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Wal-Mart and Food

A good rule of thumb to follow these days is that any book or article that blames Wal-Mart for some real or imagined evil should not be taken seriously.  The meme “Wal-Mart is a destructive sorcerer spreading poverty and hardship throughout the world” is now so ingrained in the minds of so many Very Smart And Well-Read People that accusations against Wal-Mart are met with too little skepticism and scrutiny.  It’s now a ritual to blame Wal-Mart — and following this ritual, while it might sell books and make the heads of Very Smart And Well-Read People nod, too often signals mental laziness or analytical weakness or both.

The above paragraph was prompted by reading a review in today’s New York Times Book Review, as was the following letter:

John T. Edge – reviewing Paul Roberts’s apocalyptic book “The End of Food” – quotes Mr. Roberts’s claim that today’s “food system can only truly be understood as an economic system” (“Nothing to Eat,” July 27).  Indeed so. Unfortunately, though, Mr. Roberts is starving for economic understanding.  Predicting that the age of abundant food is ending, he blames not only that timeworn (and mythical) scapegoat ‘overpopulation,’ but the devil du jour: Wal-Mart.

How does Wal-Mart hasten global hunger?  By continuing “to drive down retail prices to unsustainably low levels.”  But when resources become scarcer – or when people working with those resources suspect their increasing scarcity – prices rise, not fall.  Falling prices signal greater abundance.  Whether Wal-Mart is a principal cause of this greater abundance of food or, more likely, a retailer especially skilled at bringing the advantages of greater abundance to its customers, the fact that Wal-Mart continues to lower the prices it charges for food is solid evidence that we can safely ignore Mr. Roberts’s chicken-little-like assertions that we’re running out of food.

Donald J. Boudreaux


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