Regulation John Mackey's Conscious Capitalism. The Whole Foods CEO on health care reform, veganism, & his unstinting defense of free markets.


When he started his first organic food store in Austin, Texas in 1978, Whole Foods Market CEO and co-founder John Mackey had no idea that he would eventually usher in not just a revolution in how we shop but in what we buy. If you dig being able to buy dozens of types of once-exotic apples, or cheese, or wine, or soaps, or countless other items, you can thank Mackey in part for helping to create cathedrals of commerce that have vastly enriched our day-to-day lives and vastly expanded our palates. (Full disclosure: Mackey has contributed to Reason Foundation, the nonprofit that publishes this website.)

In August, Mackey became one of the most controversial businessmen in America when he penned an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal outlining his company's free-market-oriented health care system and offering eight concrete reforms that would reduce costs and improve access. Noting that health care is not "a right" as that term is properly understood, Mackey forcefully argued that increasing government intervention into health care is precisely the wrong thing to do: "The last thing our country needs 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. Instead, we should be trying to achieve reforms by moving in the opposite direction—toward less government control and more individual empowerment."

The response from the left to Mackey's op-ed was swift: Advocates of single-payer health care, union activists, and others called for protests at and boycotts of Whole Foods, despite the fact that the company provides affordable and well-regarded coverage to its employees.

As a cutting-edge entrepreneur who is comfortable quoting astrological signs and Ludwig von Mises, who practices veganism and sells some of the best meat in America, and who chases profits and is an outspoken advocate of charitable giving, Mackey confounds conventional political categories. As an advocate of what he calls "conscious capitalism," Mackey is that rarest of businessman: an articulate and passionate defender of free enterprise and free individuals.

In late September, Mackey sat down with Reason's Matt Welch and Nick Gillespie to talk about health care reform, corporate social responsibility (on which Mackey has written for Reason), why government interventions rarely achieve their goals, and how Mackey came to his unstinting belief in free markets.Approximately five minutes. Shot by Dan Hayes and Meredith Bragg. Edited by Meredith Bragg.

This is an abridged version of an hour-long conversation with Mackey. For the full interview and downloadable versions, go here or click below.

NEXT: They Say You Can't Fight the Future, But Maybe It Can Fight You?

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  1. I don’t think this story will ever get old. Here’s a guy that’s been selling products to lefties who thought he was just as crunchy as they were, and he stabs them in the back. It proves that liberals are tolerant as long as they agree with you.

    1. If Ariadne Huffanan has her way, it won’t matter. As you’ll recall, she’s leading the campaign to nationalize Whole Foods.

      1. Let us hope the Minotaur consumes her!

  2. It’s worth noting once again that Mackey’s opponents call for protests and boycotts rather than making substantive arguments against his arguments.

    But the left has long substituted shouting in place of debate, since they are so convinced of their own righteousness that they don’t bother even thinking about what anyone else has to say anymore.

    1. You lie!

      1. Yes, you lie.

  3. This is great. reason needs to find more prominent proponents of free markets and free minds and partner with them.

  4. As sage points out, it’s a great story to illustrate lefty intolerance. I’m not sure he’s one of us though. I mean that’s a fine tin hat he’s sporting, and he can recite a little cataclysm, but I don’t think he knows how to work the decoder ring.

    1. The decoder ring is fucking hard to work (especially in the bathroom with your little brother outside yelling at you).

  5. The Baucus Death Spiral [James C. Capretta]

    Full disclosure: I do consulting work for private health insurers, but I had no prior knowledge of the PriceWaterhouseCoopers study before it was released. Having said that, its conclusions were not at all surprising, nor was the heated reaction of the Obama White House. Democrats understand how dangerous the PwC study is to their effort to pass a health-care bill because it exposes a crucial and irrefutable flaw in the health-care plan approved this week by the Senate Finance Committee.

    And what is that flaw? In short, the plan sponsored by Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus would almost certainly lead to a death spiral in many private health insurance markets.

    1. Hell, the PWC plan was a major boost to Democrats.

      Any industry that tries to win support for its policies by pointing out that it plans to jack rates by 79% in the next decade deserves to die a very swift death.

      The current system is utterly broken and unsustainable, and we will never ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever have some libertarian utopia where the government isn’t involved, so get over it. Your choices on the table are a continuation of the hybrid monstrosity we have now, or some sort of national system….and the choice is obvious.

      1. The current system is utterly broken and unsustainable, The current “market failure” in health care may have had something to do with government intervention, but I will pretend that it’s all capitalism’s fault, and we will never ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever have some libertarian utopia where the government isn’t involved, except when I admit that having less government involvement may be beneficial but impractical, so get over it because when the choices are less government, no change, or more government, you and I know very well which one will happen and I for one want to be on the winning team and will pwn your ass, libertarians. Your choices on the table are a continuation of the hybrid monstrosity we have now, or some sort of national system….and the choice is obvious. Submit or face my smug indignation at your independent thinking, fuckers.

        1. FTFY because I just had to, you fascist.

          1. wake up, marky!

  6. I think the problem most on the left have with freedom is that they’re stuck on an outdated (and silly) picture of capitalism. It’s hard to blame them, when all they know about economics is what they read from Marx or Krugman. “Capitalism” has become a bad word, and “free market” is close behind. It’s why they freak when someone like Mackay advocates less government. To them freedom is about voluntary exchanges of bodily fluids, not voluntary exchanges of dollar bills.

    It’s time to change the narrative. Instead of talking about capitalism and economics and dollars, we should be talking about individual freedom. The anarchists have two good words, voluntaryism and mutualism. Maybe if we can shift the dialogue to reducing restraints and coercion, and empowering choices and voluntary action, we could gain a few converts on the left.

    1. “In a compromise between good and evil, only evil benefits” – Rand

      I’m not sure we have any want desire or need to appeal to any leftists. We don’t need to sugarcoat capitalism to get them on our side. We need to stand up for what is right, to hell with what the leftist sheep think.

    2. As one of those damn voluntaryists, I can tell you that the individual freedom angle doesn’t sell any better.

      1. The bleating flock waits for any powerful voice to command them. Your freedom is as frightening to them as the lighting and the thunder.

    3. “Choice” and individualism is a great selling point to lefties until one of those concepts gore one of their oxes. Almost instantly choice and freedom are jetisonned overboard.

      Lefties simply don’t get it or don’t want to get it. Period. One needs to look no close than the gay movement and how closely allied it is to the Democrats. Never mind that the single largest and most blanketing oppressor is the state, with its many laws and prohibitions against homosexuality, but, almost to a person, is seen as their only hope.

      My DBA is gay (and I work with a-many happy men) and thinks that its great that gays are being included in hate crimes legislation. I tell him that it flirts with policing thought and he doesn’t care. He wants to have gay marriage. I tell him that instead, we should get the state out of marriage and let it be a private affair as it should be. Then you don’t need to worry about passing any laws. He doesn’t care.

      He just wants to grow the monster so that it feeds on their enemies and not them. Never mind the consequences in the long run. Never mind that you won’t always have the “right people” in charge.

      1. Hmmm, a few too many never minds….

    4. No one, on the far left or far right, wants or believes in freedom. Freedom within a state means that, not only do you get to do your thing, but other people get to do things that you do not approve of. What they are interested in instead of freedom is LICENSE, which means that the state allows them to do what they want to do, including making other people do what they want them to do no matter if the others like it or not. They don’t give a crap about freedom, they just want to be on top of the power structure.

    5. I think the problem on the right is that they are stuck in an outdated (and silly) idea that the free market works everywhere, nearly perfectly, all the time, despite a mountain of evidence to the contrary. “Government” has become a bad word, and “regulation” is close behind. It’s why the freak out when someone like advocates more government. To then, freedom is about absence of government regulation only, regardless of whether you have any practical ability to exercise that freedom.

      It is time to change the narrative. Instead of talking about freedom in terms of abscence of legal restrictions, we should be talking about REAL freedom to act, travel, speak, and live as one wants. Maybe if we can shift the dialogue to reducing REAL impedements to freedom, and empowering people to have REAL choices rather than theoretical ones, we would gain a few converts on the right.

      1. ‘”Government” has become a bad word,’

        There was that whole thing where governments killed millions of people last century. I’m not saying it’s government’s fault (I agree in principle that “brutal authoritarian regimes don’t kill people, people kill people”), but it’s human nature to try to find something to blame when a tragedy like that occurs — whether’s it’s propaganda in movies or on the radio, or falling in with the wrong group of allies, or whatever. Some people think that if these hotheaded nations didn’t have such easy access to government, maybe some of these senseless deaths could have been avoided, and I can’t blame them.

        Frankly, we have to stop worrying about ancient tradition and admit that a stable society needs some degree of government control. Not necessarily bans — I’m not suggesting we take governments out of the hands of law abiding citizenries or leave them defenseless against rogue states. I just think it wouldn’t hurt to make sure people wait for a while before getting new laws to make sure they’re not acting in the heat of the moment, and make sure that they’re really trained to wield that sort of power without hurting innocent people. There are also some commonsense restrictions — I can’t count the number of times some idiot has killed or seriously harmed other people with a government simply because he was drunk on power.

        Of course, let’s not pretend that all governments are equal. While we shouldn’t ban all governments outright, I think it’s perfectly reasonable to ban those features that are only useful for people that want to hurt a lot of other people or commit crimes against humanity. For every guy that just wants a government in case he needs to defend his family and never even ends up using it, there’s another guy that uses his government to rob other people and make life miserable for others. What’s even more tragic is that it’s people like the second who are most likely to end up on the wrong end of a government. We’ve lost too many promising young men to this blight, even in this century, and I just hope that one day people can learn to stop living in fear and resentment and clinging to their governments.

      2. Code words for valuing “positive” rights over “negative” rights, or rather entitlements over real human rights. When entitlements become the priorty real human rights suffer.

      3. “I think the problem on the right is that they are stuck in an outdated (and silly) idea that the free market works everywhere, nearly perfectly, all the time, despite a mountain of evidence to the contrary.”

        [citation needed]

  7. Fewer markets! Fewer choices! A statist’s wet dream.

  8. Brandybuck,
    I think you may be right. A lot of my lefty friends are just as appalled by most of the nanny state crap as I am and in many ways are just as cynical about government, but they still can’t let go of their redistributionist ways and collectivist preconceptions.

  9. The story of Whole Foods as free market provider of leftist’s fashionable wants has a revealing counter part in another Austin institution, the Wheatsville coop.

    The coop was founded back in the IIRC the 70’s and it supposedly inspired the creation of Whole Foods. Both stores sold the same products to same demographic segment. However, Wheatsville was some kind of constantly shifting experiment in which wherein people used the store broadcast their own self-rightous view of themselves. It had more in common with a religious cult than a store. Wheatsville was nothing but politics piled on top of politics. It was people using a store and its products to try and dominate and control other people.

    By contrast, John Mackey decided to try and change the world by giving people what they decided they wanted or needed. He didn’t try to force anyone to do anything.

    As a result, Whole Foods is a large national chain that has provided millions of people with goods and experiences they could never have before while Wheatsville remains in the same crappy little store it was in 30+ years ago with a few hundred broke hippies with sprinkles of college professors as customers. Wheatsville hasn’t accomplished or changed squat.

    If more leftists saw Mackey as a role model instead of the self-rightous jerks at Wheatsville, we’d all be eating chocolate for lunch and farting sunshine within ten years.

    1. There’s more to it than just the politics. Most of those lefty co-ops are inherently hampered by their reluctance to turn a profit. Any time profits happen (usually by accident), the coop management feels the need to make up for it by lowering prices or stocking more exclusive “organic” or “fair trade” stock. Or by donating the money to a local activist group.

      The notion of actually expanding and becoming a nationwide chain is deeply abhorrent to these people. They want to stay small, local, and perpetually on the edge of bankruptcy.

      1. sage,

        You screwed up. You should’ve said that here:

        “You can say that again.”

        1. Mein Gott. What have I done? Can we get a “retract” function over here please?

    2. There’s more to it than just the politics. Most of those lefty co-ops are inherently hampered by their reluctance to turn a profit. Any time profits happen (usually by accident), the coop management feels the need to make up for it by lowering prices or stocking more exclusive “organic” or “fair trade” stock. Or by donating the money to a local activist group.

      The notion of actually expanding and becoming a nationwide chain is deeply abhorrent to these people. They want to stay small, local, and perpetually on the edge of bankruptcy.

      1. You can say that again.

        1. hehe, I enjoyed that.

        2. I can’t help it if Reason’s new website interprets one click as two.

    3. Wheatsville actually expanded their building this year and it certainly isn’t crappy. But I do wonder what they pay their employees and what kind of insurance they provide. Disclaimer: I don’t shop or wish to shop at Wheatsville but I’m just pointing out some inaccuracies in your post.

      1. Wonderful, they’ve “expanded” their single store how much in the 30+ years they’ve been around? I remember back in college they were always bragging about their “expansions” but in the intervening decades they still on the same lot they were when I shopped there. They must be advertising an expansion of a couple of square feet every year.

        More likely, they’re just giving themselves credit for planning on expanding and feeling perfectly justified in advertising their plans as accomplishment. Kind of pattern with those types of people.

        1. You were wrong and I corrected you. Yes, I find there expansion pitiful compared to Whole Foods.

  10. Liz Hunt of London’s Daily Telegraph reports on an even more chilling euphemism used in a country that long ago instituted “health-care reform”:

    “Mrs ——- has breathing difficulties,” the night manager told her. “She needs oxygen. Shall we call an ambulance?” “What do you mean?” my friend responded. “What’s the matter with her?” “She needs to go to hospital. Do you want that? Or would you prefer that we make her comfortable?” “Make her comfortable.” Here’s what that meant:

    Befuddled by sleep, she didn’t immediately grasp what was being asked of her. Her grandmother is immobilised by a calcified knee joint, which is why she is in the home. She’s a little deaf and frail, but otherwise perky. She reads a newspaper every day (without glasses), and is a fan of the darling of daytime television, David Dickinson. Why wouldn’t she get medical treatment if she needed it? Then, the chilling implication of the phone call filtered through–she was being asked whether her grandmother should be allowed to die. “Call an ambulance now,” my friend demanded. The person at the other end persisted. “Are you sure that’s what you want? For her to go to hospital.” “Yes, absolutely. Get her to hospital.” Three hours later, her grandmother was sitting up in A&E [the accident-and-emergency ward], smiling. She had a mild chest infection, was extremely dehydrated, but was responding to oxygen treatment. As Hunt notes, “Withdrawal of fluids (and drugs) is one of the steps on the controversial palliative care programme known as the Liverpool Care Pathway, which has been adopted by 900 hospitals, hospices and care homes in England.”…..ution.html

    1. See, you don’t need to collect a bunch of so-called ethicists and cost-benefit analysists for a somewhat accountable and definately identifiable, DEATH PANEL. Just get your low-level eldercare bureaucrats trained to always push for the cheapest solution – that is, let granny die.

      1. “Make her comfortable” is awfully reminiscent of ‘Quietus’ in the film Children Of Men.

    2. I especially like how the response of the progressive establishment to Sarah Palin’s hyperbolic term “death panels” was not to say “WTF? That’s idiotic, we’re not going to provide any less care”. Instead, they ran defenses of QALY’s in the NYT, and Newsweek ran “The case for killing granny”. Well, at least they’re honest.

    3. While I do understand that healthcare in the UK, even private, is incredibly entangled with the practices, goals, and influence of the NHS, it should be mentioned that the article states that this was a private care home, not a government operated facility.

  11. On what issues might the average reader potentially clash with John Mackey?

    1. As an enthusiastic supporter of the compulsory serving of organic Asparagus at breakfast, I support Mr. Mackey’s chain of food stores. But as a hysterical character type who supports radical statism, I believe Mr. Mackey should be apprehended for re-education. The resultant cognitive dissonance is overwhelming.

  12. sorry if thats already been addressed.

  13. Henry,

    Some of us might disgree with some of the ways he runs his company…but we generally support his running the company that way (as long as he is upfront about it in the company charter).

    I prefer a shareholder run company over a stakeholder run company, but that just means I dont buy his stock.

  14. Anyone else having trouble getting the bottom video to play? I tried both Firefox and Chrome without luck, and when click on the full version I get a 404.

  15. WFMI stock broke 33, and hit another 52-week high today. I need to take my own advice and buy any time I see an ill-conceived boycott.

  16. And what is that flaw? In short, the plan sponsored by Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus would almost certainly lead to a death spiral in many private health insurance markets.

    I keep telling you people. To the sponsors of this tripe, that’s not a flaw. That’s their fucking goal.

  17. Mackey makes brief mention of Tort reform in his excellent op-ed in the Journal. Our elected officials, most of whom are lawyers, do not talk very much about the endless stream of ambulance-chasing lawyers who contribute so much to high liability insurance for doctors as well as endless (expensive) CYA tests to fend off possible lawsuits.

    1. …do not talk very much about the endless stream of ambulance-chasing lawyers who contribute so much to high liability insurance…

      Neither do they talk very much about the endless stream of lawyers who contribute to their re-election campaigns.

  18. I work for Whole Foods. His statement that our health insurance is great is a lie. We have the UHC PPO plan and it stinks. Really stinks. Our deductible the is year is $1300 and next year it will be raised to $1450 and the prescription deductible is $700. After you meet the deductible they pay 80/20. The company gives you some money on a card to help cover this. It’s not enough to cover the whole deductible. The insurance is great is you are single and relatively healthy, if you have family or kids you are out of luck, and end up paying out of pocket. Many procedures and prescriptions are not covered by the plan. I have to make a choice each month if I want to take my blood pressure medication or if I can afford it that month. Sure there are no copays but I end up paying more.

    I have Mackey health insurance and I WANT a single payer insurance, I want the government to take over. I agree this system is broken but Mackey is dead wrong when he says this insurance is great. It’s great if your rich like he is and can afford to pay for all the bills. He should think of the dishwashers that work for him and make $10 and hour before he says this garbage.

    1. Agreed. Whole Food’s insurance is only “great” relative to the insurance that most of its competitors provide – nothing. It is actually a very crappy and minimal plan, far worse and far less certain that any national scheme in any advanced nation on earth.

      If this is what Mackay thinks is “great”, he is pathetic.

    2. james d, ask yourself the following questions:

      Why do I feel entitled to health care at no cost to me, but at substantial cost to others?

      What makes me believe that a single-payer system designed by the Republicrats in office will be any more cost-friendly than the one I currently have?

      Why do I choose to continue working at a grocery store when the expenses of my personal life dictate that I get a job that either pays me more money or grants me better benefits?

      1. Joe, it has nothing to do with “entitlements”. It has to do with what works – and our system doesn’t.

        Every other advanced nation covers everybody, at much lower cost, with much less risk to the individual, and much less worry. Many of them have similar levels of medical care, and most of them better results. There is no evidence that we are getting anything worth what we are paying.

        1. Every other advanced nation covers everybody, at much lower cost, with much less risk to the individual, and much less worry.

          “Every other advanced nation” (except those who exclude others out of racial/religious reasons like Japan and Israel) deals with hordes of immigrants who teem into their borders (legally) and live off of the public dole (legally) while the menfolk sit around and play backgammon all day and the women cook, clean and raise the kids.

          In case you also haven’t noticed, there is also a fairly steady brain drain from “every other advanced nation” into ours due to the combination of tax & spend and “Let’s let Mohammed from Morocco with his three wives come live in our country and have 10 kids” immigration policies.

          Also, health care and pharmaceutical professionals earn much, much more here than they do in “every other advanced nation”.

          Obama and the Republicrats in office are misleadingly titling their “Health Insurance Takeover” as “Health Care Reform”. If they were actually interested in reforming health care itself and bringing down its cost, the inflated salaries of doctors and pharmaceutical professionals would be the place to start, not health insurance companies.

          I’m sorry to burst your bubble, but the reason why triple bypass surgery in this country costs around $50k has absolutely nothing to do with the cost of health insurance…

          1. It has something to do with the cost of health insurance, and the level of competition for health insurance, and the Medicare reimbursement rates, and a million other impediments to the free exchange of money for medical care.

            1. I would chalk a good portion of blame up to the AMA and their severe restrictions on competition between doctors, their restrictions on the number of medical licenses handed out, and their zealous persecution of non-MDs (such as Chiropractors) encroaching on what they feel is their “turf”.

              If the cost to repair your vehicle after an accident (in terms of parts and labor charged by the average repair shop) goes up 5x over the course of 20 years and your auto insurance subsequently goes up 5x over the course of 20 years, is the hike in price due to “greedy insurance companies”? Does it have to do with perceived lack of competition among auto insurance companies? Does it have to do with what auto insurance companies refuse to reimburse for?

              This witchhunt against private health insurance does nothing to address the true reasons underlying the high cost of health care in the US. It’s smoke and mirrors courtesy of the Republicrats…

        2. But by what right does the government get to take my money to pay for a smoker’s cancer treatment or a fast-food nut’s heart surgery? I wouldn’t have such a problem with nationalized health care if more people gave a damn, but just think about how neglectful an average American is when it comes to their health. Do you really want to be held responsible for paying his medical bills?

    3. How long have you been with Whole Foods?

      1. That question was directed at James D, by the way…

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  22. Shouldn’t this be called “conscientious” capitalism?

  23. I’m going to start shopping at Whole Foods. This guy is brilliant and understands free markets. He must drive the stick and twig-eating crowd nuts (sorry for that).

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  26. My only point is that if you take the Bible straight, as I’m sure many of Reasons readers do, you will see a lot of the Old Testament stuff as absolutely insane.

  27. Shouldn’t this be called “conscientious” capitalism?

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