Whole Foods Founder: Freedom Movement Needs to “Re-Brand” Itself

Inspired by a daughter who is a serious fruit-and-vegetable lover, over the last year or so I’ve been shopping semi-regularly at Whole Foods, but I always figured I was probably one of the few non-lefties there.

Guess not, as a recent speech-cum-essay by Whole Foods Founder John Mackey, brought to my attention by Professor Bainbridge, makes clear.

A few of many choice quotes:

At the time I started my business, the Left had taught me that business and capitalism were based on exploitation: exploitation of consumers, workers, society, and the environment. I believed that “profit” was a necessary evil at best, and certainly not a desirable goal for society as a whole. However, becoming an entrepreneur completely changed my life. Everything I believed about business was proven to be wrong.

The most important thing I learned about business in my first year was that business wasn’t based on exploitation or coercion at all. Instead I realized that business is based on voluntary cooperation. No one is forced to trade with a business; customers have competitive alternatives in the market place; employees have competitive alternatives for their labor; investors have different alternatives and places to invest their capital. Investors, labor, management, suppliers – they all need to cooperate to create value for their customers. If they do, then any realized profit can be divided amongst the creators of the value through competitive market dynamics.

In other words, business is not a zero-sum game with a winner and loser. It is a win, win, win, win game – and I really like that.


Freedom from government coercion is clearly a very, very important goal. But unless you live in a country like China, North Korea, Cuba, or Iran that lacks many personal liberties that we Westerners take largely for granted, freedom is not usually an important goal. American citizens mostly take their liberties for granted. Unlike the people in this audience, most Americans forget that vigilance is the eternal price we have to pay for protecting liberties.

Once we are free, or relatively free, to live our lives in the manner we choose, we must answer the question, “How then shall we actually live our lives?” Will we live our lives as hedonists, indulging ourselves with various amusements, diversions, and pleasures? Or will we choose the more difficult path of personal development and acceptance of social responsibility?

The freedom movement needs to reposition itself and re-brand itself. Personal freedom may be the first goal we work towards – but we can’t stop there; it isn’t enough. There is so much more to life. Using our freedom to take on greater social responsibility, as well as striving to reach our fullest potential as humans, needs to be a goal we support just as much as freedom from government coercion.


Who among you believes that socialized medicine is the answer to the health care crisis in America? The Left believes this is the answer: equal access to the health care system for all Americans – no one denied for financial reasons, in a single-payer system. Socialized health care seems very idealistic, and as such, appeals to many people. However, as Milton Friedman taught us, there is no such thing as a free lunch – in health care or anywhere else. We know the single-payer system means health care rationing through queuing up in long lines for expensive treatments and denial of some services to many of the elderly as too expensive. We know that uncaring government bureaucrats will run a single-payer system and, without the discipline of competitive markets, won’t provide quality customer and patient service. We know that health care innovation and progress will slow down tremendously, because much less money will be dedicated to medical research, since such research is long-term by nature and easily sacrificed to current budget limitations.

What would happen with true competition in school choice, with students and parents becoming truly empowered consumers instead of virtual prisoners and slaves? We would have an explosion in educational innovation.
The United States continues its steady movement toward socialized health care partly because the freedom movement has not articulated an idealistic vision of what would be possible if we deregulated health care. We have fought a strictly defensive battle on this issue, and that strategy needs to change.


Who among you has read Bjorn Lomborg’s book, “The Skeptical Environmentalist”? I cannot recommend this great book to you more highly. It convincingly demonstrates that the doom-and-gloom, apocalyptic crowd has greatly exaggerated the decline of the global environment in many important areas such as air and water quality and the decline in natural resources. With that qualifier said, I still believe the freedom movement has erred strategically by letting the Left own the ideal of environmental sustainability.

The ideal of environomental sustainability is certainly going to grow in importance over the next several years. It isn’t going to fade away. I personally think it is the Achilles heel of the freedom movement, and until it is proactively embraced as an important ideal by members of the freedom movement, the movement will become less and less relevant to the idealistic young in American society.

My company currently employs over 39,000 people. I estimate that nearly 100% of them care greatly about environmental sustainability. I know that I personally do. At Whole Foods, Team Members drift to the Left primarily because of the environmental issues.

Maintaining environmental sustainability is in the collective best interest of everyone. No one will argue that premise. The real question is, “What are the best ways to do it?” What are the trade-offs we need to make? When the freedom movement ignores the issue of environmental sustainability, the Left will dominate the discussion of the issues.

Remember that the Left’s goal remains either to cripple or to destroy capitalism. The freedom movement must embrace the ideal of environmental sustainability but must bring to the debate its commitment to property rights, markets, and proper incentives to effectively resist the inevitable leftist arguments for more bureaucratic controls and regulations. Why should the Left own the ideals (and it does own them right now) of love, caring, and compassion – especially with its track record? How can a movement that in its extreme form is responsible for the murders of more than 100 million people, slaughtered in the name of its ideals, own those three words? What the Left has done is create a world of victims and a cult of victimology. Then the Left accuses everyone who disagrees with it of lacking love, caring, and compassion. What a bunch of baloney! The freedom movement must embrace the ideals of love, caring, and compassion, and return these words to their true meanings. Love, caring, and compassion do not equate to guilt, and they do not mean pandering to the demands of the various victims of the world. Spreading freedom through the world is the most loving, caring, and compassionate thing we can do for people. True freedom allows people to create prosperity and gives them the opportunity to move up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs towards self-actualization. True freedom gives us the opportunity to take social responsibility and to work towards making the world a better place.

I could go on, but I risk violating copyright. (I do recommend the whole thing.)

Another aspect of Mackey’s essay I want to draw attention to is his view that what he calls the “Freedom Movement” (he is a self-described Libertarian politically) spends too much time on some issues to the detriment of the movement’s interests. Specifically, he says the movement spends too much time advocating legal drugs, porn, prostitution and guns and not enough time on issues such as educational choice, privatizing Social Security, deregulating health care and tort reform.

I agree with this, mostly (I would not include guns). I am not a libertarian, but I think the libertarian philosophy has much to offer that gets lost because the movement is identified with drugs and sex. Regardless of the merits of the Libertarian position on those matters, constant references to drugs and sex in libertarian periodicals, etc. tends in my view to make the movement look adolescent. A self-imposed ten-year ban on discussion of sex and drug issues would, in my estimation, truly help libertarians receive widespread acceptance of their ideas.

Hat tip: Professor Bainbridge

The National Center for Public Policy Research is a communications and research foundation supportive of a strong national defense and dedicated to providing free market solutions to today’s public policy problems. We believe that the principles of a free market, individual liberty and personal responsibility provide the greatest hope for meeting the challenges facing America in the 21st century.