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The Art of Decentralization


When I heard the learned astronomer, When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me, When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them, When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture room, How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick, Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself, In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time, Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

~ Walt Whitman, When I Heard the Learned Astronomer

My wife and I recently took a trip to northwest Arkansas to visit relatives. While there, we went to the Crystal Bridges art museum in Bentonville. Focusing its collection on American artists – from the colonial period to the present – this museum is the creation of Alice Walton, the daughter of Wal-Mart’s Sam Walton. Works by such artists as Winslow Homer, Gilbert Stuart, Asher Durand, Andrew Wyeth, Georgia O’Keeffe, Thomas Hart Benton (for whom Bentonville was named in 1841), Andy Warhol, Louise Nevelson, Norman Rockwell, Jackson Pollock, and Thomas Eakins, among numerous others, provided more than 400 paintings and sculptures that occupy the museum’s 50,000 square feet of galleries.

Ms. Walton’s project bringing great works of art to the Ozarks has received universal praise, right? No? While it seems to be greatly valued by local residents, the aesthetic wing of the institutional establishment has managed to get its designer fabrics into a twisted knot and to find a troublesome pebble in their Jimmy Choo’s. Jeffrey Goldberg – writing on – characterized Crystal Bridges as a "moral blight" and a "moral tragedy." Other critics complained that Alice Walton was using her money to buy paintings that should be kept in their home (i.e., eastern establishment) cities, rather than being taken to (gasp!) the backwoods of Arkansas. In speaking of Crystal Bridge’s $35 million purchase of Asher Durand’s "Kindred Spirits," the New York Times art critic, Michael Kimmelman, treated the sale as akin to demolishing Penn Station! I can imagine some members of the art establishment comparing all of this to the Burt Lancaster film, The Train, in which World War II Nazi generals try to steal European paintings.

Jeffrey Goldberg wastes little ink outlining the basis for his moral outrage. His indictment is laid at the feet of Alice’s father, Sam Walton, a more recent entry into that vaguely defined category identified in Matthew Josephson’s 1934 book The Robber Barons. A close reading of this work reveals Sam Walton to have committed the same "sins" as his predecessors: beginning as a small five-and-dime retailer in a small town, he managed to turn his company into a multi-billion dollar enterprise and, worse yet, to insist upon controlling his own wealth. That’s it! Such is the "wrongdoing" of which the anti-capitalists have railed against the successful for centuries! Where the "robbery" occurred in all of this is rarely identified. While some of these men employed the powers of the state when it was advantageous to them to do so, the bulk of their great fortunes arose in the marketplace rather than through the ministrations of the state. Like the modern anti-capitalists who urge successful business people to "give back" to the community – implying that their wealth has been wrongfully taken from others – it is enough that the wealthy have sizeable sums of money and can be forced to disgorge it on behalf of purposes favored by the anti-capitalists!

One cannot understand the anti-Wal-Mart hysteria without addressing the two major themes of the attack: [1] as I mentioned above, Sam Walton personifies the capacity of creative men and women to become very successful in a free market economy. What Wal-Mart critics are fearful of acknowledging is that this company’s success has been due to customers, suppliers, and employees engaging in voluntary transactions with one another for their mutual self-interests. Such behavior underlies what used to be thought of as "the American dream," a state of mind that has since been redefined as a "government entitlement," and/or a "winning lottery ticket." Sam Walton represented how individuals can mobilize their own energies to serve their own purposes. Collectivists cannot live with that image.


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