Wednesday, May 26, 2004

Vermont: An Endangered Species

So it seems that the National Trust for Historic Preservation has listed Vermont as "endangered," due to a sinister threat from Walmart.

One could mock the arrogant elitists who think that other people should be forced to pay more at quaint stores. More power to those who are happy paying more for their bread and butter, but some of us are working hard to stay alive out here.

But I have a sneaking sympathy for the elitists, just the same. I mourn the passage of the oddities of the world. Certainly a life raising sheep in the Scottish Highlands, or busting sod on the vast prairie, or fishing in small, leaky boats is not one I'd choose over a life of relative comfort in suburbia, but I still can be sorry that those times have passed and want to preserve the beautiful things that ordinary people were able to make out of adversity.

I do shop at Walmart, every week as a general rule. But until last month I religiously bought my meat at Wilson's Meat Locker down the street from DOB's family, where the owner knew my name and inquired about how the baby was doing. The meat wasn't as cheap as I could have scrounged by scouring sales, but it was reasonably priced, from local sources, and I don't think any chain store would have offered me bottom round roast for the same price as chuck just because they were out of chuck. (Indeed, they wouldn't even offer me Orville Redenbacher popcorn for less when they were out of store brand, leading to a tragic Sunday night without popcorn.) But last month the shop went out of business after several decades. As I went in to pick up my last meat order, I heard the owner on the phone, griping, "I could never charge enough to make up for all the hassle of running this business these days."

The real threat to small businesses does not come directly from big businesses underselling them. Walmart undersold Wilson's, but Wilson's had its own niche that offset Walmart's price advantage. The threat comes from government regulations that make it too difficult to operate a business. A huge chain can spread out the costs of complying with the government over a much greater area, lowering its costs (and thus allowing it to lower its prices while still making a profit). Further, a big business has the clout to lobby for exemptions.

It doesn't take too much imagination or research to come up with more advantages big businesses have that are due to government interference rather than some supposed excess of the free market. "Eminent domain" takings of private land to then be resold to private developers. Restrictive zoning laws that melt away in the face of a large potential tax base. Special grants to assist businesses and special tax breaks to help only the favored few.

The trouble is, it's those people who are now clamoring against Walmart who created the regulatory system that favors the large and the powerful businesses over the small, local ones. Government interference, no matter how well-intentioned, will always serve the interests of the large, the wealthy, and the well-organized, because they are the ones who have the resources to figure out how to get on the state's good side. Whereas the free market just might favor the guy down the street who cuts you a special deal on roast.

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