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Free Wal-Mart!

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In its untiring effort to lead the United States to fascism with all possible dispatch, the California state legislature has enacted a law to save its unsuspecting citizens from groceries at Wal-Mart!

The bill, which awaits the governor’s signature, would make it impossible for Wal-Mart and other so-called big-box retail stores from competing with supermarkets. With the disingenuousness common to many edicts today, the bill would outlaw stores exceeding 100,000 square feet if they devote 15,000 square feet or more to groceries and drugs. There’s no mistaking whom that is targeted at. The bill’s sponsor, Assemblyman Dick Floyd, touts his intention to shelter smaller urban grocers from big retailers and price clubs in the suburbs.

It is easy to tell who supports the protectionist measure: labor unions (desperate to stop their precipitous decline), major supermarket chains (who likes competition?), and self-styled consumer groups (socialists masquerading as champions of the little people). Conspicuously absent from the roll: the mass of consumers.

Opponents of the bill, besides direct victims Wal-Mart, K-Mart, Target, etc., are municipal leaders, business and community associations, and the ultimate victims: consumers.

What is so asinine about the effort to outlaw the selling of groceries by Wal-Mart et al. is that those who back the law claim to believe in the rule of the people. Their legislative shenanigans should dispel that notion forthwith.

In a free market, the people truly rule. Specifically, consumers rule. They ultimately decide who stays in business and who does not. They do so by being free to buy, or not buy, from entrepreneurs, who are incessantly striving to please them. Consumers are picky and fickle. They know what they like, but they also change their minds without notice, leaving long-standing suppliers in the lurch. There’s nothing wrong with that. The economic system exists to benefit consumers. As Adam Smith said, the purpose of production is consumption, not vice versa.

It cannot be overemphasized that consumers are the boss. Every move a businessman makes has to be ratified by consumers. If not, he could be bankrupt the next day.

This truth has important implications. Strictly speaking, big discount chains cannot put small retailers out of business. Only consumers can do that. To be sure, Wal-Mart can open a big beautiful store and offer desirable products at low prices. But it can’t force anyone to buy! The decision to step into the store rests in the hands of each consumer. If enough of them head to Wal-Mart and forsake the little shop they used to patronize, they are responsible for what happens. Like it or not, let’s at least assign responsibility properly.

Contrast that form of people power with the twisted notion of power espoused by the backers of the California bill designed to thwart Wal-Mart. In their view, members of a legislature should vote on what kind of stores the people may shop at. If Wal-Mart were to defy that law and open its doors to willing customers, officers of government would close the store-by force if necessary. So while the market settles things peacefully through persuasion and trade, politics settles it by the threat-and at times the commission-of violence.

This is not to say that in a market everyone is happy with everything that takes place. A consumer who likes paying higher prices at a little retailer will be saddened if it closes after Wal-Mart opens. Grown-ups are supposed to understand that they don’t always get their way.

What makes the market superior to politics is that our right to be free from theft and other molestation is protected. If our favorite shop goes under, it will be because other people exercised their freedom and bought from someone else. When such matters are left to legislatures, politicians and special interests call the shots and empower the sheriff to interfere with peaceful commerce.

Shrouding the violent, special-interest-driven legislative process in the term “democracy” should not obscure what really happens. No one in the marketplace who defies the interests of consumers stays in business for long. Yet politicians who everyday defy the people’s interests in freedom stay in office for years. If that is democracy, freedom-loving people should want none of it.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.