How has Whole Foods CEO John Mackey’s politics influenced his business ideas? In a classic Big Think interview, Mackey goes over a wide range of topics including his thoughts on socialism and libertarianism (which aren’t as at odds as you may think), how to run an ethical business, his approach to “conscious capitalism,” and so much more.
Transcript: Question: How has your economic worldview evolved since you first got into business?
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John Mackey: Of course there is the old saying. I forget who said it, but I think it was true in my life, which is: "if at the age of 21 you’re not a socialist then you don’t have any heart and if by the age 30 you still are then you don’t have any brains." So that was kind of my experience. I started out young and idealistic and social justice and fair distribution of resources and we were… I didn’t understand why everybody couldn’t be equally prosperous.
And starting my own business was kind of a wakeup call in a number of different ways. I had to meet a payroll every week and we had to satisfy customers and we had competitors that we had to compete with in order to have those customers come into our stores. And we had to compete with other employers for our employees. We had to... The wages were under competitive pressures, so there was all this competition on us that of course made operating the business successfully difficult. And it’s kind of like having to meet a payroll and having to meet the demands of our customers is a great destroyer of utopian fantasies and utopian ideologies. You’re in the real world and you have to meet the market test every day and every week.
And I just found that the belief system that I had going into operating that business was inadequate to explain the experiences that I was having in business and I began to look around and read other books and other philosophies to try to make sense out of my life and out of my business experience and it was really through encountering the free market capitalist philosophies of Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises and many other free market philosophers that I came to realize that this explanation made a lot more sense in my business experience and made more sense in terms of how the world really operated and so that is when my worldview began to shift and I began to let go of being sort of a democratic socialist.
Question: Why are there such divergent opinions among libertarians?
John Mackey: Any type of political ideology is going to have a lot of different variants of it, a lot of different.... Libertarians are constantly arguing with each other who is the most pure libertarian and who is most ideologically pure. I have no real interest in those types of discussions or arguments. And what I resist... one of the strains of libertarianism and that I reject: I reject the idea that human kind is essentially selfish, not only as an observation that we frequently are selfish, but there is a strain of belief, particularly in the Ayn Rand part of the movement that believes people ought to be selfish, that that is a virtue, that humans are always self interested and altruism is evil and love is something that makes us weak. And so I reject that aspect of libertarianism. I'm a caring, compassionate person and I believe that free markets and free minds leads to the greatest human flourishing, so I really want humans to flourish and I believe liberty and market economies and capitalism are the best strategies for full human flourishing. So I don’t identify with that strain of libertarianism that is sort of uncaring and kind of a social Darwinian variant of it. I'm very uncomfortable with that. I'm not that way myself.
Question: What ideas are at the core of libertarianism?
John Mackey: I do believe that many libertarians are animated by human flourishing. They... we sincerely believe that human flourishing... That we need to be free and that we need to be creative, and that through human freedom entrepreneurship that humans are creative; they create new ways of creating value for each other that expresses the self through the economic system and leads to greater prosperity, not for a few, but for most people and eventually all people. So there is a strain of deep idealism in the libertarian movement. It’s again sometimes masked over by that ideology of selfishness, but the human flourishing element is definitely a big aspect of I think of the motivational structure of many libertarians. Certainly it is for me.
Question: Is capitalism a zero-sum game?
John Mackey: I think the zero-sum worldview is the predominate one. I think it’s something we’ve evolved with this idea that there is a limited fixed pie and we have to distribute that pie in an equal fair way,