There seems to be a common theme in modern libertarian thought that stresses the merits of giant corporate enterprises, claiming that they are infinitely superior to smaller, less capitalized, local businesses. One article that I read extolled the virtues of chain bookstores versus their benighted independent “competition.” My interest here is personal: I work part-time at the last remaining local independent bookstore in DeKalb, Illinois, which is now going out of business. When I realized that I needed a break from my research, could use some additional spending money, and wanted to enjoy the company of intelligent, literate people, my first choice was to work at my favorite bookstore. Now, a major bookstore chain has moved here, and the city has announced that the new store will get government subsidies through a special taxing district. My employer has never been subsidized.
I have been a customer at this local bookstore virtually since it first opened its doors. I have also happily spent my meager funds in the other locally owned and operated stores and restaurants that have graced my favorite town for many years. I realize, of course, that the independent merchants do not offer the huge selection found at the chain stores. Local vendors’ prices are generally higher as well. So how is it that I, a seasoned graduate of the Mises University, am so obtuse as to choose not to optimize my utility by buying my goodies at the lowest possible price?
With all due respect to those tainted by Jacobinism, who think that “Economic Man” is an actual human being and a role model for us all, I perceive that there are other costs associated with focusing merely on the stated prices for goods and services. For example: A relative of mine lives in a small, rural Iowa town. He is increasingly concerned about the declining viability of its downtown business district. Yet, whenever there is some shopping to be done, he hops into his luxury car and speeds to the Wal-Mart in a nearby town. My father has chided him for this. If he does not patronize local merchants, how can he expect locally owned businesses to survive, much less prosper?
Supporting local businesses is a value, as is buying for the lowest possible price. I have noticed that, despite my rigorous professional training in value-free public administration, my fellow municipal bureaucrats still believe that keeping a town prosperous is a worthy goal, even if only to keep the income stream from sales taxes flowing into the municipal coffers. Economic Man believes that the lowest possible purchase price optimizes the utility of everyone. If this means that local endeavors fall by the wayside and are crushed by larger corporations, then, by the iron laws of Business Darwinism, that is just fine and dandy.
Community Man, however, takes a different view. He recognizes that money spent at a chain store tends to leave town as fast as most bank robbers. Local merchants may be a greedy lot, but they have roots in the community and a vested interest in its overall health. Management personnel at chain stores, on the other hand, are transferred frequently. I suspect that this is done deliberately so that the seeds of community never manage to sprout in them and they develop loyalty to their corporate masters, not to their neighbors in the places they briefly live during their transitory careers. For these managers, the towns and cities where they reside during their travels tend to blur together.
While traveling in central Texas a few years back, I was bypassing Dallas-Fort Worth on the interstate highway. Suddenly, it struck me: The place looked vaguely familiar. How could this be? I had not driven there before. Then it became obvious: The billboards along the highway, the architecture of the buildings, and even the landscaping all looked the same there as they do in northern California, urban Colorado, eastern Massachusetts, the lower Hudson Valley in New York, or the Yuppie Belt surrounding Chicago.
During my thankfully brief fling with yuppiedom years ago, I bought the obligatory copy of Dress for Success. (While the book did not help me much, I gave it to a close friend who has since excelled in his chosen profession, married a gorgeous former singing star, and fathered two gifted and exceptional children.) Back then, I noted that the courageous image I had held of corporate tycoons was not necessarily accurate. An employee or sales rep calling on these firms had to conform carefully to rigid requirements regarding dress and deportment. Any departure from these norms would swiftly and surely destroy his career or, at least, preclude a sale. I thought this odd. Should not the business world, so esteemed for efficiency and effectiveness, care more about substance than appearance? Apparently not.
As the years went by, I discovered that the corporate world was heavily influenced by a misperception of the military ethos—thus the uniform clothing and the rigid hierarchy of command and control. Management theorists such as Fayol openly copied military ideas. According to these theories, in business, as in the military, most people are interchangeable, expendable cannon fodder. It is not surprising that corporate culture cultivates a certain blandness and similarity. Those who can conform to the corporate rules (the sheep) tend to “get ahead,” while the rest of us (the goats) are discarded by Darwinian forces of nature and go elsewhere.
I have noticed that those who support subsidized chain stores moving into DeKalb tend to say such things as, “At last we are moving up in the world! Now we can shop just like everyone else!” In other words, “success” and “making it” as a city depend on being just like everyone else. These people tend to give short shrift to the local merchants who have worked long and hard to satisfy local tastes and have a real stake in the community.
Now, I realize that some libertarians really believe that the free market will automatically solve the problems of community, just like it solves every other problem. Indeed, the market will come into play, but so does the Law of Unintended Consequences. The initially low price of items purchased at major chain retailers is definitely attractive. It is also something that can be immediately ascertained. However, there are other cost factors. Downtown areas of our towns and cities tend to become more run-down as local merchants have less and less money to spend on upkeep. As downtown businesses fail at an accelerating rate, passersby heading to the malls on the outskirts of town may take note of the boarded-up storefronts. Other less savory businesses may move in to take advantage of declining rents. Eventually, the area becomes thoroughly blighted. Most of the buildings either are abandoned or house those businesses that cater to vice rather than virtue. If there is any civic pride left, the citizenry may demand that the municipal government “do something about the downtown.”
While the aforementioned libertarians might view this as akin to summoning the forces of darkness, this is what commonly occurs. This is not a case of “market failure.” The fallout from the general tendency to make purchases solely on the basis of price changes the venue from an economic market to a political one. This is where people like me have to ride to the rescue. Keeping downtowns viable is one of the most pressing concerns in municipal governance and administration these days. One community development director told me that it costs roughly six times more to fix up existing structures than to build new ones in green fields. Yet, he said, it is imperative to foster this sort of renovation because that is the best way to avoid decline and decay. He strongly supports code enforcement in existing structures as a means to this end.
While it may come as a shock to many libertarians, a fair number of us in local government public administration have a strong degree of paleoconservative sentiment. One of my former bosses once accurately characterized a rent-seeking developer (to his face) as a “damned socialist” on a local talk-radio show. Many of us do our best to use market processes whenever possible in order to maintain and renovate the municipalities where we toil. We try very hard to enhance the sense of community in our towns, while minimizing tax liabilities for citizens. The better sort of administrators try to avoid government subsidies.
My experience has taught me that the best way to minimize local government interference in the free market, maintain a healthy and diverse local business community, and strike a blow against ugly corporatist conformity is to avoid patronizing mega-retailers, except as a last resort. There is no reason why we cannot do our part to maintain the individuality, charm, and vitality of our own communities by supporting them in their entrepreneurial ventures with civic pride, economic wisdom, and enlightened purchasing habits. Take into account the full cost of your purchases. Patronize stores owned by your friends and neighbors. If their stock does not include what you want, ask them to place an order. Most local shops are very happy to oblige their customers. The prices at these small businesses may seem higher, but you are really buying a better community in which to live.
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