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Who wants to save their high street, anyway?

March 4th, 2011 Posted in Uncategorized by

I’ve just read this brief post by George Mason University economist Don Boudreaux and enjoyed it so much I thought I might reproduce it in full.

(Fingers crossed Mr. Bourdreaux is one of those libertarians that doesn’t believe in intellectual property!)

A friend asked me earlier today a Wal-Mart question.  I remembered this letter to the editor of The Economist that I wrote in 2006; I post it here at the Cafe for the first time:

In “Opening up the big box” (Feb. 25) you overlook a significant benefit of Wal-Mart – namely, by relieving Main Street’s retail spaces of the need to supply staple goods such as groceries and hardware, Wal-Mart frees these spaces to be transformed into ethnic restaurants, wi-fied cafes, art galleries, arts theaters, and specialty retail shops.

Wal-Mart makes downtown areas more diverse and lively.

Donald J. Boudreaux

This happy effect of Wal-Mart first dawned on me back in the mid-1990s when I lived near Greenville, SC.  Many of my older friends in South Carolina – such as Bruce Yandle, the late Hugh Macaulay, and the late Wallace Trevillian – remembered Main St. in Greenville from the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s.  They described the hardware store that no longer exists on Main St., as well as the barber shop, the mom’n’pop grocery store, the diner, and the pharmacy.  But the Main St. in Greenville that I knew (having moved to South Carolina only in 1992) was booming and lively with fusion restaurants, art galleries, wine bars, and up-scale gift shops.

See also here.

I could not agree more. It is amazing how much of the preservation brigade’s narrative boils down to preserving the present in aspic!

Those were the days. More's the pity!

6 Responses to “Who wants to save their high street, anyway?”

  1. Tristan Says:

    One major problem with Wal*Mart and their ilk is that they benefit from massive subsidy in transport from government – the business model is arguably only sustainable thanks to transport taxes which do not fully take into account the damage done to roads and the provision of roads by the state (especially the case of the US Federal Highways).

    I’m not so bothered about preserving high streets – although there are some arguments which might hold a little water – but it rankles when a business model becomes dominant thanks to government subsidy.

  2. Lotus 51 Says:

    If you reversed the trend and the supermarkets were moving into the high streets they’d all be bemonaing the fact that the charity shops and niche retailers were being pushed out by “unfair” competition.

  3. Chris Oakley Says:

    Depends if you like eating the stuff that Walmart consider to be food and depends on your high street. Personally I prefer not to shop at Walmart because of their quality and the problem for many people is that the dominance of supermarkets means that they have no choice. Walmart et al are good at some things but want to be our sole provider of all things and that is a problem. I am surprised that any libertarian supports a business model that ultimately undermines freedom of choice.

  4. Tom Papworth Says:


    If by “massive subsidy in transport from government” you refer to taxpayer funded infrastructure, that is true but no different from any other industry. Every business gets free use of roads and cheap railways; I don’t see how major supermarkets benefit any more than other businesses.


    I don’t think the point of the article is to promote Walmart. I think the focus is on the general trend towards supermarkets away from town centres. Boudreaux is pointing out that the destruction is creative; the high streets are often better once they are not full of grocers.

    As for undermining freedom of choice, any provider can only become the sole provider if everybody chooses to shop there. As long as people want to shop in town centres, there will be shops in town centres. The problem that the protectionists face is that other people choose to shop out of town, and the protectionists don’t want to have to pay the elevated prices in the town centre shops that result.

  5. Mike Says:

    Excellent point by Tom, I don’t really see how a business model in a truly free market can limit freedom of choice. Chris, so long as there is a mrket for goods deemed to be higher quality than those provided by Walmart, you will be able to aquire them.

    The influence a company like Walmart has in undermining free markets with the protectionist ‘right’ is another matter.

  6. Jack Says:

    What businesses can prosper on the High Street should be determined by the free market. In my opinion, the fact that Tesco et al. can underwrite any risk in their business model with the vast profits they derive automatically from their land monopoly precludes competition, and is therefore not a free market, or a fair test. Even taking into account economies of scale, it seems unlikely that a monolithic corporation like Tesco would have a business model nimble and adaptable enough to provide apparently the most efficient and most wanted service for almost literally every community in the country, unless they were given an artificial advantage by a deficient tax regime.