No One Makes You Shop at Wal-Mart

Cover of “No One Makes You Shop at Wal-Mart: The Surprising Deceptions of Individual Choice”

I have been seriously impressed by Tom Slee’s book “No One Makes You Shop at Wal-Mart: The Surprising Deceptions of Individual Choice”. It’s an accessible guide to economic game theory and an impassioned critique of market popularism. Slee is obviously an activist, but also has a measured, academic approach to economic theory. What is great is that he uses standard economic theory and simple illustrations to make a case for the necessity of collective action for solving our problems. It shows how far MarketThink dominates popular discourse that such a minimal plea comes across as radical. “No One Makes You Shop at Wal-Mart” is a lively and intelligent guide to how good individual choices can lead to regretable outcomes, and the ideas in it are essential tools for intellectual self-defence.

Book website

Blog of the book

5 replies on “No One Makes You Shop at Wal-Mart”

From the book’s website :

“Of course, Jack was not the only person in Whimsley to be making choices, and that is where his problems started. Like him, many other people started to shop at Wal-Mart. The smaller department stores downtown started to have troubles, and gradually they went out of business.

Wal-Mart became the only department store in Whimsley. Jack had to shop at Wal-Mart all the time, like it or not. As a result, Jack’s points for variety moved down to just a single point. Jack wanted more variety, but instead he got less. With the closing of the downtown department stores, Jack was down to six points per week again. He was as happy as before Wal-Mart came, but no happier. That’s not too bad. At least Jack was no worse off than he was before.

But Jack’s problems did not stop there. Once the downtown department stores closed, the slower customer traffic in the area meant that other stores closed too. Now downtown is not so interesting anymore: a number of shops are boarded up, others have been replaced by dollar stores, and the buildings are shoddy. Jack does not enjoy walking past the rundown area on the way to work. It gives him no pleasure. No points.

Now Jack has only four points per week. He is less happy than he was before Wal-Mart came.

In the beginning Jack made a choice that he believed would make him happier, but now he finds that he is less happy.”

My first question is very simple: why does the story end there ? Why does the author assume that Wall-Mart will be the only shop in town (assuming that ever happens in real life…) until the end of times ? My second question is even simpler : what does he want to replace consumer choice with ?

First question: flippantly, the story *doesn’t* end there, this is the beginning of the book! Less, flippantly, and in answer to the second question too, the primary aim of the book is to highlight the reality of market failure, not to explore alternatives.

The book argues for the necessity of collective action, but doesn’t dwell on the details of what this involves. I sense that you’ll object that collective action is a euphamism for some kind of state coercion and that although everybody knows markets are imperfect they are better than all alternatives. That’s a larger question, which is certainly relevant to the aims of the book but, however, does not bear on the minimal agenda of the book – that is, to show, contra the rhetoric of market popularism, that choices do not equal preferences, the suboptimal situations can still be stable despite a competative market and that free exchange can still be coersive.

I can’t see any “market failure” in what this guy is writing about. I can only see the market’s failure to guarantee the outcome that he thinks is desirable. I also find it a bit rich to state that a (virtual) monopoly would be a “failure” if you in fact defend government monopolies.

Moreover, I am not trying to make an easy rhetorical point by pointing out that a static view of the economy doesn’t make sense. Many people who defend markets make the same mistake. There is no such thing as a point of perfect equilibrium that a market could reach and on which it then it could then stay. That’s why his stopping the story at the point where Wal Mart has consolidated its evil grip shows he does not understand economics or is in bad faith.

Finally, there is a moral point to be made here. Your action does not guarantee that you’ll obtain the best possible personal outcome, I absolutely agree. But that is because other people also have a say in the matter and that you have no more rights than they have. It’s easy to highlight the less pleasant aspects of a free economy, but failing to mention what you would propose to put in its place is, I think, intellectually and morally indefensible.

No, Slee doesn’t think the economy is static. It’s unfair to judge him by a single example from the beginning of his book. If you’re going to introduce concepts one point at a time then you need to start somewhere. The rest of the book makes it clear that he doesn’t consider this example the end of the matter.

Also, you say “Your action does not guarantee that you’ll obtain the best possible personal outcome, I absolutely agree. But that is because other people also have a say in the matter and that you have no more rights than they have” but Slee’s point is to elicidate situations where *nobody* gets what they want, because of the situation (eg lack of coordinated decision making), not just because some people’s decisions impose on others.

Finally, I disagree that it is illegitimate to discuss the dynamics of markets without proposing an alternative — how would we ever come up with alternatives to markets if we are prohibited from thinking about them?

Why is it unfair to point out that his starting point does not make economic sense ?

What proves his premise, namely that nobody is happy with Wall-Mart ?

Finally, my problem with this guy is not that he thinks about markets, but that what I have seen about his thinking is unsound. In real life, monopolies only exist if they are enforced by governments. The only economic system in which people did not have a choice of where to shop was communism. In “capitalist” countries, people do have choices because markets create the maximum range of choices possible. It makes sense to argue that this choice is a bad thing because it damages the environment, harms morality and whatnot. But to state that markets reduce choice is simply false.

Anyway, if Slee corrects that later in the book, I’d be glad to read about it and make amends. 😉

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