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The Circle Bastiat

Sweatshops, tacos, and Wal-Mart: Is there anything to criticize?

Anti-sweatshop and anti-Wal-Mart movements are usually based on arguments that are just plain wrong

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A few years ago, I wrote a Mises Daily–which I should probably update in light of the most recent research-in which I made the case that the debate about Wal-Mart is not a debate about the abuses of government power on some margins like eminent domain. The Wal-Mart debate is, for the most part, a debate about the nature and desirability of voluntary, commercial society writ large. Wal-Mart’s use of the state to steal from others via eminent domain is definitely worthy of criticism, but the typical anti-Wal-Mart case is grounded in a larger critique of commercial society. It’s use of the state to hobble its competitors via higher minimum wages and employer health care mandates also deserves criticism, but if anything, these positions have been praised rather than condemned by Wal-Mart’s more vocal critics. Similarly, the Taco Bell tomato controversy of a few years ago was based not on the kind of nuanced arguments about subtle and not-so-subtle forms of coercion that Roderick Long and others are making, but on the critics’ failure to understand or appreciate how productivity and opportunity cost determine wages in competitive markets.

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Is there room in the intellectual division of labor for libertarian criticisms of firms large and small? Undoubtedly. However, I think Walter Block’s “Libertarian Nuremberg Trial” thought experiment is useful here, especially in a world where we’re trying to use our limited time and attention to make the biggest difference. When I think of those who are guilty of the greatest crimes against liberty and dignity, firms like Wal-Mart and Yum! Brands are pretty far down the list.

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