May 24, 2004

Defending the Activists

In "WM Endangers Vermont", Kevin talks about the attitudes and arguments of anti-WM activists, and that it comes down to either "people are powerless" and "people are dumb". Furthermore, Kevin suggests that the "people are powerless" argument isn't a real argument anyway, and that it boils down to "people are dumb, and we must save them from their dumbness".

Now, I am far more in agreement with Kevin than with these anti-WM activists, but I think that Kevin is not giving the "people are powerless" argument a fair hearing. He argues that even if people were powerless to prevent the entry of Wal-Mart into a locality, they could nonetheless choose not to shop there, and the WM would have to close down, and that they therefore do have power.

But in fact, this could be presented as a case of the Tragedy of the Commons and the inability to co-ordinate actions. It could be asserted that every single person in the community prefers to have the prettier shops, "unique sense of place" and all that Vermontiness, even if it means they pay higher prices and have lower-paying jobs. Once the Wal-Mart was there though, it would to each individual's rational advantage to shop there---after all, the prices are lower, and a single person withholding his or her purchases won't drive out the Wal-Mart and bring back the Vermontiness. The activists see themselves as providing co-ordination for the individuals so that they can co-operate in a positive-sum game and get rid of the Wal-Mart (or prevent it from showing up) and bring back the Vermontiness that everyone (every single individual!) likes better than the greater purchasing power.

So I don't think that the argument that the "people are powerless" is completely bogus, although it might be more accurately phrased as "people are disorganized".

I think it would be better to argue against anti-WM activists on other grounds: whether every single individual does prefer more Vermontiness to greater purchasing power; what to do when only some people benefit from Vermontiness, while others would benefit from lower prices and more jobs; whether people, even in the aggregate, actually do prefer Vermontiness to more purchasing power; whether Wal-Mart actually, and necessarily, destroys Vermontiness; whether a relatively small group of activists accurately represents the interests of the community.

Posted by gkanapathy on May, 24 2004 at 01:43 PM | TrackBack

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Kevin Brancato wrote:

[Note: I don't think a simple majority would vote to ban WM expansion in Vermont, and I know that the founders of Vermont never envisioned the powers of simple democratic majority rule to cover the exclusion of private development on private land. It's simply not in the agreed-upon rules of the economic order. One can want to change those rules, as NTHP does, but that's a separate issue. See the comments in the post below.]

There's nothing like bold controversy on a Monday.

Your point about collective action is well-taken, as are the other places for better focus...

But let's assume that Vermonters en masse would like to make a precommittment to exclude WM because they think it would be in their best interests, and they've previously authorized themselves to make such a pre-committment.

That is, one can argue that people would like to enforce a ban on WM because they are weak-willed, and know that each of them, acting independently, will shop at WM because they don't think their small-towns will disappear if they don't shop there themselves. After all, they're just one customer, and they don't make or break a small retailer.

My point was, however, that if the people of Vermont are truly committed to each other and to small town communities--which is the premise of NTHP's analysis, and which is precisely the ethic that must used to overcome the shirking inherent in collective action--then regardless of the power of the local government, the WM entrants would fail.

One can disagree about the power and incentive towards shirking in such circumstances. The problems of collective action can be, and frequently are, overcome privately.

Let's look at this from another angle. Say the WM doesn't fail, because a critical number shopped at WM, and the small towns fold. Considering that many people weren't shopping in the small towns, what benefit--except for looking at the shops--do they really get by having a small town exist which they no longer shop at? I'm saying that the liklihood is small that this precommittment would be desirable by many.

I could also say that Vermonters don't need to pre-committ, if their love of small towns is truly dominating. For example, won't Vermonters be embarrassed to see each other shopping at WM (we're talking about small towns, no)? Wouldn't workers at WM be mocked for destroying small towns? Wouldn't Vermonters by seeing each other working and shopping at WM, know that each other are guilty sinners? Then the benefits of shirking must be tempered by higher social costs, and shirking--in the form of shopping and working--would occur far less than theory predicts.

People want the small town feel. Why is forcing big-boxes to modify themselves the least cost way of obtaining it?

Another Tangent: How about an alternative policy. Fine anybody who shops at WM $100. Or don't fine people, and set up a video camera in the parking lot. Anybody who shops there has their face plastered on local TV as a traitor. Why not? Those who would exclude WM are in essence making poorer those who don't care about small towns...

-- May 24, 2004 05:49 PM

Daniel W. Drezner wrote in A landmark too far:

The National Trust for Historic Preservation describes itself as "the leader of the vigorous preservation movement that is saving the best of the country's past for the future." Yesterday they declared the eleven most endangered historic places in the ...

-- May 25, 2004 02:54 PM

Always Low Prices -- Always. wrote in Just barely defending theoretical anti-WM activists:

In the comments to a previous post where I defended the legitimacy (not the correctness) of anti-WM activists trying to Just to be clear, Kevin and I completely agree in every practical way: that the activists are wrong, and likely...

-- May 27, 2004 01:01 AM

Always Low Prices -- Always. wrote in Just barely defending theoretical anti-WM activists:

Kevin responded in the comments to a previous post where I defended the legitimacy (not the correctness) of anti-WM activists in response to a post of his. This isn't a very good debate, because Kevin and I completely agree in...

-- May 27, 2004 01:06 AM

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