On August 11, 2009, Whole Foods co-founder and chief executive officer John Mackey published an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal recommending “eight things we can do to improve health care without adding to the deficit.” The ideas, many of them familiar to market-oriented health policy wonks, ranged from malpractice reform to eliminating the tax incentives that tie insurance to employment. “The last thing our country needs,” Mackey warned, “is a massive new health-care entitlement that will create hundreds of billions of dollars of new unfunded deficits and move us much closer to a government takeover of our health-care system.”
It was as if a bomb had gone off in the arugula line. Some of Mackey’s customers, who tend to be urban, upscale, and left of the political center, went ballistic. Protests were held outside and occasionally even inside several Whole Foods outlets. A Boycott Whole Foods group on Facebook attracted more than 34,000 members. “Mackey’s campaign,” warned one boycott leader, “results in the deaths of 60 Americans every day due to lack of health insurance. Mackey is responsible for these deaths as much as anyone.”
The “intense” reaction took the soft-spoken 56-year-old by surprise, but the protests quickly faded away. What remained after the hubbub died down was a contentious White House health care plan still very much up in the air and a businessman still eager to have a calm policy conversation with people who now regarded him as a libertarian traitor to his customers’ political beliefs.
John Mackey is used to confounding conventional political categories. A cutting-edge entrepreneur who is comfortable quoting both Ludwig von Mises and astrology, who both practices veganism and sells some of the best meat in America, and who both chases profits and is an outspoken advocate of charitable giving, Mackey is an advocate of what he calls “conscious capitalism.” He is that rarest of businessmen: an articulate and passionate defender of free enterprise and free individuals.
Mackey—who has contributed in the past to the Reason Foundation, the nonprofit organization that publishes this magazine—sat down with reason Editor in Chief Matt Welch and reason.tv Editor Nick Gillespie in September. For a video version of the interview, go to reason.tv/mackey.
reason: In your Wall Street Journal op-ed, you wrote, “While we clearly need health care reform, we should be trying to achieve reforms by moving in the opposite direction of more government control toward less government control and more individual empowerment.” Why do we need health care reform and why should the government not be a part of health care?
John Mackey: We need health care reform because the current system, in the way it’s structured and regulated, is becoming more and more expensive. We’ve gone from spending 4 percent of our gross domestic product on health care in 1960 to almost 17 percent today, and the trend lines aren’t really slowing down.
reason: Were you surprised by the vociferous reaction to your op-ed?
Mackey: I was surprised. I mean, CEOs write op-ed pieces all the time. Steven Burd, the CEO of Safeway, had written an op-ed piece in The Wall Street Journal on health care reform just a month or two before I did, and nobody reacted at all to it. So it was rather bizarre.
reason: Do you think employer-based health care is a right, or even a good idea?
Mackey: Well, if you look at the history of it, it came about in World War II when the government put wage and price controls on but exempted insurance. So employers began paying for insurance because that was a way they could compensate people. After World War II, it continued to be a special tax exemption that encouraged employers to be picking up the insurance. It sort of spread through the culture.
I’m not sure that’s the best way to do it, primarily because as long as you work for Whole Foods, we’ve got this great health insurance program, but what if you want to leave? What if you get a better job offer someplace else, or you’re ready to do something else? It’s not portable. So that restrains people from maybe leaving because they’re not sure they can get as good a health care program. I think it’d be better if individuals did it themselves.
reason: Let’s say you suffer from Down syndrome. You’re going to live to age 50; you probably won’t work very well. Where do you get your health insurance under the John Mackey plan?
Mackey: Obviously, there are always the tough cases, the marginal cases, and what we’re suggesting for reform wouldn’t necessarily be a solution for them. The reforms that I advocated would help tens of millions of people have better health care and health insurance. It may not solve everyone’s problem, and so maybe those need to be solutions that are provided elsewhere, either through the not-for-profit sector or through some type of government voucher program.
reason: You started out in 1978 as Safer Way in Austin, Texas. What were your goals in creating that original outlet and then becoming Whole Foods in 1980?