, driving others out of business. True, consumers have moved, over time, toward Wal-Mart and Target and away from Sears and Kmart. In a free market, those are the breaks. But consumers always get what they want. Most recently, Wal-Mart was blamed for helping bankrupt Tower Records and FAO Schwarz. In reality, Tower was squeezed by illegal music downloads and Amazon, and FAO was a snobby, shoddily-run chain with stratospherically overpriced toys. Liberal elites also love to whine about Wal-Mart’s wages. This is, really, none of their business. Wal-Mart employs 1.2-million Americans. Many move up, many move on, but all joined the company voluntarily. In a market system, wages are set by supply and demand, not CBS News or The New Yorker. The current wave of criticism reveals as much about Wal-Mart’s enemies as it does about the company. Consider: Wal-Mart embodies the success of capitalism, boosting living standards by delivering more goods to more people at lower prices. Outside George Soros and Ted Turner, liberal elites don’t much like capitalists. Arkansas-based Wal-Mart embraces Middle American values, refusing to profit from raunchy CDs and racy magazines. Liberal elites toast the genius of Middle America’s critics, from rapper Eminem to American Beauty scribe Alan Ball. Wal-Mart is large and successful. Liberal elites are reflexively critical of large, successful enterprises, from McDonald’s to Microsoft to “mega churches.” Wal-Mart is the nation’s top gun retailer, a position that has put it squarely in the crosshairs of anti-gun Hollywood liberals like crackpot filmmaker and Columbine profiteer Michael Moore. Wal-Mart is unreservedly patriotic. Liberal elites are not. Our network news anchors wouldn’t even wear American flag pins after September 11. Elite criticism notwithstanding, Wal-Mart is good for America and the world. As Ohio University economics professor Richard Vedder told me, “Wal-Mart has raised the standard of living of Americans by lowering the cost of getting goods from manufacturers to consumers, and it has helped workers all over the world who produce what it sells.” Wal-Mart’s past success was built on winning customers with low prices, wide selections and one-stop convenience. Its future success or failure should also be determined by the choices of individual consumers, not a noisy cadre of collectivist coastal elites. Folks in flyover country don’t need shopping lessons from smug know-it-alls who buy on 5th Avenue and Rodeo Drive.