Monday, July 24, 2006

Chicago's Big-Box Ordinance: What Would Aristotle Do?

When I was a teenager, I chafed at the implicit class bias in Aristotle's insistance that a strong middle class is the key to political stability. Influenced by G. M. S. de Ste. Croix's poetical and sweeping account of the Class Struggle in the Ancient World, my budding proto-Marxist mind identified Aristotle as a "class enemy", defending "property rights", and fighting the social trends that might have created a "just society" in the ancient world.

From my middle-aged middle-class perspective, my teenaged views seem like so much hogwash. Aristotle wants a strong middle class because when people are invested in their society, they will keep politics prudent, avoid unnecessary wars, and generally pursue the modest goals of gently improving the quality of life in society and the world. By contast, the most unstable system is a democracy with a large dispossessed class: politics becomes entertainment, chaos is inevitably more interesting than order, and a truculent nationalistic foreign policy provides the ego-compensation for low-status citizens (think Creon in Thucydides). A neo-Aristotelian friend of mine further adds that the level of American household debt creates a natural base for a cleansing wave of social disorder, and it is quite possible that this was a subconscious motivation for the people who voted our current President into office. Two unasked follow-up questions for the 48 percent of Americans who think that we are in the opening phases Armageddon are whether they expect to personally benefit from the apolocolypse and whether they are trying to hasten it.

A sensible and solvent middle class protects society from extreme viewpoints, and the real issue with WalMart is not whether it helps or hurts the poor, but whether it destroys the commercial middle class. The numbers clearly show that WalMart benefits the poor, particulalry in offerring alternatives to predatory prices at other commercial establishments in low-income neighborhoods. In our historical moment, however, the middle classes are an endangered species, and the predatory prices that they charge at their small businesses are, in fact, the habitat that allows them to survive. One way to give them the same protection that we give the spotted owl is to legislatively create barriers to entry for retail operations that would eviscerate their businesses. If the "Big Box Ordinance" succeeds in forcing WalMart to pay a "living wage" to its drones, it will have failed in a much broader sense.

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