This essay was originally prepared for the Illinois Policy Institute in Springfield, Illinois.
Quick! What’s easy to hate yet wildly popular? No, it’s not daytime television talk shows. It’s superstores, such as Wal-Mart Supercenters. Superstores, which sell everything from appliances and sporting goods to auto repair, gasoline, and most recently, groceries, are coming under attack.
The latest salvo came from Sen. Carol Ronen, a Chicago Democrat. Arguing that “we are losing any semblance of neighborhood flavor,” due to the presence of Costcos, Meijers, Sam’s Clubs, SuperTargets and Wal-Mart Supercenters, Ronen proposes to ban new construction of such stores. According to the Suburban [Chicago] Daily Herald, the proposal would cover “any large store that allots more than 15 percent of its space to food or pharmaceuticals,” though existing stores would not be affected.
Though it may seem absurd to try to ban a business model that serves millions every day—one stop shopping, high volume, low prices — that doesn’t keep people from trying.
Reporting on the “superstore wars” back in 1995, Reason editor Nick Gillespie collected the charges brought forth at a meeting in New England. Anti-store activists argued that such stores would “destroy your backyard,” and bring “ugliness that trashes our neighborhoods.” While they may bring low prices, they would “cost the community its soul” and “cultural heritage.” Back in Illinois, I heard such hyperbole at a public hearing in DuPage County. In 2000, Home Depot, a warehouse for homeowners, wanted to build one of their stores in Wheaton.
During the public comment section of one meeting of the plan commission, one person spoke in favor of the proposal — a man who welcomed the tax revenue the store would bring to the city. But nearly two dozen others spoke out, often to applause from the crowd, against the store.
It would be a “monstrosity,” several people said. A disaster echoed others. It would even bring death, the commissioners were warned. What if a student from a nearby high school tried to walk to the store and was hit by a car? “If you approve this, you will have blood on your hands” said one objector. Eventually, the project was nixed. Such conflicts have played themselves out elsewhere.
What’s the Solution?
An attack on supercenters is an attack on the consumers who vote with their feet.
Lower income people, who benefit the most from the competitive pressures and low prices that such stores can bring, are hurt the most. It’s no surprise, then, that wealthy communities such as Wheaton and nearby Lisle are perhaps the most hostile to supercenters: people there can afford to pay more. Sadly, though, the deliberate act of restricting competition perverts an important purpose of government: to promote an open and vigorous business climate.
In a mythical tale from nineteenth-century economist Frederick Bastiat, candle makers petitioned the government to force people to close all windows and blinds, so as to prevent “unfair competition” from the sun. Likewise, today’s critics of superstores — a motley collection of store owners and grocery employee union officials who fear competition — would use the government to promote their particular interests at the expense of the general population.
Meijer, Wal-Mart, and other large retailers have expansion plans, while population growth continues. In suburban Chicago and the rest of Illinois, land continues to be developed, with superstores being planted in former cornfields. There will be more conflicts, and more calls in the spirit of Sen. Ronen.
What should public officials do, then? Nothing. At least nothing to provide special treatment – favorable or unfavorable – to supercenters. The noise of a few dozen people at public meetings and the observable shopping patterns of millions of Illinoisans show that it’s easy to be hated — and popular.
John La Plante, a graduate of Kalamazoo College, is an adjunct scholar of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Midland, Michigan. Some of his recent Mackinac Center work addressed prison privatization and state ownership of ski resorts. Michigan legislation imposing restrictions on superstores can be monitored at MichiganVotes.org, a free, web-driven legislative database.