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Walmart is not a radical defender of its own rights, or of other people’s. It has obtained land through eminent domain .
And when it came to Washington, DC, it began by launching “community-relations efforts,” and it made what the Washington Post editorial board called a “voluntary agreement” to turn over millions of dollars to government and charities. Walmart, one of America’s most demonized businesses, was trying to make nice.
That didn’t work. With three Walmart stores under construction and another three planned, the city council decided this week to pass something it calls the “Large Retailer Accountability Act.” The bill, if finally enacted, would requires a narrow class of businesses—stores of at least 75,000 square feet that belong to corporations whose sales exceed $1 billion—to pay more than one and a half times the minimum wage other businesses have to pay.
If that becomes law, Walmart has said, it will shrug —at least to an extent. It will cancel the three stores still in planning stages, and it will reexamine the ones already being built. As if to say “go right ahead,” the council passed the bill even after the Post published that threat.
I’m glad Walmart is reminding the council, and by extension local officials everywhere, that it has options. It doesn’t have to do business under local laws that target it for unfair treatment. No business has to stay in business under hostile laws, and big ones can simply pass on some jurisdictions.
But we should remember that just because some local officials aren’t welcoming Walmart, that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be welcome in Washington. The real test of whether a business is welcome is whether people want to do business with it—in the case of Walmart, whether they want the jobs Walmart is willing to offer, at the pay Walmart is willing to offer, and whether they want the products Walmart is willing to offer, at the prices Walmart is willing to offer. If residents want to work for Walmart and buy from it, then politicians who interfere aren’t just violating Walmart’s rights, they’re tromping on the values of the people of Washington—and making it harder for the poor to get by. After all, rights define the system where people can pursue their values, the system of free enterprise. Rights make it possible to live in society.
And we should remember as well that negotiation doesn’t always work. If you try to get the freedom to do business as a special favor, in exchange for special favors, you may be in for an unpleasant surprise. If you want security, you need rights —and a government that respects them.