Janet Stevens recently wrote a column on Wal-Mart in which she lamented not supporting Wal-Mart’s new investment in Central Oregon. She’d heard the allegations about the nation’s biggest retailer and thought, “Bend would be better off without such an economic Goliath in our midst.” However, over time, she learned that Wal-Mart is competitive with other big-box stores in pay and benefits, plus provides those on limited budgets access to less-expensive products and services.
Stevens’ column is instructive in several ways. First, her initial “good intentions” to safeguard Central Oregon from Wal-Mart had real-life adverse consequences on people and the local economy. These consequences didn’t come to light until she drilled down on the facts that, when taken as a whole, clearly showed Wal-Mart’s positive contributions to Central Oregonians.
Second, Wal-Mart is an icon of the power of the free market — and capitalism. It provides goods, services and employment opportunities to all levels of our society. It is a diverse commercial entity. Regardless of one’s age, race or level of wealth, Wal-Mart provides “upward mobility” with employment opportunity for teens, single parents, college grads, seniors or anyone looking to better themselves through hard work and initiative. Like many corporations, Wal-Mart is deep-rooted in the local economy, supporting charities and events that we all use or attend.
Third, contrast Wal-Mart with the government’s involvement with General Motors. As GM teetered on the brink of bankruptcy, our government rewrote the rules on the treatment of creditors and put taxpayers on the hook for 60 percent of a failed business model. Rather than restructure GM’s labor costs, the government provided special tax breaks and allowed GM to partially repay a portion of the bailout with TARP funds (a program to fix our mortgage crisis) rather than through earnings gained from selling cars. GM now produces cars, like the Volt, that are heavily subsidized, with a growing portion of their auto sales going to our government’s fleet of cars. As with the U.S. Post Office, Amtrak and other government entities, the smothering hand of government stifles innovation and productivity within the workplace. Frankly, no matter how “well-intentioned” the plan was to rescue GM, it cost taxpayers — and worse, it smacks of “crony capitalism,” which is all too common in today’s government.
Finally, doesn’t Stevens’ column underscore what today’s election is all about — a choice between a centrally controlled market of “good intentions” versus a privately funded, free market economy? A government-centered economy where bureaucrats pick and choose winners with taxpayer money is far different than the land of free choice seen in capitalism. One only needs to examine Europe and its crumbling welfare state to see how central planning brings out the worst in society while leaving future generations broke under the promise of government-inspired entitlement giveaways.
Granted, the free market is much like the Wild West and scares the heck out of those who desire to see more government involvement in our economy. It’s a fact: The free market punishes failure and rewards success. The Wal-Marts of the world force small businesses to innovate, become more efficient or find niches that will sustain or grow their businesses. As Stevens writes, “Wal-Mart is the kiss of death for many small, locally owned businesses” when it moves into a local economy. Yet we can look to Newport Market, Strictly Organic Coffee, Deschutes Brewery and Les Schwab as just a few examples of locally owned businesses successfully competing with large national competitors. It’s a win for consumers, a win for the local economy and a win for the risk-taker or entrepreneur. A growing free market economy lifts all boats in the harbor — historically, it’s why we have had a large, prosperous middle class in America. “One of the great mistakes is to judge policies and programs by their intentions rather than their results.” — Milton Friedman.