No One Makes You Shop at Wal-Mart

In No One Makes You Shop at Wal-Mart: The Surprising Deceptions of Individual Choice, Tom Slee looks at how games theory and the theory of freedom of choice underlie most current economic thinking. Slee gives examples of how both liberal and conservative politicians in the English-speaking world hold up freedom of choice as an ideal to strive towards. But, says Slee, freedom of choice has some unrecognized effects, and he offers a wealth of entertaining examples of how freedom of choice in fact do not give us what we want.

In one example at the beginning of the book, Slee shows how the freedom to choose to shop at Wal-Mart is good for consumers at first, but then leads to less happiness for the consumer. Before Wal-Mart opens, a hypothetical person named Jack enjoys shopping at two downtown department stores: Jack gets reasonable selection and price, the variety of shopping at two stores, and the pleasure of a thriving downtown neighborhood that he gets to walk through every day on his way to work.

Then Wal-Mart opens, and now Jack’s life is lots better: now he has three stores to choose from and even better pricing because of the competition from Wal-Mart, even more variety since there are three stores to choose from and Wal-Mart is even bigger than either department store, and he still gets the pleasure of a thriving downtown. Obviously, Jack chooses to shop at Wal-Mart because it improves his life.

Improves his life, that is, until the two downtown department stores close because they can’t compete with Wal-Mart: now Jack has less variety than before Wal-Mart arrived, less variety, and little pleasure in the now-deserted downtown. Even though Jack made rational choices, Slee writes:

In the beginning Jack made a choice that he believed would make him happier, but now he finds that he is less happy…. His tale embodies the frustrating predicaments that many of us face. We have the right to make choices, and we make them sensibly, like Jack did, and yet that is not enough to lead to a happy outcome.

While we might word it a little differently, those of us in the religion business know all about this predicament. In the context of my own religious frame of reference, I might say something like: Tempting as it may be to do so, we can never make choices based simply on our own personal happiness — we always have to consider a bigger picture that includes our convenantal bonds with the wider community, particularly our covenantal bonds with those who are less fortunate than ourselves, and our covenantal bonds with (the highest ideals of humanity)(God) [pick at least one].

Slee’s book goes much deeper than the Wal-Mart example. In one of my favorite passages, Slee refers to the work of Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter:

Heath and Potter go on to make a provocative claim: that many of the supposedly anti-capitalist counterculture movements of the last 40 or 50 years have actually done more to promote capitalism than to oppose it. They argue that many on the “countercultural left” have misunderstood the nature of the consumerism they oppose, believing that consumerism is all about conformity (“little boxes made of ticky-tacky and they all look the same”) when in fact modern capitalism thrives on selling goods that allow people to distinguish themselves….

Here again, individual choice doesn’t necessarily lead to the end result desired by the individual making the choice. Here again, no surprise to anyone in the religion business, since we have long known that simply being countercultural isn’t enough.

I can’t resist mentioning that “freedom of choice” has become a watchword within my own denomination. The Unitarian Universalist Association has recently been trumpeting “freedom of choice” in the realm of placing ministers in congregations. We’ve gotten rid of the old system where denominational officials would send a short list of ministerial candidates to a congregation searching for a minister, based on a perceived match between ministers’ abilities and congregations’ needs. Now the whole process is open, and congregations can chase down whichever minister they choose, and ministers can apply for whichever congregation they please. Freedom of choice instead of some pseudo-bishop constraining choices. Everybody’s happy, right?

Wrong. Older, more experienced ministers now find that it’s harder to get a position, women are still not getting most of the highest-paid positions (even though they comprise half of all our ministers now), and I’d be willing to bet that ministers who are not white find it very difficult to find positions in the rich white suburbs. In a few years, we could find ourselves with increasing discrimination against women ministers, older ministers, and non-white ministers. Contrast this to what some United Methodist bishops are doing: deliberately placing white ministers in predominantly non-white congregations, and vice versa, in order to promote the religious values of true equality.

No One Makes You Shop at Wal-Mart: The Surprising Deceptions of Individual Choice could be a very useful book to promote reflection among people of faith who might want a little critical analysis of the seductive pull of “freedom of choice.”

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

  1. Jean

    Okay, you wrote about Wal-Mart so I have to, just have to, respond. I realize your column is as much about the direction UU is taking as it is about Wal-Mart (Yes, I did read it, Honest!), but maybe this would be useful. When I teach my students in first year writing, I always include a unit on Wal-Mart. By “unit” I mean a discrete portion of the semester we spend reading, writing, thinking, and talking about Wal-Mart, the arguments that swirl around it, the rhetoric, and the local impact and thinking about the big blue box. The notion of “freedom of choice” comes up early — isn’t it great, the students say, that we have this big store, all this stuff, 24 hours a day. Freedom to choose from all this stuff, freedom to shop there (or not). What emerges is a sense that this “freedom” is somehow an American god-given (sorry) right: if I wanna, I’m gonna.

    In our conversations in the classroom, I see my role as fleshing out the notion of freedom. (BTW I never hide my politics, which quite frankly, are pretty solidly moderate New Deal liberal, nothing more than that.) So freedom becomes more than “I say I can therefore I will even if you say I can’t”…it becomes layered with the notion of responsibility, consequences, long-term thinking, even making choices which are based on a questioning of ethical thinking: is this right.

    I never tell my students what to do. They end up telling each other, using the tools we discover (well, I show them) in class. I suppose this is all that critical thinking stuff; i don’t call it that, but most people do. I wonder, Dan, for your purposes, if congregations have study groups, or classes, or discussion groups, or whatever that talk this way? I’m sure you do all that, but I’m wondering how it occurs, I think.

    Meanwhile, you know what: don’t shop at Wal-Mart. It’s evil. Not that I want groupies or anything, but I do have a group of students who say that routinely. “Wal-Mart is evil.” They came up with that on their own. I swear.

  2. Administrator

    Hey Jean,

    The only reason I happened to mention Unitarian Universalism in this post is because I hear the “freedom of choice” rhetoric in religion all the time — and I think the people who apply that rhetoric to religion really need to think through the wider implications.

    You write: “So freedom becomes more than “I say I can therefore I will even if you say I can’t”…it becomes layered with the notion of responsibility, consequences, long-term thinking, even making choices which are based on a questioning of ethical thinking: is this right.”

    Yes indeed. Wish more people would start talking about that aspect of freedom.

  3. Administrator

    Kim: The book does in fact talk about the “tragedy of the commons,” but Slee uses game theory to articulate it a little more precisely than I’ve seen elsewhere.

  4. Pat McLaughlin

    Key point: Choice should never be mistaken for something that can be done in isolation from other things. It’s all connected. It’s all connected, all the time. All the time.

    This morning, I was tempted by Satan (I don’t believe in Satan)–in the form of my wife. I happen to abominate Wal-Mart. I refuse to shop there short of it being an only option in a life and death situation. This morning, I was pushed to the wall, having agreed to read a story for the kids at the beginning of the service as a late, last fill-in. The books I was handed as possibilities… well… they sucked. Big time. Boring, vapid, lame, and inappropriate for the service, I knew.

    Our kids are old enough that most of the books we had–that might have provided something as usable material–were purged by my wife a while ago (Satan, remember?).

    Rock. Hard Place.

    Life the last couple days was simply insane. I SHOULD have looked at the books I was handed when I got them, but I trusted….

    Tried to find a copy of “The Everything Seed” in a mad frenzy. I remembered hearing it while in Search. Dear Wife (Satan) tells me that it’s shown (online) as being available at Wal-Mart(.com — so probably available locally, too)… and asked if I’d buy it there.

    It’s now 75 minutes before I need to be there, getting miked… if I run as late as possible.

    Retro me

    Barnes and Noble. Certainly if Evil-Mart has it… and B&N opens at 9 (nota bene; our community lacks bookstores generally, and utterly lacks indies. Even to get to a B&N, it’s the next city…) Yes, they too have it (online).

    But… not in the store.

    Back online.

    I managed to find a great story, online (and for saving my hide, I’ll tout — stories with science and evolution). The kids adored it, the adults were entertained.

    And I avoided the blandishments of the Evil One (but if my wife comes and does a fan dance, don’t expect to hear from me for a while).

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