I think Matt may have misread the argument in my last post, at least on one point. I most definitely was not arguing that the left was the source of the occupational licensure laws that are so problematic for poor Americans. I agree with Matt that this is a classic concentrated benefits and dispersed costs story where rent-seeking by incumbents (along with support from some paternalists in classic Baptists and Bootleggers fashion) spreads the costs by denying entry to potential suppliers and raising prices to demanders. My point was not to blame the left. My point was to suggest, and Matt seems to agree, that this is an issue where the left and libertarians can work together to remove barriers to upward mobility. Asking the state for protection against competition is not limited to the corporate world; it also comes from small entrepreneurs trying to block new entrants as well as other sources such as unions, who often support such licensure laws so as to prevent competition from lower-wage labor, both domestic and foreign. If we’re going to oppose corporatism, we should probably oppose it no matter the size of the “firm” involved.
My point about Wal-Mart wasn’t so much that Wal-Mart is a substitute for government programs, but rather that when people, both on the left and right, set up barriers to entry to Wal-Mart, they are in fact causing harm to the poor, both as buyers of Wal-Mart’s cheap goods and as potential employees. That is, of course, an empirical claim that might be wrong. However, because I think it’s true, I also think that Wal-Mart’s critics on the left are engaging in behavior that prevents them from achieving their own stated ends of improving the lives of the poor. We should indeed evaluate government welfare programs on their own merits, but we shouldn’t unnecessarily increase the perceived need for them by preventing companies like Wal-Mart from providing cheap necessities and jobs for working class Americans.
It’s also worth noting that Wal-Mart’s competition is, I’m sure, all too happy to sit on the sidelines roasting marshmallows around the fires others have lit in places where Wal-Mart is facing political barriers to entry. Preventing Wal-Mart from entering a market only works to serve the interests of its competition. Call it “unintended corporatism,” but it doesn’t change the fact that putting political barriers in the way of one firm is not substantively different from giving a subsidy to its competition. Opponents of corporatism who also wish to use the state to put barriers in the way of the market behavior of firms they don’t like are really feeding the very beast they claim to want to starve.
Moving away from Wal-Mart specfically, I would argue that a consistent anti-corporatist perspective means that no producer (including labor) gets to use the state to concentrate benefits on itself while spreading the costs to its competition and consumers. Whether we like the firm or not, whether the firm is large or not, or even whether we’re talking about labor rather than capital, is not the issue. Using the state to benefit oneself at the expense of others is.