John Mackey, chief executive officer of Whole Foods Market, recently debated John Roemer, a Marxist economics professor at Yale, on the question of “Capitalism vs. Socialism: Free to Choose or Free to Lose?”
Roemer, a supporter of former Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, wrote a book called “Free to Lose,” challenging the theme of free-market economist Milton Friedman’s classic, “Free to Choose.” Roemer blames the 2008 financial crisis and growing inequality of wealth on “greedy” capitalists.
Yet during the debate, hosted at FreedomFest in Las Vegas, Mackey pointed out that countries with high economic freedom such as Hong Kong, Singapore and Chile have improved prosperity, while socialist countries such as Greece, Venezuela and North Korea are poor and getting poorer all the time. He also looked at Sweden as a case study, which he reported has lowered its corporate tax rate and reduced its top marginal tax rates and achieved improved economic growth. More broadly, Mackey contended people are better off financially as they enjoy freer markets.
During the debate, Mackey also showed Census data in constant dollars illustrates how Americans have gotten wealthier since 1970 — contrary to arguments from Roemer and Sanders.
Immediately after the debate, Mackey spoke with Bold about his performance.
“When you are actually doing the debate, you’re in the moment and you’re not stepping back and looking at yourself,” he said. “So you don’t really know how you are doing, but I got great feedback so I guess it went pretty well.”
“I think I got my main points in with John Roemer,” Mackey continued. “He’s an economics professor at Yale who believes that he knows the best thing for society: 80 percent tax rates, entrepreneurs will work hard and still be creative for the goodness of their heart, and sins don’t matter. Socialism has failed miserably every place it has been tried. It just hasn’t been done right. Because the right people aren’t running it yet. If John Roemer and his gang were running, it would be good.”
Mackey also said that capitalism is the system that aligns most closely with human nature.
“Socialism always fails because it doesn’t have good incentive systems,” Mackey said. “It doesn’t work well with the reality of people ever finding themselves. It sounds good in theory. People will take care of each other, and no one will suffer, and everyone will have health-care, everybody will have free education and it sounds very good. In theory. But in reality it never works. It never has worked. And I believe it never will work.”
Mackey is by no means a miserly and tight-fisted capitalist. Mackey’s book, “Conscious Capitalism,” advocates a values- and ethics-based capitalistic system. He says as a young man, he had socialistic leanings but only after starting Whole Foods did he realize that a truly altruistic society is one that creates a long-term, sustainable system for maximizing human happiness through voluntary exchange.
“I’m an idealist in terms of what’s possible,” Mackey said. “I want to make the world a better place. But you have to do that in a sort of pragmatic fashion. Not a utopian transformation, there’s not going to be a new human being that’s going to pop up that human nature ceases to exist and that’s been the myth of the socialistic man, that they can change human nature. If you educate them right, selfishness would disappear, and greed would go away, and people would always be kind, they would always work hard and do it for the good of the community.
“And we have the element in human nature, but it’s small,” he explained. “I mean self-interest and particularly self-interest in ourselves, in our families, and our smaller communal tribe, that tends to be more dominant in human nature. And I don’t think that’s about to be — it has evolved out over thousands of years but it won’t evolve out today.”
Carrie Sheffield is the founder of Bold. She is passionate about storytelling to empower and connect others. A founding POLITICO reporter, Carrie contributed on political economy at Forbes and wrote editorials for The Washington Times. After earning a master’s in public policy from Harvard University, she managed credit risk at Goldman Sachs and researched for Edward Conard, Bain Capital founding partner and American Enterprise Institute scholar. She earned a B.A. in communications at Brigham Young University and completed a Fulbright fellowship in Berlin.