Saturday, December 16, 2006

Libertarians against Wal-Mart?

I have a love-hate relationship with the megalith grocery/all-stuff store Wal-Mart. I do not like the quality of the product, nor the way that it is presented, but it is the only store in the area that I can afford. Some folks that I have talked to, and I'm sure everyone at, look at my askance when I say that I am a) libertarian (with a little 'l') and b) anti-Wal-Mart. How do these two things go together? Very well, I think.

I certainly do not offer the traditional critique of Wal-Mart on offer: low wages for workers, sex discrimination, and whatever. Many of the usual suspects have (to my mind) not yet been proved. Plus, with wages, that is a matter of contract between employee and employer, subject to determination of skill, competence, and actual need of an employer. So those things, until I hear more conclusive evidence, do not really concern me.

Wal-Mart itself is not the problem. Instead, Wal-Mart is a wonderful symptom of something that should worry libertarians of all stripes a great deal: the loss of self-sufficiency and local self-government. For all its benefits, the modern industrial-global capitalist economy is based four-square on debt. Debt, as R.J. Rushdoony made stunningly (and incredibly presciently) clear in Politics of Guilty and Pity, paves the way for the volume discounter. If you are in debt, your desire for quality over quantity, lastingness over transientness, and local over monetarily cheap declines rapidly. In a debt economy, you have no time or resources for such things. Add to this the fact that new products/ideas on the market tend to be initially more expensive (until demand drives the prices down), does not help local markets or "fair" trade markets. What Wal-Mart represents is the overall societal urge to have more instead of have better. It is the symptom, not the disease.

Libertarians, unfortunately, sometimes seem enamoured with whatever the "market" (which, they rightly contend, is controlled by human action) does, whether or not it actually fits in with their theories. Wal-Mart does provide the valuable service of many consumer goods at decent prices to the largest amount of people possible. But, this is not the only economic factor to count in. Efficiency, which libertarians, especially the Chicago School, are known for touting, is a slippery term. Efficient in regards to what? If the reduction of waste is concerned, then places such as Wal-Mart cannot really be considered efficient. How much product is thrown out? How many man-hours are wasted due to the industrial work environment that saps the strength out of workers and causes them to be unproductive (anyone spending any amount of time in Wal-Mart knows the look that many of the employees have). What about the inefficiency of mass transportation of goods or the genetic altering of goods to "make" them in season all year round?

Self-sufficiency--personal, familial, and neighborhood-local--would seem to be important values to libertarians. Many, alas, are more concerned with national economics and how to change them. This is an important concern, but nothing will change nationally until the local places alleviate the "need" for big government/corporations to provide the basics of human life: food, shelter, health-care, elderly/young care, "jobs", defense, and all the other things that the socialist welfare-warfare "provides".

Maybe if we took the advice of others, traditionally outside of libertarian circles, such as Wendell Berry, we would see the economic and social (two big emphases of libertarians) costs of guiding our principles solely (and reductively) on efficiency.

The future of libertarianism? A see a Dooyeweerdian-Van Tillian libertarianism that emphasizes the equal creation of the one (individualism) and the many (community), that sees that liberty and shalom go together and do not necessarily equal technological progress (although it is a part of the picture), and that combines the virtues of Christ and his people with good economic sense (which, in theory, they possess already).

1 comment:

brian said...

Have you read Bill Kauffman's Look Homeward, America? He is not a libertarian (he labels himself an anarchist in the traditions of Day and Tolstoy), but thesis (the death of local communities) is very much in agreement with this post.