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Left flank’s latest crusade

- The Washington Times - Friday, May 13, 2005

The latest liberal crusade is against the Wal-Mart stores. A big headline on a long article in the New York Times asks "Can't a retail behemoth pay more?"

Of course they can pay more. The New York Times could pay its own employees more. We could all pay more for whatever we buy or rent. Don't tell me you couldn't have paid a dime more for this newspaper. But why should any of us pay more than we have to?

According to the New York Times, there is a book "by a group of scholars" due to be published this fall, arguing Wal-Mart has an "obligation" to "treat its employees better."

This can hardly be called news. Nothing is easier than finding a group of academics -- "scholars" if you agree with them -- to advocate virtually anything on any subject. Nor is this notion of an "obligation" new.

For decades, there has been lofty talk about the "social responsibility" of businesses or about a "social contract" between the generations on Social Security. Do you remember signing any such contract? I don't.

All this pious talk means is when third parties want someone else to pay for something, they simply call it a "social responsibility," an "obligation" or a "social contract." So long as we keep buying this kind of stuff, they will keep selling it.

To make such demands look like more than just the arbitrary notions of busybodies -- which they are -- some of these busybodies refer to the official poverty level, as if it were something objective rather than what it is, simply an arbitrary line based on the notions of government bureaucrats.

According to the New York Times, Wal-Mart's average employee earns an income above the poverty line for a family of three but below the poverty line for a family of four. What are we supposed to conclude from this?

The fashionable notion of "a living wage" is one that will support a family of four. And, sure enough, the New York Times finds a Wal-Mart employee who complains he is not making "a living wage." How is he living, if he is not making a living wage?

Should people be paid what they "need" instead of what their work is worth? Should they decide how big a family they want and put the cost of supporting it family on someone else?

If their work is not worth enough to pay for what they want, is it up to others to make up the difference rather than up to them to upgrade their skills to earn what they want?

Are they supposed to be subsidized by Wal-Mart's customers through higher prices or subsidized by Wal-Mart's stockholders through lower earnings? After all, much of the stock in even a rich company is often owned by pension funds belonging to teachers, policemen and others who are far from rich.

Why should other people have to retire on less money, so Wal-Mart employees can be paid what the New York Times wants them paid instead of what their labor is worth in the market? After all, they wouldn't work for Wal-Mart if someone else valued their labor more.

Nor are they confined to Wal-Mart for life. For many, entry-level jobs are a steppingstone, whether in a given company or as experience that gets them a better job elsewhere.

Think about it: The busybodies say third parties like themselves -- who pay nothing to anybody -- should determine how much somebody else should pay those who work for them.

It would be devastating to the egos of the intelligentsia to realize, much less admit, that businesses have done more to reduce poverty than all the intellectuals put together. Ultimately only wealth can reduce poverty. And most of the intelligentsia have no interest whatever in finding out what actions and policies increase the national wealth.

They certainly feel no "obligation" to learn economics, out of a sense of "social responsibility," much less because of any "social contract" requiring them to know what they are talking about before spouting self-righteous rhetoric.

Thomas Sowell is a nationally syndicated columnist.