Walmart is a private company that should be at liberty to discriminate against whom it wants. This is a moral argument inspired by economics, and it should be a general principle in a free society. Walmart just caved in to pressures from the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) and will start discriminating against some adults who want to purchase tobacco products or e-cigarettes.

The Wall Street Journal reports (“Walmart to Raise Tobacco Age to 21, Drop Fruit-Flavored E-Cigarettes,” May 8, 2019):

Walmart’s action follows similar moves by other retailers in the wake of FDA criticism and bills introduced in the House and Senate that would raise the minimum age to purchase tobacco nationwide to 21 from 18.

The federal government wants to discriminate against individuals between 18 and 21 years of age, who are legally adults in most states, and is bullying private companies to do its bidding. If private discrimination is defensible, government discrimination (which was sometimes called “apartheid” in matters of race) is certainly not consistent with a society governed by the rule of law.

Individuals over the age of 18 are recognized as adults in most American states, they can vote in federal elections as per the 26th Amendment of 1971, they may enlist in the armed forces and can be conscripted, they may choose irreversible surgery to change sex, they may purchase guns, and so forth.

Preventing a group of adults from doing what other adults may do is clearly discrimination, even if the targeted age group is not among the favored and legally protected groups.

We could forgive Walmart to yield before government-imposed discrimination were it not that the large retailer seems to like cozying up to the power that be, even against some of its own customers. Its core clientele has changed, though, as the poorest and most redneck customers have partly switched to other stores (including “dollar stores”) for some products, and as it has gone after Amazon and Whole Foods. Recall that, last year, Walmart enacted the same age restrictions on guns, which suggests that it is becoming a politicized corporation that bows before politically-correct opinion leaders (see my post “The Political Firm”). Government bullying against some adult gun purchases would thankfully have contradicted the 2nd Amendment so, in this case, Walmart was just being a “good corporate citizen,” that is, a good politically-correct firm. Reading Walmart’s May 8 submissive letter to the FDA on the tobacco decision is instructive in this regard.

Governments are now so powerful that, when they don’t like something that is perfectly legal, they can intimidate private parties into refraining from it. It is a matter of incentives: if you don’t obey, the cost will be high in terms of increased regulatory attention and reduced opportunities for cronyism. Note also how age discrimination has much helped the acceptance and spread of government ID papers, which is in government’s interest.