Acton Institute Powerblog

A Conservative Case for Walmart

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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.

Joe Carter Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).


  • RogerMcKinney

    Walmart is one of the “big box” stores that distibutists love to hate. I don’t think distributists care about the poor.

    • Greg Colley

      Distributists argue for the same remedy to poverty that most conservatives espouse: make more people owners and proprietors. So your comment about them not caring about the poor seems uninformed. Distributists criticize Wal-mart because the descendants of the original Waltons own as much as the bottom 45% of ALL families in this country. And that disparity grows each quarter as Wal-mart profits increase and more of their employees fall below the poverty line. Wal-mart presents very little for either Christians or thoughtful conservatives to support. Can you be more specific in your criticism of distributists?

      • Read this piece by Tim Worstall in Forbes for a deeper understanding of wealth and income what the Walton family wealth represents:


        The question is, what are we to make of this point? I think we all
        know what Mr. Goldberg wants us to make of it, it’s a telling indictment
        of American wealth inequality, the world’s going to the dogs and something must be done about rising inequality.

        The Waltons are now collectively worth about $93 billion, according to Forbes.

        Well, yes, but. Total
        US household wealth is in the $50 trillion (yes, trillion) to $70
        trillion range. The range is depending on whether you want to take
        before the housing crash or in the middle of it. So the statement is
        that these Waltons have, between the family, 0.13% of US wealth. Which,
        for the people who inherited the world’s largest (well, certainly the
        country’s) and most successful retailer doesn’t sound like a
        particularly terrible concentration of wealth. It’s certainly less than John D Rockefeller had all by his lonesome when he was in his pomp.

        • Greg Colley

          Comment directly on my point: that a tiny number of people cumulatively own as much as over 40% (the 45% in my original comment was a typo, sorry) ALL families in this country. Describing the proportion of “Wal-mart wealth” to the entire wealth of the country doesn’t speak to the issue of this disparity at all. Make your argument why it is imperative why so few should control such excess at the same time that the people whose labor generates that excess often require government assistance (for which they and the government are then roundly criticized, but not those whose wealth is thereby subsidized). Let me put it very simply: this is not about which mathematical presentation creates the best optics for one’s perspective, it is an ethical question. So present me with an ethical argument — based on Christian ethics or moral theology, preferably — on how this disparity is consistent with the message of the Gospels and even justifiable under that message. Or frankly, how it is justifiable under any moral system built on the equal dignity of all human persons. I am not against profits, nor business efficiency, nor private ownership, nor the dignity of work. What I am against is mindless advocacy of a needlessly unjust status quo, So I present myself here with an open mind to find the cogent arguments in favor of the status quo. Do you have one?

          • RogerMcKinney

            What do you think would happen if WalMart doubled the wages it paid hourly employees? If distributists had any idea about micro econ they would know: WalMart would have to raise prices to pay for the wage increases. Higher prices would hurt the poor people who shop there. Higher prices would reduce demand and force WalMart to lay off the worker who got the wage increases.
            Of course, distributists and socialists will argue that WalMart should just accept reduced profits instead of raising prices. But profits can rarely dip below 5% because if they do investors will take their money elsewhere. The Walton family would sell its shares and invest in something that paid a greater return. That’s because few people will settle for 5% return on a risky asset. They would be better off with the “riskless” assets of the US government paying 2%.

          • Greg Colley

            So…because the current owners of Wal-mart might lose a fraction of their billions in wealth, it is ethically correct to maintain a status quo where a large chunk of their workforce lives below the poverty line? This treats those workers as means to the Wal-mart shareholders ends (for continued and greater profits). I don’t know of any Christian ethic that would support such a position. I would also point out that to the extent that Wal-mart employees earn so little that they qualify for federal cash and/or food assistance (which many do), the profits which accrue to Wal-mart shareholders are actually subsidized by your tax dollars. I presume that in your “capital markets are all that matters” ethical scheme this is perfectly acceptable as well. Or is it?

            And no one is suggesting doubling wages or any such dramatic acts. Increasing the proportion of full time employees so that more earn an income they can live on, and ensuring that more qualify for benefits — yes, these are actions that demonstrate a desire to treat the employees like valued resources and, gasp, human beings. Not even Wal-mart shoppers have the right to demand that Wal-mart employees be treated like slave labor so that they can buy a weight set for a few dollars less so as to enhance their self-esteem more cheaply.

            You also seem to assume that the only possible business model leading to success is to treat employees badly. This lacks creativity, never mind openness to actual examples — there are other big box stores that treat their employees much better and succeed just fine.

            And I would caution against lumping distributists with socialists, because they advocate dramatically different things, diametrically opposed, in fact. If Wal-mart wanted to behave like a distributist, they would stop all distributions of capital to current owners and engage solely in buyback transactions, which shares they would then distribute equitably to employees. The Walton descendants have made enough off of their ownership by any measure this side of Croesus. Let the “economic efficiency” of Wal-mart accrue to the benefit of the people who actually generate it. This “distributes” ownership, which is what distributists are all about (socialists are not; they only want one owner — the state).

            So my response to your “capital markets realities leave Wal-mart no choice” approach is to point out that it is ethically vapid, to put it politely. Profits are not the highest good humankind can aspire to. I think the Gospel has something to say on that score. But I presume you know that.

          • RogerMcKinney

            As do most distributists, you completely ignored the economics of the situation and demonstrated the lack of concern for the poor that permeates distributism. My example of doubling the wages was intended to demonstrate the economics, but to provide WalMart workers with what distributists call a “living wage”, WaMart wages would have to double, or triple.
            Like socialists, distributists think profit is evil. Distributism is nothing but a ruse for socialism. But investors, regardless of how rich they are, are entitled to a decent return on their investment because they are giving up use of that investment until it pays off. WalMart’s dollar profits are large only because the organization is large; its % profits are just average.
            As for Christian ethics, Church scholars determined in the 16th century that any wage determined without coercion is a just wage. No one is forcing people to work at WalMart.

          • RogerMcKinney

            “…there are other big box stores that treat their employees much better and succeed just fine.”

            Name one. I know of no large retailer that pays more than WalMart and has as low prices. Whole Foods is an example of a company that pays almost twice what WalMart pays in wages/hr, and look at who shops at Whool Foods, no one but the wealthy. You won’t find any poor people shopping there because the food is too expensive.
            I’m middle class and my wife refuses to pay Whole Foods’ prices.

            WalMart’s low prices help the poor afford food and clothing they cannot buy anywhere else because they can’t afford the prices. Again, you demonstrate your total lack of concern for the poor.

          • Greg Colley

            Costco. And per recent news headlines, Whole Foods is moving to reduce their prices. Please note that I am not advocating an increase in prices at Wal-mart, you are. I am arguing that greater justice would be served if Wal-mart altered their employment practices, changed their capitalization practices and ownership structure, and accepted a lower level of profits. I agree with you! Raising prices would harm the poor. It is your stance that raising prices is the only alternative. I think I have demonstrated the opposite, including alternatives that support distributed ownership — all of which are based in Christian ethical principles.

          • RogerMcKinney

            Reducing WalMart profits would hurt the poor, too.

            I’m not very familiar with Costco because there isn’t one in my area, but from people I know in other states who shop at Costco, it’s not a place where poor people shop, either. Yes, I would imagine Whole Foods needs to lower prices to attract more shoppers, but they will never be even close to the prices WalMart charges. No poor people will ever shop at Whole Foods because their business model can appeal only to the wealthy.

            WalMart owners earn only an average profit, certainly no more in % terms than Costco or Whole Foods or any other retailer. If you want WalMart to reduce profits, you should require the same of all retailers.

            But try to think for a second beyond your personal disgust for profits. Think in terms of reality and not utopia. What would happen if retailers earned lower profits than other industries? Investors would sell their ownership and invest in sectors that paid better profits. Then retail stores would go out of business due to lack of financing.

            So what if you forced all businesses in the country to accept lower profits, say 2% instead of the usual 5%? Investors would sell ownership in US companies and invest overseas in search of decent returns and the US economy would collapse.
            That is all just econ 101. It’s reality. Distributism is just as much fanatasy as socialism. Poor people desperately need wealthy people to invest in businesses like WalMart in order for the poor to have good products at prices they can afford.

          • His “TOTAL lack of concern for the poor”?!

            While I may not agree with many of Mr. Coller’s conclusions, I am not so knowledgeable about how he lives his life as to presume that he cares nothing for the poor. And neither are you, Roger.

            I bring this up only because such absolutist statements as those including the words “total” and “all” lack accuracy, coherence, and Christian charity. They do nothing to help the cause of conservative arguments either, and you’ve demonstrated quite a pattern of making them (and willfully misunderstanding or misrepresenting others). You have put words in Colley’s mouth more than once, here, insinuating things I certainly don’t see in parent posts.

            For the sake of many of the conservative ideas we share, I suggest to
            Roger the old adage, “You’ll catch more flies with honey than with

            Calling people names and accusing them of things hardly advances the ideas you/we espouse. It is certainly not persuasive, and I very much doubt it accomplishes the Christian injunction to correct and build up the body of Christ.

            It bears noting that some of Wal-Marts practices–as well as the “outsourcing” of other large businesses so maligned by many politicians–is responsible for raising some 200-300 million Chinese out of poverty over the last 20 years.

            There is also a difference between asking if the Waltons are fulfilling the Christian obligation to charity versus forcing them to give up a percentage of their wealth. The first–which is what I think Colley is suggesting–is legitimate. The other [government compulsion/redistribution] is clearly not. Awareness of the first could legitimately impel someone to exercise their free will to not shop at a store who’s owners they think are less than charitable.

          • RogerMcKinney

            Greg, I don’t recognize my posts in your comments. So you don’t like absolutist statemenets. Distributists do have a total lack of concern for the poor because they don’t care how their policies will affect the poor. Collie wrote “voluntary support is necessary to those who either can’t work…or can’t find jobs.” He also didn’t care that part time workers would lose their jobs in order to make way for full time workers.

            I won’t allow people to get away with saying they care about the poor and then insist on policies that will devastate the poor. I tried to lead Colley to the logical conclusions of distributist policies using sound economics. Economics proves that distributism would be a total and absolute disaster for poor people.

            I didn’t call Colley any names. Socialist is not an insult. It’s a description of a theory of economics. Distributist think they have no relationship with socialism, but their definitions and policies come straight out of Marx’s books. Laying bare hypocricies can be ugly, like opening a festering wound. But it’s necessary for healing.

            From what I have read of the Waltons, they give a great deal of their wealth to charity, as do most wealthy people. Dealing honestly with others and giving to charity is all that Bible requires.

          • See, I read what you object to–“voluntary support is necessary to those who either can’t work…or can’t find jobs.”–and I don’t see where that statement is itself calling for redistribution of wealth by the government.

            Charity is, by definition, “voluntary”. In that one line there is nothing inconsistent with Christian teaching or promoting government seizure or redistribution of wealth.

            To me, a person only can be said to have a “total” lack of concern for the poor if they aren’t aiding them personally. It may be true that Distributism has the final result of being bad for the poor–wealth seizure and indiscriminate redistribution would. But it is not possible to judge the moral actions of an individual based upon an ideological allegiance. That’s what I’m objecting to, and it’s a major tendency and problem in America today. We can agree socialism is bad, but that does not necessarily mean that a particular socialist is, in themselves, evil. Mistaken, yes. Evil, not necessarily or inherently.

            The whole point of the tale of the Good Samaritan was to avoid such moral judgements of the individuals in groups one most dislikes (Samaritans were violently disliked by Jesus’ audiences, and held to have the wrong views on how/where to worship God).

          • The Worstall article does that here: “That a family who have inherited the majority of one of the leading global retailers have more wealth than the bottom 30% of Americans, when compared with how high up the tree a single ten dollar bill gets you, is pretty much worthy of a heartfelt “Meh”.”

            Your real point is that the Walton family fortune somehow carries a moral taint because it is so great. Correct? Has the Walton family fortune impoverished you? Me? Did Sam Walton, the Rich Man, step over the body of Lazarus as it lay at the entrance of Walmart? Nonsense.

            You talk as if a half dozen Waltons had conducted an armed robbery on the American population. Would not the more than 2 million Walmart employees be accomplices to this crime of the century? They comprise 1 percent of the U.S. workforce! They are like an army of foot soldiers turning us all into grubby consumerists!

            And what of the millions of people who shop at Walmart every day? They march zombie-like into the stores and are drawn inexorably to those flashy displays of flat panel TVs, sweatshirts and snow tires. What dupes, what fools! Do they not know what’s best for them? Have they no human dignity? Oh, the horror!

            Of course, the “status quo” at Walmart and other retailers who serve millions of Americans every day allows these big businesses to merely flick on the lights and the money just pours in. Really? Is it that easy to succeed in one of the most competitive businesses out there?

          • Greg Colley

            No, YOU assume that my perspective is that size is all that matters with wealth. And you are wrong in that assumption. What matters is disparity. The Walton family fortune impoverishes their workforce — witness that many qualify for and receive federal assistance. Your other arguments are entirely outside this point (although I would love to debate the ethics of encouraging a consumerist society whose primary result is to make a very few incredibly rich and send large numbers of the people who generate that wealth on to food stamps). It is a basic tenet of Catholic Social Teaching that those who have substantial excess wealth have a responsibility to act with great generosity. That doesn’t quite sound like this situation.

            What you miss in your rush to glibly denigrate anyone who might have the temerity to question the moral import of one company’s method of generating profits is that we are ALL called to act on behalf of the poor. Since a large number of Wal-mart employees fit into that category (and the Walton descendants do not, which leaves me wondering about what prompts YOUR thinking) yes, even though I am not directly affected I have an obligation to examine Wal-mart’s practices. So do you, come to think of it. (And I am ignoring the fact that none of your arguments address my original point — ad hominem is the last refuge of, well, someone who wants to avoid the point). Follow Worstall’s analysis all you want. I can’t – I am a Christian.

          • “the moral import of one company’s method of generating profits is that we are ALL called to act on behalf of the poor.”

            OK. You want to moralize, not come to grips with the economic realities that are integral to understanding Walmart. Fine, church people do that all the time, although I don’t see that as helpful.

            Are you aruguing that Walmart operates in an alternative retail universe where the rules are different from those that Kroger, Target, Walgreen’s, Home Depot, CVS and others on this list operate under? Really?

            Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that you somehow prove that the Walton family are more or less reprobates, something like a crime syndicate, who take the bread out of the mouths of their employees who otherwise would prosper by working for Kroger, Target, Walgreen’s, Home Depot, CVS and others. What is the distributist solution for Walmart? Please be specific.

          • Greg Colley

            Just for the record, I want to pursue a moral economic solution — both can be done simultaneously, and in fact must be done simultaneously, since economics, as a science, is morally neutral. And I do so from a combined background: degree in economics, 25 years in finance, and divinity studies at a seminary. Economic realities MUST be shaped by moral values, especially for those of us who are Christian.

            No, I am not suggesting that Wal-mart operates in an alternative universe, except for the one covering employment practices and scale. They are the largest, and their treatment of employees likely among the most egregious. I would be opposed to immoral treatment of employees at any company, but since these comments are prompted by a post defending Wal-mart’s practices, they are the object of our discussion.

            I have never said that the Walton descendants are criminal. I have stated or implied the following 1) Wal-mart’s employment practices are immoral, 2) Walton family descendants have sufficient excess wealth that Christian ethical principles would encourage them to disgorge substantial chunks of their interest in Wal-mart in favor of greater justice, and 3) the Walton family descendants could exercise significant influence over Wal-mart to get them to change their practices.

            Christian ethical principles eschew prescribing specific paths towards greater social justice (there are many alternatives), but given my personal background, I have suggested several possibilities for Wal-mart in other comments here: 1) Altering the mix of part-time and full-time employees in favor of full-time so that more earn sufficient income to support their families and receive benefits; 2) boosting the entry level hourly wage to a level that gets the full-time employee over the poverty line ~ 20% – 25%? maybe less; 3) Making current Wal-mart owners responsible for government subsidies of their profits (see my comments elsewhere) and purely distributist actions — 4) suspending capital distributions to current owners in favor of stock buy-backs, which stock could then be distributed to employees on an equitable basis. I would advocate Wal-mart opening its doors to collective bargaining, which is supported in Christian ethics, but I suspect if they took these steps first the unions wouldn’t get many takers. Funny how resisting unions is best accomplished by treating employees to a healthy dose of Christian economic justice.

            In short, I am in favor of employee ownership of Wal-mart, so that the profits generated by their labor enrich them (who number in the hundreds of thousands) rather than a much smaller group whose wealth is, shall we say, sufficient. Yes, this means an impact on profits. I am not advocating the destruction of Wal-mart, but putting their continued operation on a firm ethical foundation. This means that I am all in favor of continuing Wal-mart’s efficiency and profits — adjusted on the basis of the demands of Christian justice — and distributing ownership. Some here have mistakenly called my perspective “socialist.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Christian, yes.

            Is that specific enough for you?

          • Greg: You and I are in complete agreement here: “Economic realities MUST be shaped by moral values, especially for those of us who are Christian.” Where we differ is how to effect “the demands of Christian justice” on a company that serves 200 million people who voluntarily shop at Walmart worldwide every week and find value there, and not other places, given the fact that most people have choices about where they spend their money. Would Walmart have to raise prices to increase its wage structure by 20-25 percent? If so, where is the “social justice” in asking the Walmart shopper to pay higher prices? What makes us think they wouldn’t simply shop elsewhere?

            How do you redistribute stock to employees on “an equitable basis” without massive violations of property rights and enactment of laws that would effect all public corporations in this regard? Wouldn’t that just incredibly politicize this “problem”? I’m sure that many of the hundreds of thousands of people who own Walmart stock — have an ownership stake — would immediately head for the exits once they learned that their returns (I assume you mean, among other things, dividends? Please correct me if I’m mistaken here) would be dramatically reduced or disappear. Why would Walmart commit corporate suicide?

            You might find this Charlie Rose interview with Jeff Bezos interesting. Speaking of Walmart, he says, “It’s easy to lower prices. It’s hard to be able to afford to lower prices.”


          • Greg Colley

            Open market stock purchases with profits are not violations of property rights. Employee stock ownership plans are not violations of property rights. Worker owned collectives operate very successfully in many instances — being owned by the workers doesn’t eliminate competitive pressures, of course — so characterizing this approach as “corporate suicide” is disingenuous at best. Worker-owner are motivated to NOT head for exits, but to stay and build value, all things being equal. As shoppers, we have a moral obligation to avoid facilitating “slavery” and to argue otherwise is to head completely off the Christian reservation. A classic example are electronic items produced in near slavery conditions in Asia. Our right to “fair and competitive prices” doesn’t supersede the rights of the workers to earn a living wage reflective of their human dignity. Only the most jaded addict of consumerism would argue otherwise.

            In short, it appears you simply want things to stay the way the are because you can’t see a) any problems with the way things are, and b) any reasonable way to make things different. I have repeatedly outlined Christian ethical principles that support the fact that there is a problem at Wal-mart, and common corporate approaches that get us to a more just alternative in an orderly fashion. Nothing I can do in the face of intransigence.

          • Greg:

            I have read with much interest the full colloquy between yourself and your adversaries, Roger, John and the other Greg. It sounds to me as if you are attempting to make modifications to the law of supply and demand albeit in the laudable interest of Christian justice. In a world where supply and demand are facts, not impositions by the wealthy upon the poor, how do you do this except through government edict? And if through government edict, what is your bright line rule for the limitation which you would place upon the powers you would concede to the government? Are government leaders more trustworthy holders of economic power than the Walton-like wealthy?

            I would tend to agree with much of your implied criticism of the entirety of our modern corporate culture, however, how do you keep from throwing out the baby with the bathwater? Specifically, the corporate form has generated much wealth for the society as a whole since it permits organization of large amounts of capital with vast numbers of people in a way which would be generally impractical otherwise. Corporations have, through economies of scale, permitted the provision of wealth through low prices to consumers (although if you listen to Nassim Taleb these economies of scale come with their own risks). The point is, as your adversaries have said, that there is wealth creation for the customers in these economies of scale as well as for the owners of the company. If you are suggesting an involuntary disinvestment by the Walton heirs, wouldn’t this set a problematic precedent for corporations generally? Aren’t you suggesting that their own money somehow be used to buy them out? How could stockholders in Exxon or any other US based corporation feel safe from the government’s new Robin Hood power? Wouldn’t this drive many of our publicly held corporations off-shore? Or are you suggesting a simple voluntary act of disinvestment? I was unclear on that. If so, I’m all for that but the Waltons might not think that I have any skin in the game and therefore ignore my moral advice.

            And once again, if you are suggesting involuntary disinvestment, wouldn’t you be putting your trust in the trustworthiness of the Christian values of our government officials and doesn’t it seem to you that they haven’t been doing such a good a job of living out their supposedly Christian morals in the areas over which they already have control?

            In short, I am afraid that you haven’t really taken into account the problems associated with the “new masters” you would put in charge.

            Anyway, thanks for letting me listen in on the lively chat you’ve been having. I’ve learned something about distributists.


          • Jump

            Indeed, spot on, Michael. To paraphrase a famous economist, where shall we get the angels who will implement this distributivist vision?

          • Jump

            Greg Colley:

            Having followed your argument as best I could, it seems to me that it has a serious problem. It’s that your view would seem to leave you with no principled way of resisting a move to socialism–even if you yourself would wish to resist such a move. You’d just be inconsistent in doing so. That is, given the justification for the distributism you endorse, you likewise can justify a full-blown socialist distributional structure. By what principle shall you adopt the former but resist the latter? There is no non-arbitrary one. That’s a very big problem.

            To see this arbitrariness, note how your argument depends on the vexed notion of “sufficient wealth.” (The dubious American understanding of “poverty line” and the emotionally-loaded “slave labor” play a similar role, too.) But why think there is any fact of the matter about, say, sufficiency of wealth, independent of the agent’s own aims, resources, etc.? Seems to me there is none.

          • G

            Hi Greg,
            I do not wish to spark an angry give and take; my comments come from brotherly love. Distributionist, which if I understand correctly you seem to be defending, argue that it is unfair and immoral that some people should have so much while so many have so little. Therefore, it is imperative that the government take, by force, from those that are successful to give to the less fortunate. Some may find support in the Gospels and in Catholic Social Teaching for the first part of the argument, but government confiscation as the solution to income inequality cannot be supported either morally or theologically. If I may, please “present me with an ethical argument — based on Christian ethics or moral theology, preferably” that supports government-imposed redistribution. What makes you think that it is not God’s Will that I should have to face the challenge of poverty to become closer to Him?
            If I have a God given talent to innovate, be successful, and make money do I have to bury that talent? Absolutely not, Jesus answers in the parable of the talents. My wealth then becomes my personal Cross to bear as it is more difficult for a rich man to enter heaven. We are all, rich and poor, called to be charitable but we are not called to substitute public, government-sponsored charity for the real private charity. Furthermore, if you accept that there is a risk that government support may create dependency, then you understand the biblical injunction to teach a man to fish.
            Like Mother Teresa, we all see the world and understandably, weep for the poor and less fortunate. She did not raise her voice and rallied against the unfairness of it all. She did not ask for a government program. She did not blame the rich. She got busy doing her part, like we are all called to do. Hayek said that men’s “fatal conceit” was thinking that through government sponsored planning they could fix society’s problems: they can’t.

          • Greg Colley

            Actually, it is “Distibutist.” And no, Distibutists are not the primary source calling out the immorality of great disparities in wealth, that would be Christian ethics much more broadly. And no, distributists do not advocate government confiscation and redistribution, because they prefer that the owners off great wealth take it upon themselves to effect this distribution out of a profound sense of caritas. I agree completely with Hayek — government is NOT the most efficient mechanism for effecting transfers from those who have far too much to those who have far too little, even nothing. So you are arguing against your own straw man, for the most part. The unfortunate part is that private generosity is claerly

            But in response to your request, here are a few Christian ethical principles. I happen to be Catholic, so they come from Catholic sources:

            1) “Support of private ownership does not mean that anyone has the right to unlimited accumulation of wealth. Private property does not constitute for anyone an absolute or unconditioned right. No one is justified in keeping for his exclusive use what he does not need, when others lack necessities. (v. 115, USCCB Pastoral Letter, “Economic Justice for All”, 1986.)

            2) “we are called to make a fundamental ‘option for the poor.’ The obligation to evaluate social and economic activity from the viewpoint of the poor and the powerless arises from the radical command to love one’s neighbor as one’s self. Those who are marginalized and whose rights are denied have privileged claims if society is to provide justice for all. This obligation is deeply rooted in Christian belief. As Paul VI stated: In teaching us charity, the Gospel instructs us in the preferential respect due the poor and the special situation they have in society: the more fortunate should renounce some of their rights so as to place their goods more generously at the service of others.” (v. 87, USCCB Pastoral Letter, “Economic Justice for All”, 1986)

            3) “In return for their labor, workers have a right to wages and other benefits sufficient to sustain life in dignity.” (v. 103, USCCB Pastoral Letter, “Economic Justice for All”, 1986)

            and given your concerns, here’s my favorite:

            4) “The responsibility for alleviating the plight of the poor falls upon all members of society. As individuals, all citizens have a duty to assist the poor through acts of charity and personal commitment. But private charity and voluntary action are not sufficient. We also carry out our moral responsibility to assist and empower the poor by working collectively through government to establish just and effective public policies.” (v. 189, USCCB Pastoral Letter, “Economic Justice for All”, 1986)

            In a nutshell, you (and Hayek) are absolutely right about government not being the best transfer mechanism. But since the best transfer mechanism (voluntary giving) is wholly inadequate to support any sense of Christian justice, we have a moral obligation to use the mechanism of government to effect justice. Very simple really.

            And this is not angry give and take. This is marshaling facts and principles into an argument.

          • “Distributionist, which if I understand correctly you seem to be
            defending, argue that it is unfair and immoral that some people should
            have so much while so many have so little. Therefore, it is imperative
            that the government take, by force, from those that are successful to
            give to the less fortunate.”

            No, that is socialism.
            Distributism favors as little government enforcement as possibility, so a program of forced “redistribution” would be very much opposed to a distributist mindset.

            90% of distributist ideals can be enacted without any government involvement; through cooperatives, entrepreneurship, buying local (when reasonable), family businesses, ect. For those exceptions which require government involvement we would oppose confiscating a single individual’s total capital but we may support forcing them to participate in a program in which some or most of his capital was sold to others at a reasonable price.
            -An example of this would be Taiwan. At one point a mere 20 families owned the entirety of the island. A distributist came to power and forced these families to sell their land to the people who had been share-cropping it. The families received a fair price for the land which they were then able to invest in other venture. The ex-share-croppers now owned their own land and were more willing to invest their own wealth into it. In the end everyone ended up better off, even the 20 families who had to sell all their land, as their investments proved to be more lucrative than share-cropping had been.

      • RogerMcKinney

        I don’t care what conservatives want. Most are socialist-lite. Economics proves that the only sustainable wage increase must come from productivity increases, which require training and better tools.
        Few people, especially among the poor, have the skills and temperment necessary to be business owners, so its not a great tool for helping the poor. Entrepreneurs who create businesses help the poor by giving them jobs.
        Why does it matter that Wal-Mart owners have become so wealthy as long as they didn’t steal it or defraud someone?
        Walmart has done more for the poor than the federal government because it makes food and clothing available to them at prices they can afford.
        If WalMart employees don’t like their jobs, then they can always get training for a better-paying job.

    • I’m a distributist and i don’t hate Walmart. I even shop there on occasion. If i was elected supreme emperor of the planet i would not seek out the destruction of stores like Walmart, i wold simply encourage them to become worker owned.

      I think walmart is a mixed bag, the solution is not to hate the bag or through it out. The solution is to try and improve it.

  • Excellent commentary, Joe. Your point about stock ownership is important. What critics often fail to point out is that the widely held Walmart stock makes millions of Americans owners of the company through mutual funds, pensions plans, etc. ($235 billion market cap; 3.36 billion shares outstanding). How many public employee pension funds are big owners of Walmart? Do millions of American retirees have an interest in Walmart’s continued success? You bet they do. I suspect the other big box retailers also are widely held by mutual funds and institutional investors but of course few attract the animus of the left the way Walmart does.

  • RogerMcKinney

    So what about the part-time workers that WalMart would have to lay off in order to make some full-time? You have no concern for them?

    Regardless of the official poverty level, I doubt many distributists would consider a full-time job making $25,000/yr for a family a living wage. But 40% of a full time employee’s total compensation (not just wages) is benefits, which means WalMart would have to lay off even more part timers to pay for those benefits. So a 25% wage increase plus full time benefits would translate into close to a doubling of total compensation to workers.
    But lets’ go back and assume nothing but a 25% wage hike. WalMart owners can’t absorb that increase in costs and so much raise prices. That starts the whole cycle of declining sales and layoffs I wrote about before.
    “…investors may be entitled to a decent return on their investments, but they are NOT entitled to hoarding wildly excessive wealth…”
    I disagree that your principles are Christian. They are socialist to be sure, but not Christian. Show me anywhere in the Bible where God condemns Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, Solomon, Job and other for having excessive wealth. The Bible condemns the rich who don’t give to the poor or who earned their wealth dishonestly. But the Bible considers great wealth earned honestly to be a sign of God’s favor.
    ANd who will decide if wealth is wildly excessive, you? You have no objective way of knowing what is excessive. And BTW, the wealthy aren’t hoarding their wealth. All of it is tied up in job creating business which the poor cannot do without.
    “especially when those poor are the ones who generate the wealth”
    Don’t look now but your Marxism is showing! The poor do not generate the wealth. They are part of wealth creation, for which they are paid in proportion to their contribution. In retail, the capital goods such as the building and inventory and computer systems which the owners pay for up front generate most of the wealth. The working poor would have no jobs if the wealthy refused to invest in the capital equipment first.
    The 16th century scholars who settle the questions of just prices and free markets were the Church scholars at Salamanca, Spain.
    As usual, you ignore the economics I wrote about in my previous post. Economics has proven for a century that the principles of distributism makes everyone poorer. Distributism is nothing but socialism-light. Any amount of socialism hurts the poor worse than it hurts anyone.

    • Greg Colley

      I quoted the US Catholic Bishops’ letter in other comments here. I won’t repeat those principles for the sake of brevity. Yes, Wal-mart would have to reduce its population of part-time employees in order to ensure that more are full-time and thereby earn a living wage. Yes, there will be an impact on profits. And I chose $25,000 as a level above the “official” poverty line. It is an arbitrary point to be sure, but it represents an attempt at objective justice. Are you really arguing that more employees should be below the poverty line (and qualify for federal assistance) so that Wal-mart can continue to generate multi-billion dollar quarterly profits for the current owners? Simply because, from your perspective, $25,000 seems so paltry? To someone trying to support a family on $20,000 a year, $25,000 is a godsend. From the Christian perspective of my arguments, literally.

      I am very mindful of the fact that many part time people would lose their jobs. But since I disagree that a more broadly impoverished workforce is the only way to achieve “justice” (and profits), we have to solve what problems we can. Our economic system is not designed to support full employment — in fact, regulation often serves to create barriers to entry which favor existing companies, and thereby work against a full employment economy. As a result, voluntary support is necessaryto those who either can’t work (no mental or physical capacity, or the aged) or can’t find jobs; if voluntary support is inadequate to provide Christian economic justice, then collective action through government is called for. Not my suggestion, but the US Catholic Bishops.

      Nowhere have I condemned wealth. Nowhere have I condemned profits. I have advocated for justice, and I have quoted the US Catholic Bishops’ pastoral letter from 1986 “Economic Justice for All” — which is a sufficiently Christian source for me, although it may not be for you (I could also quote William Temple or FD Maurice, but won’t). I have not suggested that others should determine what “excessive wealth” means — as a Christian, my stance is that this should be determined by the wealthy person. But justice is the first principle, and in this country we agree that establishing justice through government action is acceptable, if not preferable or the most efficient. The only real difference between you and I is that you are willing to spill a lot of ink justifying the status quo because you see no injustice. I see injustice (the solution to which will create other issues, yes) to which I must respond. Given the preferential option for the poor (not my idea, but that of Christ), the shape of that justice begins to reveal itself, at least, to some of us.

      • RogerMcKinney

        “Are you really arguing that more employees should be below the poverty line (and qualify for federal assistance) so that Wal-mart can continue to generate multi-billion dollar quarterly profits for the current owners?”
        I can hardly speak for all of the words you’re trying to cram into my mouth. I think owners of businesses should be free to pay what they want. Workers are free to work for whom ever they want. If they choose to work for WalMart that means they have no better alternatives. If they don’t like working for WalMart, let them go work for Cosco or Whole Foods.
        I think WalMart owners should get a decent return on their investment in stores, inventory, refrigerators, trucks, computer systems, etc., that provide jobs for poor people. If that means they generate multi-billion dollar profits for them so be it.
        BTW, socialist always talk in absolute dollar profits when any honest person will refer to the percentage profit rate. The percentage profit is what determines the allocation of investments, not the absolute dollar profits.
        I do not support the status quo. It is much too socialist, which hurts the poor.
        “voluntary support is necessaryto those who either can’t work (no mental or physical capacity, or the aged) or can’t find jobs;”
        Distributism would increase unemployment among the poor dramatically. So you advocate charity or tax transfers? And where is that money going to come from, the poor? No. It must come from the wealthy who pay 80% of taxes and give the most to charity. You want to hurt both the poor and take from the wealthy by having them pay unjustly high wages, pay higher taxes and give more to charity. Only socialists believe that the wealthy have unlimited wealth.
        “Nowhere have I condemned wealth. Nowhere have I condemned profits. ”
        Read you own posts! You condem all wealth and profits that you consider to be too large. Then you write “my stance is that this should be determined by the wealthy person.” Which is it?
        “But justice is the first principle…”
        Yes, but we have very different definitions of justice. You follow the socialist definition, which means equal distribution of wealth. I follow the Biblical definition which says to follow God’s laws, such as thou shalt not steal or covet. Biblical justice is blind to wealth and poverty.
        According to Church scholars at Salamanca, any transaction freely conducted, including wages, is a just wage.

        • Greg Colley

          It isn’t my condemnation you object to, but those of Christian ethical principles. You can call me a befuddled socialist all you want, but I read the teachings of the the Catholic Church and US bishops, and I apply them using my knowledge of corporate practices, economics and facts on the ground. I have accurately represented distributism here, and tried to correct misunderstandings of its objectives and the actions it recommends. My purpose is not to frustrate you, but to share reasoned discussion built on principles and facts. I can’t find support for your worldview in any of the modern Christian sources with which I am familiar, but only in libertarian and objectivist philosophy, both of which are ardently anti-Christian. So I have to conclude that you are NOT advancing a Christian perspective, in which case I will cease wasting your time. I assumed it was otherwise. My apologies.

          • RogerMcKinney

            They’re not Christian principles; they are the opinions of US bishops. Many good Catholics disagree with the positions of the US bishops, especially those at the Acton Institute.
            However, I’m not Catholic, but I am Christian. So you’ll have to quote the Bible if you want to influence me. I mentioned the Church scholars at Salamanca because they had a great deal of influence on the world with their ideas, even on Protestants, and they appear to represent Biblical teaching well. You can find support for my ideas in the Bible, the writings of the Salamancan scholars and in sound economics.
            I realize you don’t care for economics, but if God is the author of truth and economics is true, then sound economics agrees with God and the Bible. Distributists in general that I have read have a very poor grasp of econmics. That’s why they can’t figure out how devastating their policies will be to the poor.

            BTW, there are many Christian libertarians. Libertarian principles are based on the Biblical principles “thou shalt steal or covert” and limited government.

            You have confused the socialist teaching of US Catholic bishops with Christian principles.

  • If we really want to talk about unjust labor practices and “near slave labor” we need look no further than the existence of “prison industries” in the United States. As a private business owner, my father has to compete with a local prison industry that makes the same type of products his company of 14 does, but does not have to pay its employees;

    1) the federal minimum wage (he incidentally pays above it),

    2) healthcare benefits (since the state already provides those in limited fashion to inmates), OR

    3) pay into the state workman’s compensation or unemployment funds.

    With 2,266,000 incarcerated in prisons, with little to do but work (in some cases for between 12-85 cents/hour), this is both horrible economic and correctional policy.

    It puts unfair pressure on law-abiding small businesses, deprives prisoners of an economic basis for law-abiding reintegration into society, and creates a situation ripe for abuse.

  • RogerMcKinney

    Greg: “That something be freely done does not mean it is therefore “just” (a mistake libertarians sometimes make).”

    No libertarian has made that mistake. Libertarians allow the Christian to determine morality from reading the Bible. It does not try to enforce morality through the state, except for the requirement that the state protect life liberty and property. That is the role of the state, not preventing prostitution.

    I have a great deal of respect for Vatican Councils, but the Vatican doesn’t represent all of Christianity. No man has a right to a particular wage. As the Salamancan scholars determined, and the subjective revolution in economics confirmed, all value is subjective. Workers have a right only to the wage that they agree to with their employer, nothing more.

    • So you personally know all libertarians, and are guaranteeing us that “No libertarian has made that mistake.” (of making the mistake that if something is freely chosen, it is therefore just)!

      I keep forgetting that you are omniscient, Roger.

      Incidentally, I witnessed a self-identified libertarian professor at Vanderbilt University make just that mistake the Spring of 1999.

      The attitude you exhibit is one reason most people perceive and reject, rightly or wrongly, libertarianism as pseudo-anarchy and degrading–if one’s only right is to a wage then a person’s worth is only dependent on his capacity to work (thus feeding into the abortion movement and euthenasia). That is a view diametrically opposed to the Christian understanding of the person as a child of God, made in his image and loved by Him. Faithful Christians will oppose that brand of libertarianism. With passion.

      Where does stating that a man has the right to work for his family’s necessities violate subjective economics? It seems to me “necessities” is worded vaguely enough, and since no particular wage is prescribed by the Council, what is your gripe with the statement?

  • MikPazula

    @greg miller – you said that socialism means the government owns the factory. I do not think you are correct. Is not socialism the system when the workers own the factory?

    Also, a question that no one seems to be making is, why does it matter how much money another person makes? The Waltons are drowning in their profits. This is true. When I was young I never dreamed that I would have a home, two cars, money in the bank and two children who are finished with college and loan free. I am in no way rich, by today’s standards. I am a robber baron by the standards of the day I was born.

    While the love of money is the root of all evil, it is also true that coveting your neighbor’s boat, or flat panel is a big problem. Stooping to covet the property of another seems not only to be bad theology, but also bad economics. It is based on the belief that the only way for one person to own anything is at the expense of someone else who no longer can own it, since there is a limited supply. It is the idea that there is only one pie. The genius of Sam Walton is that he realized that if you bake another pie, more people will buy pie – and ice cream to put on top – if the price is right.

    • “@greg miller – you said that socialism means the government owns the factory.”

      MikPazula, care to quote where I said that? Because I’m pretty sure I never said that. As for the observation on the danger and temptation in modern society to covet the wealth of the rich, and therefore sin in doing so, I quite agree.

  • all of your comments miss the fact about who the real poverty maker is. The FED inflating the money supply along with artificial resource shortages caused by over regulation. In a freer market system not only profits fall to a uniform rate, prices also fall while wages also naturally rise to a uniform level with productivity.

    If you rob from productivity, capital, production falls, profits and prices rise and wages fall. Add in the value of the currency constantly dropping and you have today’s world and the push and pull for unionization and the socialism of distributism. All band aid solutions
    to cover up the gangrene causing the real infection. Without knowledge of valid
    economics this religious social justice is just interventionary nonsense.

    Wall mart allows the poor to by more with their money, offsetting inflation. If you social
    reformers would attack the real cause of inflation you would help the poor far
    more and far better than you do now by attacking companies. Then prices would drop naturally every year.

  • Michael Bender, president of Walmart West, offers some perspective:

    Well-meaning people following the Walmart “protests” should suspend their assumptions about what our associates think of their jobs for a moment and consider what’s really going on here. Our associates are hardworking women and men who have chosen to work for us – as a part-time job or a long-term career. They are proud of their jobs and, contrary to popular belief, quite happy in them. Only about 100 out of our 1.3 million people took part in Black Friday “protests”; the people you saw on TV do not work for us.

    And yet some unions, as well as community activists, academics and others, keep volunteering to speak for our associates. Some of it may come from a good place, but, frankly, it assumes that our associates don’t know what’s best for their own lives and families.

    [ … ]

    Our associates know the truth: We typically pay as much or more than the competition, the majority of our associates work full time, and entry-level pay often exceeds that of union hires. We offer quarterly bonus opportunities and have paid out $550 million in cash bonuses this year. We also offer careers, not just jobs: 75 percent of our store management teams started as hourly associates, and we’ve promoted 165,000 associates this year. Of those we hired last year, 20 percent were rehires – meaning they worked for Walmart, left, but came back. I could go on, but the bottom line is we are offering competitive jobs, and we treat our associates fairly.

    Read more:

  • Walmart was disastrous for Clarksville, Texas. It opened, forced a huge variety of small businesses owners out of business, THEN LEFT. Most of the families have since moved to Paris, Texas. You must not have been around to experience the full effect Walmart had on Clarksville.

    • Jump

      Disasters happen and we should extend our charity as individuals toward those in our circles to whom it happens. Whether it’s a “disaster” to Clarksville might be undesirable, but that’s irrelevant for assessing the moral worth of Walmart’s being there and later leaving. What’s relevant is whether someone was wronged by Walmart simply in virtue of moving in and then leaving. But who was wronged in virtue of that? Was it the business owners who went out of business? One isn’t wronged by that per se. Was it the remaining families in the town when the rest of the familiies moved out? Nothing immoral about moving away. Who was wronged, then, in light of Walmart’s coming and going? The answer is no one.

      Moreover, the author was making the case that poor people benefit from Walmart, rather than being–of necessity–made worse off. The fact that the town later collapsed when Walmart left does not falsify that. It may only show something descriptive–for instance, the number of people who had been able to get jobs working for Walmart!

  • No problem. I thought that might have been the case….

  • Jump

    Terri, I don’t know what you’re talking about. I gave a rebuttal of what you said. You think what I said is false. Surely you’re a reasonable person and not just letting emotion steer the ship here. Wouldn’t you at least like to show what the mistake is?

  • Really?