Sunday, July 08, 2007

The Civilization of Wal-Mart

San Diego's looking to keep Wal-Mart out of its--er--small town, to be holding a ballot next year. According to an editorial by Gerry Braun, some have suggested that the ballot read: "Would you undermine civilization as we know it in exchange for some cheap groceries?" One must wonder what those voices propose for other ballots.

There is no doubt that the presence of a Wal-Mart changes a community. Some stores disappear. Other stores take their place. But undermine civilization? It certainly changes civilization, but the same can be said for cars, the Internet, and cell phones. "Undermines" suggests something sinister. Now you might complain that the changes are undesirable (as Robert Putnam claims changes in technology are), but one must wonder: if the result is so awful, why are people voluntarily making that change happen?

At its core, economics is the study of choice. That study requires that we recognize people do not choose simply between the ideal and the imperfect. It is not a matter of either utopia without Wal-Mart or an apocalypse with it. Otherwise, no one would shop at Wal-Mart. Clearly there is something to gain. The continued success of the company (as well as the continued attempts to remove it as an option) suggests people like the civilization it creates more than the one they would otherwise have. The only thing truly undermining civilization is the misguided thinking that what people actively pursue shouldn't be allowed if others don't want it.

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