John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods, is at it again,
using his version of libertarianism to deny global warming. It is a false crisis that responding to
would impoverish and enslave us.
Even a writer who has long defended him before now has finally had it with the
guy. I was going to unload on Mackey again, but before doing so did additional reading
about the guy. Especially a very
interesting piece by Nick Paumgarten in the January 4 New Yorker.
I’m glad I
did. While my support of the
boycott remains (I have not shopped there since his comments on health reform)
Mackey is far more interesting (and sympathetic) than simply being a ruthless
businessman. He is also an
idealist. An interesting one. And
so what was going to be a short post has turned rather philosophical.
Mackey is a libertarian entrepreneur with a firm belief in
each individual’s responsibility for his or her own life. That hits close to home because I
was a libertarian for a long time myself. (I also ran my own business for many
years – but that’s another story).
Only gradually and bit by bit did I cease being a
libertarian, and I still have a great deal of admiration for the creative
entrepreneurial spirit as well as respect for individual autonomy that
libertarianism at its best honors.
Mackey sees the crucial role in improving society that business people
can play, and that many on the left have a hard time grasping. Within the limits of today’ economy, he
has done much to mainstream organic and sustainable food and healthy eating,
and he did so not simply to make money.
In a telling, and I believe completely honest, statement,
“Would I prefer Whole Foods to be very successful and people still ate
terrible food and were getting heart disease and cancer and diabetes when they
didn’t have to? I fundamentally don’t believe you have to get those diseases.
Or Whole Foods has gone bankrupt, but yet the world’s health is far better and
everybody’s eating a healthier diet? I’d rather have the second one.
Admirable as these sentiments are, and as much as he has
accomplished to promote his vision, I think Mackey still suffers from an
ideologically enhanced myopia blinding him to very important dimensions of
reality. If I had to summarize my
core problem with Mackey’s views, I’d point to a yin/yang symbol. Or perhaps to our own Wheel of the
Year, which is a more complex image of the same point. Mackey’s views of human beings are
completely yang. Completely
The yin/yang symbol is simpler to use, so I’ll stick with
it. When I teach political theory
one way I explore the nature of our individuality is by analogy to a
photon. Ask one set of
experimental questions and you get responses indicating the photon is a
particle. Let’s call it the “yang”
aspect of the photon. But with
another set of questions you get results indicating it is a wave, the “Yin”
aspect. They are not reducible to
one or the other. From a human
perspective both are equally fundamental even if we ourselves cannot see how
that can be true logically.
The same holds for our individuality. We are individuals. No question of that in my mind. We are also social beings who are
immersed 100% of the time in relationships which make us what we are. Also no question in my mind. Neither Mackey nor any of us would have
the same ideas or attitudes had we grown up in a traditional Hopi or Chinese
family or in a traditional Muslim or Jain culture. But our actual individuality-in-society encompasses both, is
reducible to neither, and achieves its unity, to the degree it does, within our
Another way to grasp this point is to think of each of us as
a dynamic gestalt constantly in interaction with everything that surrounds
us. Our environment gives us
something to push against,but it also supports us. We and it co-evolve.
So a reasonably unbiased thinker, or one like me who started
out biased as an individualist but is open to con-conforming data, quickly
comes to the conclusion that a purely individualistic approach to understanding
human beings is simply wrong.
Paradigms are models of reality we use to explore
parts of the world we have not yet encountered. They tell us what questions to ask and what counts as
evidence and roughly what to expect to find. They tell us what is reasonable and what is
unreasonable. We all use them,
explicitly or tacitly.
Scientific and philosophical and religious paradigms share these
qualities in common. So do
Most of us use the paradigms that orient us pretty
loosely. This can lead to sloppy
thinking, but it has an upside as well.
We are open to at least noticing evidence that does not fit the paradigm
we mostly take for granted. By
contrast, when someone studies a paradigm and uses it rigorously to examine the
world, he or she can make genuine contributions to knowledge and deepen their
own understanding, but at a cost.
He or she is far more at its mercy, and far less likely to take
seriously or even notice what is absent in their paradigm but in front of their
noses. The history of science is
filled with such stories, as is the history of our lives.
I think the only real check on this tendency, and
certainly not a fail safe one because nothing in life is fail safe, is to try
and remember that the world is a far more mysterious place than we can
understand. If we take that to
heart we use our paradigms as potentially fallible road maps not Truth. Ideologues and those who have benefited
enormously from following a paradigm will have a hard time doing this. Mackey’s libertarianism is an example.
The libertarian paradigm grows from Western
individualism, refines it, and adds free market economics to it. Libertarians are able to see stuff that
others might not notice, like the creative role of entrepreneurs. Outside libertarian ranks entrepreneurs
are often simply thought of as business people after a buck. Mackey’s interview shows another side.
On the other hand libertarians also are likely to
miss what their paradigm ignores.
So long as he refuses to distance himself from his
libertarian theoretical paradigm Mackey will never find a way to question
it. With its core reliance on
Western individualism, the truth of total individual responsibility unless
someone intervenes violently seems obvious to libertarians. They are literally blind to some things
and unwilling to look at others except to find the hidden flaws because their
paradigm tells them such and such must be the case. Two examples from my scholarly own work that only took on
significance after I started being able to think outside it are the fact that
democracies never war on other democracies and that there has been no tendency
for freedom to turn into despotism as European “welfare states” have expanded
But there is a more interesting blindness we
encounter in libertarianism’s major thinkers, that is then passed on to those
influenced by them, like Mackey.
Theoretically Induced Blindness: Children.
It is not accidental that the paragon of libertarian
individualism is Ayn Rand. Mackey is not uncritical of Rand. He disagrees with her exaltation of
selfishness, saying what she really meant is enlightened self-interest. Mackey’s “self-interest” is wiser than
that of many of Rand’s followers.
But it is still severely limited.
Why? Here is a clue.
There are no children in Rand’s novels. All are adults, all are self-contained,
who are as they are because of some inexplicable cause buried deeply in their
very being. They are as
impermeable as balls on a pool table – except for sex, and even that (if I
remember Rand’s sex scenes accurately) is not a matter of relationship so much
as filling a need by using another for mutually achieved pleasure along with
admiration of the partner’s character.
Her first novel, We The Living,
still had fairly complex and conflicted characters. By the time of The Fountainhead and Atlas
Shrugged this appreciation for human
complexity had disappeared into a good guys vs bad guys image of life where
most people served as filler.
By treating every adult as essentially impermeable
forces of nature, and ignoring the existence of children, Rand and her
followers cut themselves off from appreciating a large dimension of reality,
for their environment obviously has an extraordinary impact on children. (I
find it significant that Mackey himself is childless.) This ultra-individualism leads to his
prescription for improving health in America: Eat better. It’s your issue. Your responsibility. Because his sentiment is partly true
its error of radical incompleteness is hard for those holding it to see.
Willful Blindness: Nature
I believe this ultra-individualism, this exaltation
of the yang alone, is also why the global warming issue elicits such an
irrational response from libertarians like Mackey. It suggests we are intrinsically limited by relationships
not of our choosing. Because they
accept the basic secular modern image of a world whose meaning depends on human
creativity and effort, anything that fundamentally limits us is a threat, a
trap, and a tragedy.
Western individualism assumes we live in a world of
objects, resources valuable to the degree they can meet our needs. Creative people discover how to use
them better. We ourselves are
separate from nature. Libertarian
writers spend a great deal of time determining how we are separate from nature,
so we can use it for our purposes.
The global warming argument undermines this Faustian view of how to
relate to nature. It also
undermines the libertarian view that the market with minimal government can
solve any problem because there is no obvious purely market solution to the
problem, if it is a problem. For
three reasons: (1) we are separate from and superior to nature, (2) nature’s
value is in its service to us, and (3) the market can solve all problems,
global warming CANNOT be a problem, and scientists or anyone else who say
otherwise must be wrong. The
result is willful irrational blindness.
Almost 100% of the warming deniers I have read about
are on the libertarian wing or conspiracy wing of the political right. That a argument about the world that is
essentially a scientific issue has such strong correlates is pretty good
evidence that for most the science does not matter. Global warming is no more an intrinsically left or right
question than are arguments about the effects of volcanic eruptions.
That Mackey’s response is as irrational as I am
suggesting is demonstrated by his saying, right after he pooh poohs the global
warming claim, “Historically, prosperity tends
to correlate to warmer temperatures.” A revealing rationalization as well as a
false one. He grants it might be
happening after all, but that’s OK.
That is quite different from saying it is not happening. As to warmth and prosperity, ask the
Swedes and Canadians.
Paumgarten goes into considerable depth as to who Mackey is
and what makes him tick. All in
all, I liked him. But it also
provides a wonderful example of how New Age practices, in which Mackey has
extensive experience, do not necessarily lead to spiritual insight, though they
can lead to psychological healing.
In my view, the New Age is fundamentally about Me. The New Age conception of well-being tends
to be extremely individualistic, and to the degree it is, Mackey appears to be
a long-time enthusiastic practitioner.
I think this is all good as far as it goes, but it does not go as far as
some seem to think.
But apparently it has not enlarged his compassion. And compassion is the means by which we
who tend towards the yang can most easily access the yin side of our being, the side of who we are that is contained in and
expresses itself through the quality of our relationships.
A culture that is ‘yin’ in the sense I am using the term
here can lack compassion as well. I am reminded of the Chinese bystander who pushed a
suicidal Chinese off a bridge, explaining “I pushed him off because
jumpers like Chen are very selfish. Their action violates a lot of public
Mackey and libertarians would probably say that this
illustrates the horrors possible in a society that does not respect
individuals. And so it does. But despite its not being
individualistic, Chinese culture also provides many cases of profoundly
generous actions helping others, as this very different story and accompanying
photos from the Chinese internet reveals.
Compassion and genuine love are what integrate the yin and
yang, the social and individual, whether it be in the West or in China, or
anywhere else. They are
ever-present potentials that each of us does a better or worse job
accessing. Given his influence in
an important part of what our future will be, if we have one to look forward
to, I hope John Mackey will open himself to a more balanced view of the world.