Libertarian Environmentalist?

John Mackey fits the profile of a typical green-friendly liberal. He is a vegan, practices yoga, and wears hiking boots to work. Behold the founder and CEO of Whole Foods, Mecca for believers in organic foods, which was recently recognized as one of America’s most valuable companies according to BusinessWeek Magazine (and its stock multiple has at times surpassed even Google’s). But principles still come before profits in this natural food empire: Five percent of profits are donated to local communities and environmental causes; stockholders are given third priority behind customers and employees (who are lovingly called “team members”).

Do not be fooled by the fair trade, cruelty-free exterior. Mackey has a darker, not so crunchy inside. He despises unions and prides himself on having kept them out of all 183 of his company’s stores. “Instead of embracing the notion of the ‘expanding pie’ vision of capitalism—more for everyone, or win-win,” Mackey argues, “they [unions] frequently embrace the zero-sum philosophy of win-lose.” Aware that union busting is illegal, Mackey persuaded the employees in the few stores that dared to collectivize to discontinue their efforts. Mackey’s customers, mostly Volvo-driving Kerry voters, have hardly batted an eyelash, and have continued patronizing his stores. But wouldn’t their soymilk turn sour if they knew that Mackey had voted for the libertarian candidate in the last presidential election?

Mackey’s rapid ascent to minor celebrity status—fueled by his company’s even faster climbing share price—has provoked a flurry of profiles in publications like The Economist and USA Today, all puzzling over his seemingly contradictory views. Can you have a social conscience and love the market as well? Certainly. Can you do it without falling into a contradiction? That is more difficult to answer.

Libertarians are not too often disposed to cuddle up to a tree. For most, free markets unhindered by governmental interference—labor regulations, taxes, and the like—take precedent over old growth forests. Managers do not usually build cost-inefficient solar panels to minimize their company’s environmental impact. They adhere to Nobel Prize winning economist Milton Friedman’s famous saying that a company’s only “social obligation is to increase its profits.” To them, incantations of the collective good are just sweet-sounding claptrap, and morality is viewed as a matter of personal preference. You want to marry someone of the same sex? It’s your life, love whomever you want. You want to fry your brain on drugs? Go for it. Just don’t come crying to the government when you can’t support yourself.

But this is a bit of a caricature. Most libertarians, or those who lean that direction, are not counterculture anarchists, advocating public immorality and a reckless disregard for the fate of others. Sure, most of them have read Ayn Rand’s novels—perhaps even briefly fell in love with Objectivism—but, like everyone else, they realized that they were being callous pricks and soon thereafter forgot about Howard Roark. Nevertheless, what is common from Milton Friedman to John Mackey is a fervent, but tempered belief in individual choice. Importantly, liberty does not have to come at the expense of society’s plunge into an anarchic abyss; few libertarians would defend the choice of an industry to discard toxic chemicals into a river.

What libertarians do is give free range to marketplace morality, which is, as Friedman explains, “whatever…interests the participants, whatever they value, whatever goals they pursue.” Here the Mackey-types emerge, coming from a Twilight Zone where a love of fair trade and free markets converge. Supporting fair trade coffee and hating taxes are not contradictory attitudes. When an individual buys fair trade, he voluntarily chooses to pay higher prices to support sustainable agriculture in small cooperatives in developing countries. When taxed, however, citizens are powerless to prevent corporate subsidies from being showered on American farmers, ceding their moral authority to the government.

Can you expect free marketers to be imbued with such morality? It is an uncontroversial point to allow people to volunteer in their free time or donate to charity. But most likely, not everyone will be so altruistic. And as a result, it would seem that the poor and the environment will lose out.

The market, though, does not need the majority of consumers to profess a higher morality. For instance, many apparel manufacturers, like the much-maligned Nike, conceded to the demands of a small, but vociferous, anti-sweat shop campaign and started monitoring their sub-contractors. In doing so, the companies resuscitated lagging profits and motivated a much larger group of (normally indifferent) consumers to buy brands that promised adequate labor conditions. This story shows that consumers want to inject some moral vigor into their largely materialist lives—and that businesses respond. From “hormone-free” to “dolphin safe” to “biodegradable,” products brandish such quasi-moral labels with a righteousness seldom found outside of religious circles.

There is a brutal competition for the moral high ground in the marketplace; and that is where Mackey has positioned himself—at the top. Though it may seem strange, market orthodoxy and a social conscience can fit together nicely. As long as customers are allowed to vote with their dollars, virtuous companies like Whole Foods will continue to thrive, and maybe help save the world to boot.


Will E. Johnston ’08 is a social studies concentrator in Adams House.