Abortion: Walmart, Lowe’s, and Your Oil Deliveries
According to some people, large corporations must take a stance in abortion debates (“Wall Street Gets Forced Into the Abortion Debate,” Wall Street Journal, June 3, 2022):
Shareholders have placed abortion-rights proposals on the proxies at three big retailers this spring: Walmart Inc. …; Lowe’s …; and TJX …, the owner of off-price chains including TJ Maxx. Many more could follow next year.
Despite the present perfect in the first sentence, two of the three proposals, put forward in December, have already been rejected by a large majority of shareholders (at Walmart and Lowe’s) over the past week or so. But we can expect more pressure from activists together with large assets managers “focused on environmental, social and corporate-governance” (and not necessarily known for their deep knowledge of economics and political philosophy). To be pessimistic, only catastrophic events such as a deep recession, a nuclear war, or a sudden nine-foot rise in the oceans’ level could stop the movement.
Abortion is a very complex issue because it rests on fundamental questions about which we know little and which may never be totally answerable, at least in our current universe: When does human life start? When does human life ends? What is special about human life, or are humans just animals or plants or biological slime? When is it morally justifiable to end a human life? Should abortion be forbidden to Black women because Black lives matter? This last question shows how slippery the issue is and how absurd the run-of-the mill activist’s conventional wisdom.
But my question here is: What do Walmart, Lowe’s, TJX, or your heating oil delivery man have to do with all that? Why would they have a corporate opinion on these questions and advertise it to their customers? One reason that has been invoked is that their (greedy) interest in promoting political causes that will reduce their labor costs:
Activist investors submitted the shareholder proposals in December. Broadly, they ask each company to compile a report evaluating the risks and costs of restricted reproductive rights, including on employee hiring and retention.
(For once, apparently, greed is good. But many would not extend it any farther.)
Strange idea that, instead of higher wages and benefits, companies should attract and retain employees by echoing the latter’s opinions or prejudices. But what about employees who have other opinions? Should young social activists be encouraged to think that their opinions, often irrational and identity-mob tainted, are important enough to be brandished like a scepter in the face of customers who don’t share them?
Perhaps all producers, from Walmart to your oil delivery company, should be nationalized to make sure that they promote the government’s official opinions only? Would racial discrimination in the Old South have been more or less widespread if all private companies had been obliged, like the railroads, to follow local majority opinion? (Besides “Jim Crow: More Racist than the Railroads,” see my post “Markets Against the Mob’s Purpose.”) Asking these questions helps see why the separation of political power and market exchange favors prosperity and prevents tyranny.