Every year Black Friday marks the official beginning of two modern American traditions: Christmas shopping and criticizing Walmart.
Critics on both the left and the right have found a common enemy in Walmart. Those on the left hate the company because it isn’t unionized while conservatives complain because it undercuts mom-and-pop retailers. Some researchers even claim that people are prone to gain weight after a Walmart Supercenter opens nearby.
I suspect if the researchers were to conduct a follow-up study they’d also find that there is about a 99 percent chance you will not be starving to death if you live near a Walmart store. But we live in a strange period in history when the idea of affordable food is considered a lamentable condition.
Walmart’s very business model—maintain a large and innovative supply chain that keeps prices low—offends the sensibility of those who think that prices should be raised in order to pay employees a higher wage. The idea that the higher cost should be passed on to consumers is typically made by those who would never actually shop at Walmart. A prime example is The American Prospect‘s Harold Meyerson:
Walmart replaced General Motors as America’s largest private-sector employer. Instead of paying its workers enough to buy new cars, Walmart paid its workers so little they had to shop at discount stores like Walmart.
The reason why Walmart employees—and others on the lower end of the income scale—shop at the stores is because they are, by necessity, price conscience shopper. Meyerson and other elites that spend only about 3.5 percent of their income on food at home can afford to shop at Whole Foods. But households in the bottom quintile, which spend 26 percent of their income on food, are eager to keep food prices as low as possible. (During this holiday season Walmart employees receive an additional 10 percent off most food items.) If Walmart didn’t exist they the company’s employees wouldn’t have higher paying jobs; they’d just be paying more for food and consumer goods.
Growing up in a family that lived below the poverty line, I can appreciate the value of inexpensive food. That is one of the primary reasons I appreciate the company—and the reason I think other conservatives should appreciate it too. There is admittedly a lot to dislike about the company, but as former low-income rural resident I think there are a number of reasons why conservatives should be more supportive of Walmart (and similar poverty-alleviating corporations).
Others have made a more compelling case for Walmart (my libertarian friend Peter Suderman recently offered a defense on on Twitter), but I’d like to share a part of my own personal history with the company.
I was in high school in Clarksville, Texas the year Walmart opened in our town in the mid-1980s. The impact on our community was immeasurable and only slightly less disruptive than when the Kalahari bushman found a Coke bottle in The Gods Must Be Crazy. Life in our small town would never be the same.
The biggest change was that we now had choices. Before, if we needed quality consumer products we had to travel thirty miles down the road to Paris. The members of the local retail oligopoly offered a limited range of products at outrageously inflated prices (that seems to be forgotten in the hagiographic idealization of small-town retailers). Options that were taken for granted by people who lived in urban areas—the ability to buy a Sony Walkman and the latest Duran Duran cassette—were completely closed to our rural community. Sam Walton changed all that.
In fact, it would be hard to underestimate the impact of “everyday low prices” had on us rural Texans. Even low-income families like mine (i.e., the dirt poor trailer park dwellers) were able to afford items that were once considered luxuries. For example, I was able to save up and purchase a weight-lifting set for less than $20 dollars. What may seem like a trivial purchase allowed me to transform within a matter of months from an 85 pound weakling to a 98 pound he-man. On the surface, such changes may seem inconsequential. But when viewed on a macro level the broadening of consumer choices had an incredibly transformative and (mostly) positive impact on rural life.
Elites who idealize the “simplicity” of rural life (i.e., those who have never lived there) fail to realize how small improvements in quality of life can affect a community. By making our hometown marginally more livable, Walmart gave many of my peers a reason to make a home in our hometown. In 2012, with the Internet expanding options to anyone with a router and mailbox, the effect isn’t as profound. But would there even be Amazon and Netflix without the supply-chain processes developed by Walmart?
We should also not be underestimate the role Walmart played in teaching people the benefits of the free-market. Employee profit-sharing was a foreign concept for most citizens of Clarksville. For many people, the first stock that they ever owned (that didn’t come with hooves) was that of Walmart, bought while working for the company. People who had formerly viewed stocks as the province of “Republicans” and other wealthy folk suddenly began to take an interest in investing and saving for retirement. The concept of company ownership suddenly became a reality for people who had previously never considered it a possibility. While it may not have sparked an entrepreneurial renaissance in my hometown, profit-sharing helped garner an appreciation for capital markets, free trade, and the benefits of investing.
Many rural Americans would also argue that the net effect of Walmart has been positive on their communities. While working for the local newspaper in Gun Barrel City, Texas, I interviewed the mayor and asked what she thought of the town’s largest employer. The mayor candidly admitted that if it hadn’t been for the store the town would have probably “dried up and blown away.” Walmart, she noted, provided 33 percent of all tax revenues for the city, providing monies that were able to build more roads, better schools, and hire more fire department personnel. It’s easy to overlook how much a single store can have on the tax base of a community. Prior to the arrival of Walmart, most residents bought goods from other towns, spreading sales taxes to other localities.
Sam Walton’s company gave us rural citizens options and opportunities that we had never known. True, the “Walmart experience” now mirrors much of the rest of American—ungainly, unaesthetic, and unpleasant. But the company also straddles the line between local community and global commerce, allowing people who don’t live in cities or suburbs to enjoy such luxuries as cheap food.
As Russell Kirk claimed, “the thinking conservative understands that permanence and change must be recognized and reconciled in a vigorous society.” For all its flaws, Walmart balances that tension between permanence and change as well as any large corporation in America. And that, in my opinion, is enough to make Sam Walton’s company worthy of admiration.