John Mackey in Front of Healthy Food

John Mackey in Front of Healthy Food

As libertarians and other free market types say, if there is a market (demand) for a product, there is money to be made.  This is true for Whole Foods, which started as a trendy, yet more organic, market.  It has grown into a big business.  It appeals to young health conscious people, and also aging hipsters.  Imagine a store where evangelicals and liberals mingle while having the same interests…in food!  Yet, many are surprised to find out that the CEO is a libertarian, likes Ayn Rand, knows what an Austrian economist is, yet also is environmentally conscious, and into various spiritualisms.  Libertarians would say that a person who cut his own path may be wrong to cut it that way, but that he should be free to do it.

The New Yorker (linked above) took some time to profile the CEO–John Mackey–in a recent issue.  It details the rise of the store, as well as some of the ideology behind its creation–health.  Who would have thought people would be concerned about the food they eat and how that might contribute to their health, or quality of life?  Yet, it is also a sometimes critical article about the personality and thoughts of its CEO.

The article details the rise of Whole Foods to a large business (some say corporation).  And anti-corporatists have a problem with it.  But, Mackey is not your typical libertarian (or maybe he is…he has the typical libertarian interest in science fiction.  Perhaps he is a Trekkie, or is it a Trekker, but I digress):

During this period, Mackey sought succor in spiritual practice. He engaged a friend, a follower of the Czech transpersonal psychologist Stanislav Grof, to guide him through a therapeutic session of holotropic breathing. “I had this very powerful session, very powerful. It lasted about two hours,” Mackey said in an inspirational CD set he released last year called “Passion and Purpose: The Power of Conscious Capitalism.” “I was having a dialogue with what I would define as my deeper self, or my higher self.” He had a pair of epiphanies, one having to do with severed relationships that needed healing. The other was that “if I wanted to continue to do Whole Foods, there couldn’t be any part of my life that was secretive or hidden or that I’d be embarrassed [about] if people found out about it. I had to let go of all of that,” he said. “I’m this public figure now.”

But this public figure, who tries to be discrete, thinks of himself as a sort of hippie libertarian:

His vows of discretion apparently allow for a great deal of latitude. He talks openly about his fixations and eccentricities—most of them, anyway. (“I am not going to talk about my sex life,” he told me, without my having asked him to.) His blend of guile and guilelessness is peculiar. “I no longer drink alcohol around journalists,” he said. He worries that he reveals too much. He can’t help but speak his mind, out of which spring confounding ideas and conventionally irreconcilable contradictions. The man who has perhaps done as much as anyone to bring the natural-foods movement from the crunchy fringe into the mainstream is also a vocal libertarian, an orthodox free-marketer, an admirer of Milton Friedman, Ronald Reagan, and Ayn Rand. In the 2008 Presidential election, he voted for Bob Barr—Ron Paul wasn’t on the ballot.

The right-wing hippie is a rare bird, and it’s fair to say that most of Whole Foods’ shoppers have trouble conceiving of it. They tend to be of a different stripe, politically and philosophically, and they were either oblivious or dimly aware of Mackey’s views, until the moment, this summer, when Mackey published an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal asserting that the government should not be in the business of providing health care. This was hardly a radical view, and yet in the gathering heat of the health-care debate the op-ed, virally distributed via the left-leaning blogs, raised a fury. In no time, liberals were organizing boycotts of Whole Foods. (Right-wingers staged retaliatory “buy-cotts.”) Mackey had thrown tinder on the long-smoldering suspicion, in some quarters, that he was a profiteer in do-gooder disguise, and that he, and therefore Whole Foods, was in some way insincere or even counterfeit. No one can say that he hasn’t brought it on himself.

It is a fascinating article about a store that purports health, but sells plenty of sausage, ice-cream, and beer.  It also delves into Mackey’s opposition to nationalizing the health care industry:

The health-care op-ed’s headline, “THE WHOLE FOODS ALTERNATIVE TO OBAMACARE,” was the Journals, Mackey says, but the sentiments were his. Mackey’s prescriptions ranged from the obvious (people need to eat better) to the market-minded (promote interstate competition among insurers) to the dreamy (the corporations will take care of us). The gist was that, together, they’d obviate the need for a federal plan, and that the course being pursued by the White House and the Democrats would have disastrous consequences. He led with an epigram attributed to Margaret Thatcher: “The problem with socialism is that eventually you run out of other people’s money.”

Before submitting the op-ed, he showed it to Lanny Davis, the former Clinton White House special counsel, who represented Whole Foods in its antitrust battle. Davis told me that he “prodded John a little to think like a liberal,” and he reckons that the Thatcher quote was ill-advised. Still, he blames “left-wing McCarthyism” for the outrage that greeted the piece.

“I was so viciously attacked for two reasons,” Mackey told me. “One is that people had an idea in their minds about the way Whole Foods was. So when I articulated a capitalistic interpretation of what needed to be done in health care, that was disappointing to some people.” He begrudges the extent to which people have projected onto Whole Foods an unrealistic and idealistic vision of the company. “The C.E.O. of Safeway, Steven Burd, wrote an op-ed piece in June advocating, basically, market solutions to the health-care problem, and nobody gave a shit,” he said.

Of course, Whole Foods has always held itself up as a paragon of virtue. It is an article of faith that it is, as Mackey often says, a mission-based business. It has seven “core values,” which are, broadly speaking, commitments to the fulfillment and equitable treatment of all “stakeholders”—customers, employees, investors, and suppliers—as well as to the health of the populace, of the food system, and of the earth. Whole Foods’ claim to righteousness is, in many respects, its unique selling point. If the mission is sincere, so is the commitment to making money. Mackey is adamant, and not merely unapologetic, that his company—any company—can and should pursue profits and a higher purpose simultaneously, and that in fact the pursuit of both enhances the pursuit of each. “Whole Foods itself is a market-based solution,” he said. “We’re a corporation. We are in capitalism. We have to compete with Safeway and Wal-Mart and Kroger and Wegmans and Trader Joe’s. What’s odd about it is that that’s what we’ve always been. We’re not a co-op.” To “the people that really dislike us,” he said, “Whole Foods is a big corporation, so they think that we’ve crossed over to the dark side. Kind of the Darth Vader myth, that somehow or another we’ve become bad because we’ve become large.”

The second reason people got so angry about his Journal column, Mackey says, is that he exposed what he calls the issue’s “shadow side.” “The shadow side is when you bring up arguments, or a position, that people have never reflected upon and never really thought through, and it’s threatening to them,” he said. “It’s a shadow. It’s underneath. And, rather than deal with it, they lash out in anger and fear and hatred. In that op-ed piece, I was trying to make the argument that health care is really not different from anything else we provide for ourselves”—he had mentioned food and shelter—“and that capitalism is better than socialism at providing those things.” He added, “You certainly can articulate that I would rather live in a society where there’s universal health care. I think that’s my personal preference, but all I can do is articulate that it’s not intrinsic in the nature of human beings to have a right to health care. And, so, kill the messenger.”

In the end, Mackey is certainly a libertarian, but that’s too one dimensional; he is a complex individual. How many people do you know who would try to mend past relationships by seeking out those harmed or wronged (or perceived they were wronged even if they weren’t) to have them tell you all the bad things they think about you.  Mackey did that.
It is a fascinating read about business, health, food, and the character behind Whole Foods.  Read the whole thing.