October 12, 2003

Stupid Conservative Myth #8

Here's another myth held by idiots:

Liberals believe that businesses create oppression and governments create prosperity.

Do liberals believe this? Not in such absolute terms, but I do think this statement goes to the sympthies of liberals, for better or worse. I think a better way to state the general liberal viewpoint is that when businesses control a given aspect of our lives (for example, if schools were privatized nationwide) then they have far less accountability than the government. Accountability is a strong check against corruption in politics, and if you want to see a government in which a few business and a few powerful families control everything, just check out Mexico sometime.

Do businesses themselves create oppression? Only with help. For example, when a new Wal-Mart moves into the neighborhood, they tend to crowd out other businesses by competing on the basis of price and efficiency. They also tend to depress wages because they make up a large fraction of the low-skill retail jobs. And the reason they can get by paying so little is because they are very firmly anti-union, and that can only happen when the law and the government (which is supposed to enforce the law to prevent such oppression) is on their side.

So customers should shop elsewhere, right? The magic market will punish Wal-Mart by having them lose business due to protests or what have you. No, not exactly. Sure, people have a responsibility to get themselves educated about the what is going on and then make their choice on where to shop if that's a priority. But in the end, the cheap prices trump just about everything.

However, the prices at Wal-Mart do not accurately reflect the cost to society of manufacturing and selling the product. If Wal-Mart weren't able to squash unions, for example, that would drive up wages at their stores and subsequently drive up prices. They would then be less able to drive other places out of business, and we would not only have people making something closer to a living wage, but we'd have more of a diversity of products and services. Maybe they wouldn't be delivered as efficiently as Wal-Mart, but maybe that's a small price to pay for the benefits.

So who is at fault for Wal-Mart ruining the neighborhood, proverbially? Is it the consumers who are voting with their feet? Is it the government for lack of oversight? Shouldn't the consumers get to be the ones who decide where they get to shop? Yes, sure, but consumers should also get to decide issues that revolve around their quality of life. The same consumers who are shopping at Wal-Mart have also expressed a preference over the decades for unionized labor (though that has seriously declined in the last 20 years), for living wages, for family-friendly environments at work, etc. They express this preference by voting, actually voting, not shopping.

They vote to give governments the power to check certain business practices deemed harmful to the community. For example, if a strip club opens next door to my house, which is next door to the elementary school, then it may get tons of business. But the neighborhood citizens have the right, through government, to restrict certain things, even though they may be prosperous. So it isn't a black-and-white, get-the-gummint-off-our-backs issue.

I would say that businesses usually do not create oppression. They instead create jobs, prosperity, and quality of life. But *some* businesses, when they get too monopolistic or too involved in self-regulation (i.e. oil industry executives writing laws to govern pollution) can definitely create a problem, because there is no effective check to balance their power. That situation is also called "crony capitalism", and it can bring countries to ruin if it goes too far. We've seen it happen all over the world, most recently in the Pacific rim countries in Asia.

Does government then create prosperity? No, but it sure enables it. By providing a set of laws governing contracts, businesses, consumers, etc., the government gives a framework in which capitalism can thrive. But don't kid yourself and think we have some kind of pure capitalism in this country. Far from it. The government subsidizes new inventions, new businesses, etc. all the time. Some businesses exist solely to service the government (for example, the defense industry).

Government certainly has *something* to do with prosperity. If it were otherwise, we wouldn't have kicked Russia's ass in the Cold War and left them in such a sorry state today while we thrive. So I think it would be more accurate to say that liberals believe in a capitalism (well, most of them ... there are still some socialists and communists, sure, but every group has its fringe) that is tempered by smart government. Conservatives like to say they don't want gummint interfering in business, but they sure don't turn down the subsidies when they get handed out.

Posted by Observer at October 12, 2003 08:13 AM

Comments on entries can only be made in pop-up windows while those entries are still on the main index page. Sorry for the inconvenience this causes, but this blocks about 99.99% of the spam the blog receives.

I have two sisters. One is a liberal, one is a conservative. (Us 4 siblings are split 50-50, which makes for interesting conversations. I'll get to my brother in a bit.) The liberal sister has 3 kids and lives her entire consumer life in chain stores, chain restaurants, and chain services (i.e. hair, dry cleaning, etc.) The conservative sister has no children (by choice) and will frequent such places for convenience, but sometimes goes out of her way to find an interesting local retailer or restaurant.

Both of these consumer lifestyles reflect very closely the personality of my two sisters. The liberal is not very adventurous and just has a job to get done. Quantity over quality is her deal. The conservative sister has a good amount of time (and money) on her hands, and she is willing to go the extra mile for something worthwhile. (Especially a good golf game.)

Then comes my even more conservative brother. He and his wife LIVE for Wal-Mart and other chain stores. It's like the big excursion of the week for them. He and his wife are even less adventurous than my Liberal Sister, such that they can't even fathom seeking out any other dining experience than standard "A-mer-kin" or bad Tex-Mex from a chain, or delve into a small local shop instead of a mall. This, like my sisters, is a very strong reflection of my brother's personality.

I'm the other liberal sibling (and the baby of the family). I will NOT shop at a Wal-Mart. I will shop at other chain stores, but Wal-Mart is on my permanent shit list. I will seek out smaller retailers when I find it interesting and useful. I love to explore small independent restaurants of just about any kind. And (I'm sure you can all hear it coming) this reflects my own personality.

Anyway, I'm not sure what the point of all that is. Other than to say that people choose their consumer experiences differently. Some people just want to get something done, and fast. Others like to be adventurous and find the little out-of-the-mainstream places that often have wonderful, but sometimes pricey, finds.

As for the idea that business creates opression, etc.... I agree, mostly. Some bigger businesses spin off start ups, and that's good. But most just squash small enterprise, and that pisses me off.

Posted by: Perkusi on October 12, 2003 08:33 PM

I forgot to mention that my brother is a small-town lawyer who makes a good deal of money in estate law and other small-town lawyer biz. His wife is a full-time teacher. Their house and cars are paid off, and they put away a good deal of their income in retirement savings. The rest goes to supporting my nephew, who is 21 and pretty much a slacker (but that's a whole other story). That means that their money isn't creating any new jobs. They aren't spending it on any new big ticket items or fancy excursions. It's sitting like a lump in some interest-bearing account. I suspect their tax cut is going right into that account and not one penny goes to any kind of job-creating purchase. Yay Shrub.

Posted by: Perkusi on October 13, 2003 09:19 AM

Wal-Mart ... now there's a predatory crew.

Don't for an instant believe that they don't have lots of government help. Get yourself a highway map of Arkansas. There's a couple of interstates that come in from the west, merge at Little Rock, and go off east to Memphis.

There's also a weird interstate-grade highway that shoots off northeast from Little Rock. It gets about halfway toward the edge of the state and ends out there, in the middle of nowhere, as near as you can tell from the map.

What's at the end of that nice state-paid freeway? In 1986, when I made this discovery by driving that road, it was the national distribution center for Wal-Mart. Nice of the good people of America and Arkansas to buy Mr Walton a nice 100-mile-long interstate-grade driveway, eh?

Posted by: Feff on October 13, 2003 12:23 PM

I have family up in those parts, Feff, so I appreciate the new roads. :-P

But yeah, you're right. Fed dollars sure did help out that "little guy" Wal-Mart.

My dad worked for Mr. Walton in his first five-and-dime stand alone store in Bentonville, Arkansas. Things just snowballed from there. But at least I can say that the very depressed towns in that northwest region of Arkansas have benefited from Wal-Mart's success. Problem is, local merchants where I live now can't compete. Fine lines, these are.

Posted by: Perkusi on October 14, 2003 08:10 AM