Intellectuals have always disdained commerce,” says Whole Foods Market co-founder John Mackey. They “have always sided with the aristocrats to maintain a society where the businesspeople were kept down.” Having helped create the global grocery chain intellectuals arguably like best, Mackey has evolved into one of capitalism’s most persuasive champions, making the moral, practical, and even spiritual case that free exchange ennobles all who participate.
More than any other retailer, Whole Foods has reconfigured what and how America eats. Since opening its first store in Austin, Texas, in 1980, the company has helped its customers develop a taste for high-quality meats, produce, cheeses, and wines, as well as for information about where all the stuff gets sourced. Mackey, 62, continues to set the pace for what’s expected in organic and sustainably harvested food.
Because of Whole Foods’ educated customer base and because Mackey is himself a vegan and a champion of collaboration between management and workers, it’s easy to mistake him for a progressive left-winger. Indeed, an early version of Jonah Goldberg’s bestselling 2008 book Liberal Fascism even bore the subtitle “The Totalitarian Temptation from Hegel to Whole Foods.”
Yet that misses the radical vision of capitalism at the heart of Mackey’s thought. A high-profile critic of the minimum wage, Obamacare, and the regulatory state, Mackey believes that free markets are the best way not only to raise living standards but to create meaning for individuals, communities, and society. At the same time, he challenges a number of libertarian dogmas, including the notion that publicly traded companies should always seek to exclusively maximize shareholder value. Conscious Capitalism, the 2013 book he co-authored with Rajendra Sisodia, lays out a detailed vision for a post-industrial capitalism that addresses spiritual desire as much as physical need.
Reason TV’s Nick Gillespie talked with Mackey earlier this summer at FreedomFest in Las Vegas. To see the full video, go to reason.com. (Disclosure: Whole Foods Market is a supporter of Reason Foundation, the nonprofit that publishes this magazine.)
reason: You believe capitalism is not only the greatest wealth creator but helps poor people get rich. But you see it as constantly being misrepresented, even by its champions. Why is capitalism under attack?
John Mackey: Intellectuals have always disdained commerce. That is something that tradesmen did—people that were in a lower class. Minorities oftentimes did it, like you had the Jews in the West. And when they became wealthy and successful and rose, then they were envied, they were persecuted and their wealth confiscated, and many times they were run out of country after country. Same thing happened with the Chinese in the East. They were great businesspeople as well.
So the intellectuals have always sided with the aristocrats to maintain a society where the businesspeople were kept down. You might say that capitalism was the first time that businesspeople caught a break. Because of Adam Smith and the philosophy that came along with that, the industrial revolution began this huge upward surge of prosperity.
reason: Is it a misunderstanding of what business does? Is it envy? Is it a lack of capacity to understand that what entrepreneurs do, or what innovators do, is take a bunch of things that might not be worth much separately and then they transform them? What is the root of the antagonism toward commerce?
Mackey: It’s sort of where people stand in the social hierarchy. If you live in a more business-oriented society, like the United States has been, then you have these businesspeople, who [the intellectuals] don’t judge to be very intelligent or well-educated, having lots of money—and they begin to buy political power with it, and they rise in the social hierarchy. Whereas the really intelligent people, the intellectuals, are less important. And I don’t think they like that.
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That’s one of the main reasons the intellectuals have usually disdained commerce. They haven’t seen it [as a] dynamic, creative force, because they measure themselves against these people, and they think they’re superior, and yet in the social hierarchy they’re not seen as more important. I think that drives them crazy.
reason: A lot of the times the businesspeople are plucky upstarts—they’re innovators, they’re disruptive, and they’re fighting against the power. But once they get to a certain point of influence or power, they often start to try and rig the market or freeze the market in their favor. Why is that?
Mackey: I don’t know if it’s a psychological switch so much as that they weren’t necessarily grounded in the philosophy of capitalism. They weren’t necessarily advocates of the free market. They were just advocates of their own advancement, their own personal enrichment. And so I think oftentimes, they don’t make a distinction between when they’re entrepreneurs on the way up versus when they’ve arrived. They’re attempting to not fall, so they try to rig the game, and we have crony capitalism.
reason: We live in an age where there are an unbelievable amount of government mandates that restrict the ability of business owners and employees to really negotiate about stuff. Some are things as obvious as the minimum wage, where it says, “Under no circumstances can a business offer somebody less than this amount.” How do these affect your ability to run a business in an extremely competitive market?
Mackey: The impetus behind so many of these types of regulations in the workplace is, in a sense, to shackle business again—to get it back under the control of the intellectuals. Just like commerce: If you study the history of business, you will see that most of the time in our history, commerce was controlled by the aristocrats. The merchants were kept under their thumb. And now they’ve escaped and we have this free-market ideology that says the market should determine all these things. They’re systematically undermining that marketplace to get business back, get the genie back in the bottle.
Of course, that will stifle innovation. It’ll stifle the dynamic creative destruction of capitalism. But I don’t think they’re thinking about it that way. They’re very concerned about the motives of business, and they see it as this selfish, greedy, exploitative thing. Businesspeople can’t be trusted, markets aren’t just, they’re not fair, so we need to intervene, we need to control this situation.