The Silly War Against Wal-Mart

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, May 18, 2004

Sam Walton, the founder of Wal-Mart, died in 1992. Little did he know he would be remembered in certain quarters as a kind of corporate criminal. His offense? Starting a business that has brought convenience and low prices to the countless millions of Americans who roam Wal-Mart’s deliriously overstuffed aisles.

If that seems innocuous enough, you aren’t familiar with the political, economic and cultural fault line of post-millennium America. Wal-Mart, an unabashedly capitalist and bourgeois “red state” institution, is on the wrong side of that divide for self-styled progressives.

The latest front in the Wal-Mart Wars was in Inglewood, Calif. Activists screamed about a Wal-Mart proposal to build one of its superstores on 60 barren acres. Replacing barren acres with almost anything short of smut shops or crack houses would seem to be a good thing by definition, but not by the twisted logic that obtains when Wal-Mart is involved. The City Council, then voters in an April 6 referendum, stiffed the store.

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In response to Wal-Mart’s broader plan to build 40 new supercenters in California, opponents are mobilizing a coalition that includes the Nation of Islam and the once-grand civil-rights group the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. How everyday low prices violate civil rights is a mystery.

In the latest issue of National Review, writer Jay Nordlinger undertakes a spirited defense of Wal-Mart, which is the nation’s first politically incorrect discount retailer. As he writes, Wal-Mart is a standing affront to the Left, partly because it is so “gloriously, unabashedly, star-spangledly American.” Nordlinger knocks down the canards on which the anti-Wal-Mart case is built, most importantly that the store is a ruthlessly exploitative employer.

More than 90 percent of Wal-Mart employees have health insurance. Half of those get their insurance through the company, and the rest through other means, whether their parents or spouse or Medicare. Many Wal-Mart employees are young people or semiretired, and thus aren’t supporting families. Employment there can be an escalator to success. Two-thirds of the stores’ managers are former hourly employees.

Meanwhile, the competition howls about Wal-Mart for good reason — because it almost invariably gets out-hustled, out-discounted and altogether out-retailed. Yes, the killer store snuffs out charming local retailers, but most consumers simply value convenience and low prices more than charm.

All across America, shoppers have voted with their cash and charge cards. Almost a third of all disposable diapers are purchased at Wal-Mart. No other store sells more groceries, toys or furniture. This is a boon for lower-income Americans who spend a disproportionate amount of their income on retail goods. As a Federal Reserve economist has said, “Wal-Mart is the greatest thing that ever happened to low-income Americans.”

If Wal-Mart seems unstoppable, there is one force that will be its undoing, and it’s not angry protests. Eventually, some retailer will be more nimble and cunning than even Wal-Mart, and it will get — as all businesses in America do — its own capitalist comeuppance.

Rich Lowry is editor of the National Review.