Calling themselves "Islanders for Responsible Expansion," nearly 200 people recently showed up to a meeting on James Island to voice their opposition to plans to turn the current Wal-Mart on Folly Road into a much larger supercenter. The problem, argued expansion opponents, is that enlarging Wal-Mart would require developing three acres of wetlands and approximately 30 grand trees would have to be cut down. While this particular concern is important, the much larger question is absolutely crucial — who gets to decide what's best for James Island? In addition to protecting individual liberties, allowing communities to collectively decide their own fate is an integral part of republican democracy.
While conservatives generally agree on the inherent dangers of big government, at least rhetorically if not in practice, they often ignore the inherent dangers of big capital. As Thomas Jefferson noted, the concentration of power of any sort, public or private, is inherently dangerous because it places too much power in the hands of the few.
What is Wal-Mart? It's a great place to get virtually anything dirt cheap. I shop at Wal-Mart often for precisely that reason. Capitalism at its best.
But Wal-Mart is also capitalism at its worst, as it has the power to decimate local economies. It's virtually impossible for small business owners to compete with the corporate giant. During WTMA's The Morning Buzz with Richard Todd, a truck driver called in recently to note that throughout Texas, the "old" main streets where local businesses used to thrive are now desolate and dead. And not far from each ghost town stands a brand-new Wal-Mart.
The question for any community is whether the undeniable benefit of lower prices offered by stores like Wal-Mart is worth the cost of the local economy and local character. In an age where it seems fast-food chains and national franchises have taken over the entire country, such questions might seem pointless. But there are still plenty of places where community instincts remain healthy enough to resist their own destruction, and whether for economic or environmental reasons, James Island is certainly one of them.
Corporate apologists, and indeed many of today's self-described conservatives, see any attempt to regulate property ownership as a form of socialism or collectivism. Nonsense. Property owners, particularly in upper-class areas, contractually agree to the rules and regulations put forth by neighborhood associations, as a way of maintaining property values and quality of life. That upper- and middle-class folks, and even the poor, should have no say in the quality of life in their communities is unreasonable and undemocratic.
Much of Vermont has successfully kept Wal-Mart out, and by not allowing people the option of patronizing the retail chain, they are conserving the overwhelmingly rural character of their state — and they have every right to do so.
And exactly what are the so-called "conservatives" who support corporations over communities trying to conserve? As Kentucky essayist Wendell Berry writes, "The accounting that measures the wealth of corporations, great banks, and national treasuries takes no measure of the civic or economic or natural health of places like Port Royal, Ky.; Harpster, Ohio; Indianola, Iowa; Matfield Green, Kan.; Wolf Hole, Ariz.; or Nevada City, Calif. — and it does not intend to do so."
Berry is correct. That the corporate bottom line naturally reflects national economic success is a myth most Americans no longer believe — and can no longer afford. Right-leaning populists like CNN's Lou Dobbs have tapped into this sentiment, recognizing that big capital is often as much an enemy to everyday Americans as big government, while mainstream Republican pundits still perpetuate the myth that what's good for Wall Street is inherently good for Main Street. When Republican presidential nominee John McCain urges his Democratic foes to stop "NAFTA-bashing," he is ignoring the very real damage done to the working class by such trade deals, as he too honestly believes that corporate economic health equals national economic health. McCain and his party will face the music come November.
But James Island is facing the music right now, and the people who live there deserve the final say, especially over the interests of a company whose local presence is more like that of an absentee landlord than a community fixture. Whether for environmental or economic reasons, the fate of a community should always be decided by the people who actually live in it — not outsiders just trying to turn a buck. To suggest otherwise is not only undemocratic, but un-American and unconscionable.
Catch Southern Avenger commentaries every Tuesday and Friday at 7:50 a.m. on the "Morning Buzz with Richard Todd" on 1250 AM WTMA.