Some progressives are pledging to boycott Whole Foods over an op-ed that CEO John Mackey wrote about the health care debate. Radley and Julian have made some great points on the subject. Like Julian, I was surprised by the vitriol Mackey’s op-ed provoked. People do business with lots of different companies, and corporate CEOs have political opinions just like everyone else. We’re a big, diverse country; people don’t generally consider this kind of run-of-the-mill political disagreement sufficient grounds to organize a boycott. It would be silly to boycott Target because Mark Dayton is a Democrat, just as it would be silly to refuse to drink Coors because Peter Coors is a Republican.
The issue with Mackey seems to be not just that liberals disagree with him, but that they feel like they’ve been deceived. As one of Matt’s commenters puts it, “Every dollar John Mackey has ever earned has come from ‘pandering to his customers’ political prejudges.'” Actually, this is completely wrong. I shop at Whole Foods on a semi-regular basis, and I’ve never seen posters touting Whole Foods’s support for the Democratic Party or the progressive agenda. What I have seen is posters pointing out that Whole Foods stocks local and organic food, offers good pay and benefits to its workers, gives to charity, and helps to protect the environment. This is not a political agenda. It’s a set of values that have nothing in particular to do with public policy.
Now, as it happens, it’s a set of values that a lot of progressives find appealing. And some of them seem to think that Mackey has simply been pretending to support those values as a way of luring them into the store. But there’s no evidence for that. And indeed, Mackey has never hid his libertarian politics. Why would he? As he’s written at length, there’s no conflict between libertarian politics and the liberal values Whole Foods promotes. In particular, there’s no logical connection between one’s opinion on organic food or the environment and one’s position on the desirability of a “public option” for health insurance. As it happens, people who shop at Whole Foods tend to be Obama’s supporters, but that’s not because Mackey has advertised Whole Foods as an Obama-friendly store.
Partisan politics also seems to blind people to the distinction between values and public policy. Liberals understood that it was absurd when conservatives accused them of being “objectively pro-Saddam” for opposing the invasion of Iraq. Many liberals (myself included) pointed out that there are many good reasons to oppose the invasion that don’t entail support for the Hussein regime. Yet Democrats seem downright eager to turn the tables, demonizing anyone who criticizes the sausage currently being made on Capitol Hill. The idea that people might sincerely disagree about the best way to improve health care seems to be an alien concept.