Against the Whole Foods Boycott

Perhaps because Whole Foods looms large in my dissertation research, or maybe just because it’s actually gaining some traction, friends and colleagues keep asking me what I think about the consumer boycott some people are calling for in response to Whole Foods CEO John Mackey’s August 11 op-ed in the Wall Street Journal about health care reform.

The short version: I don’t agree with Mackey’s argument, but I think the boycott is ill-conceived. I think a better way to express your disagreement with Mackey is to write your own letter/op-ed and send it to your legislators and news providers.

The long version:

Lest anyone think I’m taking the side of a great admirer of Ayn Rand who infamously posed as "rahodeb" (an anagram for his wife’s name, Deborah) on the Yahoo! Finance Bulletin Boards to talk up his company and his haircut and criticize Wild Oats, I’ll start with why I disagree with the op-ed. First, he confuses the "intrinsic ethical right to health care" that some people, like the UN (see article 25), claim people theoretically should have, with the constitutional rights people do have when they are citizens of the U.S. (or Canada, or the U.K.):

Many promoters of health-care reform believe that people have an intrinsic ethical right to health care—to equal access to doctors, medicines and hospitals. While all of us empathize with those who are sick, how can we say that all people have more of an intrinsic right to health care than they have to food or shelter?

Health care is a service that we all need, but just like food and shelter it is best provided through voluntary and mutually beneficial market exchanges. A careful reading of both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution will not reveal any intrinsic right to health care, food or shelter. That’s because there isn’t any. This "right" has never existed in America

Even in countries like Canada and the U.K., there is no intrinsic right to health care.

Woo tautology. Even if you don’t agree with the UN that medical care is a basic human right, you can appreciate this logic: any right intrinsic to humans is, by definition, an intrinsic right whether they live in Canada or Myanmar. Ethical claims about intrinsic rights address what rights people should have by virtue of being human, not what rights they do have according to a constitution. Whether a right is constitutionally protected or that protection is enforceable are separate issues with no bearing on their intrinsicness. Intrinsicosity. Intrinsicicity. 

Mackey is also blurring two different arguments here: 1) whether or not humans have an "intrinsic ethical right" to health care and 2) whether the government or the market would do a better job of providing health care. Although his logic may be muddled, it’s clear which side he takes: 1) no and 2) the market.

Thing I disagree with Mackey about #1: Is Health Care an Intrinsic Ethical Right?

It’s very difficult to separate the right to medical care from the right to life (which even Mackey would have to acknowledge, as it’s in the Declaration of Independence). While frequently interpreted as the right not to be actively killed, there’s no effective difference between shooting a healthy person and denying life-saving treatment to a dying person. As some other UN covenant with a long and sober name elaborates (article 6), the right to life suggests that "no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his life," and illness can be just as arbitrary as murder.

Of course, this gets complicated because some illnesses (like some murders) are not arbitrary, and some of the ways they’re not arbitrary depend on voluntary behaviors, like smoking or leading a sedentary lifestyle. Also, many things other than life-saving treatments are encompassed by "medical care."

It seems pretty clear that the right to life encompasses the right of children to be vaccinated against potentially-fatal diseases. It’s much less clear whether or not it encompasses the right to abortion, relationship counseling, sex change operations and hormone therapies, addiction treatment, erectile dysfunction, and conditions that may be largely cosmetic like acne or balding. And it’s probably safe to say that the right to life doesn’t imply an intrinsic right to free health care for anyone who can pay.

Like illness, ability to pay is often–but not always–arbitrary. Characteristics beyond a person’s individual control affect their ability to accumulate wealth, and fortune is fickle, but people also make choices that affect their personal wealth–for example, deciding to get a Ph.D. in the humanities instead of a J.D. (not that the latter is a guarantee anymore either).

THAT SAID, a health care system that allocates care based on the ability to pay would undoubtedly cause some people to be arbitrarily deprived of life. So Mackey’s free market system would, in fact, violate the intrinsic ethical right to life-saving care, and that’s why he has to claim there isn’t one. I think he’s in the minority with that belief–there seems to be a pretty broad consensus around the idea that health care shouldn’t be a privilege of the wealthy, and that if you show up to a hospital in cardiac arrest, someone ought to take care of you whether or not you can pay them anything. And if we’re going to collectively pay for emergency life-saving care, it’s also in the collective interest to pay for preventative care. It hurts everyone when insurance companies deny coverage to people based on pre-existing health conditions or yank their coverage once they get sick. Several of Mackey’s proposed reforms were designed to ameliorate some of those problems, but his plan would inevitably leave many people uninsured.

Thing I disagree with Mackey about #2: Is the Market the Best Health Care Provider?

What strikes me as the most compelling reason for a public option, as a layperson whose understanding of this is admittedly incomplete, is that the fact that the U.S. spends more per capita than any other nation on health care despite the fact that something like 46 million people or fifteen percent of the population are uninsured and still ranks lower than many countries with universal universal health care on "overall health system performance" according to the WHO.

Also, given that no one’s proposing getting rid of existing private plans, if they’re really so much better than the public option, they should be able to out-compete it. I know there are concerns about a public plan being so dominant that it could dictate terms to doctors and hospitals, so obviously there would need to be protections. However, I think it would inevitably be more efficient for consumers if people weren’t trying to extract annually-increasing profit.

The idea that competition and profit motives make businesses more efficient because they have to compete or die whereas public services that have no incentive to streamline their operations become bloated mistakenly assumes that efficiency is the only/best way to profit. As private health insurers have found, denying sick people coverage is an excellent way to save money, and sometimes spending a lot of money on things like lobbying and public relations delivers a greater return than simply providing the service they exist to provide. A taxpayer-funded insurer that didn’t have to spend money on those things would be a lot more efficient, and people might indeed be incline to switch to an insurer that wasn’t as likely to screw them to benefit stockholders or executives.


It doesn’t make any sense to boycott Whole Foods because of this op-ed. There are two primary reasons people are calling for a boycott: 1) they disagree with Mackey and/or 2) they are upset that he made his beliefs public or that he was given such a high-profile platform on which to do so. Unfortunately, even when the primary motivation is #1, the boycott only targets #2. That’s not "censorship," like some people are claiming (see comment threads on facebook and elsewhere), but both reasons are questionable motives for a boycott.

Ad Hominem Boycott

For any shoppers truly concerned about the political beliefs of CEOs, there was plenty of evidence long before the op-ed that John Mackey was an unapologetic libertarian who supports free market capitalism. In the 2000 election cycle, he gave $2K to Libertarian presidential candidate Harry Browne. But honestly, if you’re concerned that some fraction of the money you spend on groceries might end up supporting someone whose politics differ from yours, you should probably look in to self-provisioning.

Shopping at a store doesn’t necessarily endorse or financially support its CEO’s every political belief. Take any other CEO and any other political or philosophical belief: would it make sense to boycott Williams-Sonoma if its CEO wrote an op-ed or gave an interview or organized a street theater performance in which he expressed the opinion that all recreational drugs should be legalized or that the universe was created by a divine or supernatural being?

I don’t think it would. If the company discriminated against employees with conflicting beliefs, or in some other way caused harm and suffering with their business practices, sure. (Which some people think Whole Foods does, and that would be a fine reason to organize a boycott). But John Mackey expressing his opinion about health care reform =/= nefarious corporate policy. And as far as I can tell, neither John Mackey nor Whole Foods as a company are funding any direct lobbying efforts. All of which makes claims like the ones Russell Mokhiber makes particularly over the top:

The problem with Mackey’s campaign is that it results in the deaths of 60 Americans every day due to lack of health insurance.

Mackey is responsible for these deaths as much as anyone. (@ Common Dreams)

It way overstates the power of Mackey’s personal beliefs and his op-ed, to call it a full-on "campaign" or hold it responsible for the fact that people right now may be dying due to inadequate insurance. Mackey has not, with this op-ed, personally denied anyone health care. The most damage this op-ed could have done is convince someone with political leverage that a public option is a bad idea (and it seems unlikely that this column would have been the deciding factor—it’s just not that convincing). If he has, you’re not going to change their minds by throwing a tantrum, attacking Mackey personally, or refusing to shop at Whole Foods.

If you disagree with Mackey and want to address the potential harm done by the op-ed, the best thing you can do is to write a letter of your own. Explain why you think his proposed reforms would be inadequate without a public option. Send it to your legislators and local papers. Post it on your blog. Send it to the Wall Street Journal. Boycotting the grocery chain he oversees doesn’t do anything to address the claims he made in the offending op-ed, it’s just an attempt to punish Mackey for his personal beliefs about health care reform.

The real target

Effectively, the boycott doesn’t punish Mackey for having stupid, tautological beliefs about the human right to health care, it punishes him for expressing those beliefs in a highly visible way. Which, apparently, a lot of people calling for the boycott are totally fine with:

If Whole Foods shareholders were to start to wonder whether having their corporate brand dragged into the health care debate is really a smart use of their assets, I would call that a good thing. (@ Yglesias)

He has his right to speak his point of view. I have the right to take my money elsewhere.(@ Daily Kos)

as long as this dispicable preson [sic] of a ceo makes statements like he did, and now as long as this same ceo sits on your top foods board and represents your company, i refuse to buy from whole foods market any more (@ Whole Boycott)

In principle, I don’t believe there should be economic boycots [sic] based on political speech that doesn’t rise to the level of hate speech or the like. In reality, there are large scale boycotts by rightwing corporate America of progressive media outlets and rightwingers have no qualms about boycotting progressive business owners. (@ Comments from Left Field) 

The last one is my favorite: "In principle, I think this is a bad idea, but if rightwingers do it…"

Sure, not everyone gets to air their personal beliefs in such a high-profile way, but if the concern were really about where he got to express his opinions, the boycott probably ought to target the Wall Street Journal for giving Mackey column space. That would raises a whole separate set of issues about privilege and political influence, newsworthiness, and op-ed balance, and I think ultimately, the editorial choice is pretty defensible. Mackey is the CEO of a company that provides different kinds of health care benefits to thousands of employees in countries with different kinds of health care systems. That doesn’t make Mackey’s opinion the only or most worthwhile one, but it’s certainly a reason to think he might have some sort of useful perspective, and publishing his column is neither an endorsement of his opinion nor does it preclude the publishing of other, contradictory opinions. But that argument is moot anyhow because I haven’t seen any calls for a boycott of the WSJ.

Boycotting Whole Foods instead suggests that executives ought to keep their political beliefs concealed, even when they might have something to contribute to the debate or when publicizing their beliefs might alert consumers to policies and political contributions that might actually be unfair or harmful and really would merit an organized response. We’re better off being able to keep tabs on the politics of major companies’ executives and using boycotts to protest unfair, harmful corporate policies. Sure, some people are taking this opportunity to complain about Whole Foods union-busting again, but that’s a sidebar. The message of this boycott is "Shut up, Mackey," and maybe "rightwingers have no qualms" about that sort of thing, but I do.

I’ll write about my general ambivalence about Whole Foods some other time…suffice to say I don’t shop there often enough for my participation, or non-participation, in the boycott to make even the most trivial difference. However, I think this boycott does more harm than good, and it makes me want to shake my fist impotently at people whose political beliefs I probably mostly share and tell them to get off my side.