When Ignorance Borders on Stupidity

On more than one occasion this year, I have either been involved in a discussion/argument over economics and social issues with a colleague, or been bystander to one, usually walking away shaking my head and mumbling some choice profanity under my breath. I've resigned myself to listening to periodic tripe from intelligent and mostly competent adults completely ignorant about the basics of economics, markets, and private property. Given that this type of personality needs to vent emotionally about that which it cannot think rationally, I've concluded that working relationships are better preserved if these individuals receive a cordial smile while basking in their ignorance.

Recently, Thomas Sowell discussed the latest vitriol directed at WalMart from the usual suspects: academia and media. Once again, WalMart was being excoriated for its lack of 'compassion' towards its employees. As we've all heard on numerous occasions, WalMart does not pay its employees a 'living wage,' something the self-ordained elitists remind us is the 'social responsibility' of corporate giants. In case any of you have forgotten, big companies have a duty to pay their employees what benevolent third parties in ivory towers and shiny, tall buildings determine is fair, the market be damned.

One of my colleagues is always bashing WalMart. He's not the only one of my colleagues critical of WalMart for the same irrational and ignorant reasons, but I share an office with him, so it is from his barbs that I am stuck the most. All the clich's cited by Sowell, the 'living wage,' 'social responsibility,' and even the 'social contract' we are all supposedly bound by, have been used by my colleague in his attacks on WalMart. Only WalMart, it seems, is an evil corporate giant in the world of retail and bulk merchandising. Target, Kmart, and Costco, are all legitimate corporations. Evidently, they pay their employees a 'living wage,' so he will patronize them at the expense of WalMart. Fine with me; if this is the free country so many people claim that it is, he's free to shop wherever he chooses.

My friend's problem, as I told him during our first economic argument, is that he and others who think like him know little to nothing about real freedom, the functioning of markets, and private property. In his convoluted world, freedom only extends to individuals so long as they do not resist the collective will, enforced through the mythical 'social contract,' in deciding how much of the individual's property and liberty must be surrendered to the interests of the state (the 'community'). Markets are too impersonal to be trusted to operate on their own without strict supervision, much like the corporate monsters who exploit their employees. As with any other economic and political reasoning based in fascism, private property exists in name only, with decisions for use ultimately made by the state, while sparing it all the headaches associated with possession.

What about the argument, and his contention as well, that WalMart does not pay a 'living wage'? Let's forget, once again, that in a truly free society, we would not even be discussing such a point.

Being a teacher, I sometimes look to supplement my income with summer employment. Recently I applied for a part-time job at Target for an early morning shift. The wage being offered was $6.50 an hour. Is that a living wage? When I lived in northern Arizona , I worked part-time at WalMart, during the same time segment of the day, yet I was paid $8 an hour. WalMart paid a differential for employees working that shift. Even without the differential, the wages were still higher at WalMart. What about the part-time position at Target? Besides paying adequate wages, shouldn't corporate giants also provide their employees enough hours to make the money necessary to support a family (and qualify for company-provided health insurance as well)?

I'm not complaining about Target as a corporation or about the wages the company was offering. During the interview I sat through, the supervisor said that she was short a full crew by about twelve people. Well, people who understand markets know how to make that problem go away: increase the price offered in exchange for labor. Was Target going to do that? Probably not. My impression was that they would hire who they could to make up some of the shortfall and keep the wage being offered the same. Employees working that shift might not work as hard as before, but they would still be working harder than they would under optimal conditions. Is that shirking social responsibility and compassion? If you think so, then don't work for Target on the early morning shift.

That is your choice, as it is Target's choice to offer whatever wages it thinks appropriate and see how the market of people looking for work responds. As I told my colleague, he and those who think like him can choose not to shop at WalMart, they can spew their hatred of the corporation, and then go into an irrational tirade about the underlying evil of the capitalist system, but they have no right to energize their ignorance into action or embark on a crusade that limits the choices available to me and my family in seeking out the products we use, with ample choices, and at the best possible prices. If they find the existence of WalMart so repugnant, with its supposed lack of sympathy for low-income families, let them open their own retail giant and operate it according to the principles they espouse. It won't be long before economic reality hits them square in the face and they are forced to either sing a different tune or dry up and blow away with the wind.

What really inhibits my colleague and others like him from seeing economic issues clearly is a profound level of ignorance, bordering on stupidity. As any teacher will attest, you never want to think of any of your students as stupid, only ignorant, because they lack sufficient knowledge to understand specific topics. But when ignorance placates people to the point that they do nothing to educate themselves to reality, even making them arrogant and self-righteous about their ignorance, then the rest of us should have no qualms about treating them as the truly stupid, even dangerous, people they are.

In all fairness to my colleague, he did acknowledge later on, and not even grudgingly, that every opinion he holds about economic issues is rooted in pure emotion. Maybe there's hope for him yet. He, and others like him, have not yet grasped what Thomas Sowell said about wealth: 'Ultimately it is only wealth that can reduce poverty.' Wealth accumulated by innovation, entrepreneurship, individuals, and corporations. Wealth free to move through market forces, not according to 'social contracts,' 'social responsibility,' or through 'living wages.'

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Columns on STR: 37

Harry Goslin lives in eastern Arizona.