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Wailing WalMart: Dispensing Justice with Miles of Aisles

Americans are obsessed with justice. This is why WalMart causes nationwide schizophrenia. WalMart just opened a store in my small town and it's made my life easier, but not because they bring truckloads of cheap stuff and round-the-clock shopping to my back door. I like WalMart primarily because they make it easy for me to teach my students what social justice means out there in “the real world.” 

I constantly hear that we professors don't give young people crucial life skills. Because we are so naively secluded in our ivory tower, the argument goes, we have lost touch with reality. Another complaint that is commonly directed at us comes from our students: “That's not fair,” they love to say whenever we make life too tough for them.

The old-school answer to this fairness complaint was, “If you want to find justice, look in the dictionary.” My answer is, “If you want to see what American justice looks like, visit a WalMart.”

I like WalMart primarily because they make it easy for me to teach my students what social justice means out there in "the real world."

WalMart wipes out competitors, destroys downtown shopping districts and plays a powerful role in shipping U.S. manufacturing jobs to China. We hear the battle cry every day, “Stand up for social justice. Boycott WalMart.” We all are glad that someone out there is fighting WalMart, and in some fantasy world, we would probably join the fight. But any American who attacks WalMart as unjust is more out of touch with reality than the most naive professor.

Social justice is increasingly defined in harsh terms, and our daily shopping behavior proves the point: Give the people low prices and convenient store hours, and you win and everyone else loses.

But something in our culture tells us that this is wrong. Justice is supposed be a nice thing, not a way to define losers. What about lost jobs and closed storefronts? “That's not fair,” we grumble as we load up at Sam's Club. We are like the sports fan who is disgusted that someone can become a multimillionaire by playing a kid's game, but who also demands that his favorite team sign a bunch of those millionaires.

I have devised a way to teach my students some important life skills and to give them a better understanding of what justice means in America. In my fantasy class at the start of each semester, I will announce my new grading policy. At the end of the semester, I explain, I add up each student's total points for the course. The student with the highest total gets an A. The students in second and third place get a B. Places four, five and six get a C. The next three places get a D, and everyone else gets an F.

“That's not fair,” they cry. Our education system has instilled in them a charming sense of justice. “If we all perform well, you can't flunk us. You can't give only one A if several of us deserve it.”

I will shout, “This is my class and these are my rules. I define what is fair.” After much arguing and whining, they can settle the matter by simply withdrawing from my course and finding a different professor who has a more comfortable sense of fairness. In my real-world classes, I tell the students my real, less Draconian, grading system the day after I've scared them.

But you can't withdraw from the real world. We send students out into our cold-blooded society armed with a solid degree and a romantic sense of justice. It won't take long until they join the rest of us in our collective schizophrenia concerning WalMart.

Thucydides, despite the fact he lived 2,000 years ago, understood the American conception of justice far better than all of the anti-WalMart activists. Although we like to pretend that our society defends the little guy, as consumers we embrace Thucydides's precept: “The strong do as they wish, while the weak suffer what they must.”

If you don't like WalMart, then you don't like America's definition of justice. In an effort to uphold the principles of our just society I will pick up a few 12-packs of paper towels at the Supercenter this afternoon. Even better, I will do it at 9 p.m., when WalMart's weak competitors are at home spending quality time with their families - an activity that offends my American sense of justice.

Emil Nagengast is associate professor of politics at Juniata College.