It’s pretty clear: if you wanted Joan of Arc to appreciate the differences between her world and ours, you would take her to the nearest Walmart.
In 1989’s critically acclaimed cinematic masterpiece Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, two southern California slackers must pass their history class, or one will be sent to a military school in Alaska. It sounds unremarkable until you realize that if they are split up, their band, Wyld Stallyns, would not lay the musical foundation for a future utopia.
Wanting to protect their present – and Bill and Ted’s future – the people of the year 2688 send Rufus back in time to help them with the history report. Bill and Ted travel through the past, gather a motley crew of notable historical figures, and return just in time to give their report on what Socrates, Beethoven, Genghis Khan, Joan of Arc, Napoleon, Sigmund Freud, Billy the Kid, and Abraham Lincoln would think about their hometown of San Dimas, California in 1988.
Now imagine you were charged with chaperoning this group through your hometown in 2023. If you had to give Joan of Arc an idea of how different our world is from theirs, where would you take them? You would load up your time-traveling phone booth and head to the nearest Walmart. Bill and Ted took the crew to a shopping mall. Walmart goes the mall one better by putting everything under one roof and making it possible to buy it all with one trip to the cash register. The sporting goods and keyboards you can buy at Walmart might not be as good as what you could get at one of the specialty stores at the mall. The self-help books in stock might not be as good as a visit to a psychologist’s couch. They are pretty good substitutes, though, and what makes a trip to Walmart most remarkable is the fact that the place is stocked from floor to ceiling with food, clothing, electronics, office supplies, and all sorts of other goods available to people of modest means at Every Day Low Prices.
Take note: The piano keyboard you can get at Walmart for $119.99 – about four hours’ labor at average American wages – might not sound as good as the finest piano Beethoven ever played, but it makes the magic of music available to just about anyone. Indeed, on Walmart’s website, I saw (and almost ordered) a 61-key keyboard that, after tax, would be shipped to my house for less than $26.
Combine a price like that with loads of gratis instructional videos on YouTube, and you have a world where anyone can learn how to play piano at a practically trivial cost. Recorded music puts the greatest performances of the greatest work within easy reach of anyone, and streaming services mean people can enjoy practically unlimited libraries of great recordings for pennies per day.
What I think is most striking about Walmart – and what I would hope Joan of Arc, Genghis Khan, Socrates, and others would notice – is that the floor-to-ceiling cornucopia is not restricted to the elites. You don’t have to be a member of the Party to shop at Walmart. You don’t have to be a titled lord or lady or an emperor, despot, or iron-fisted warlord to enjoy the (literal, in some cases) fruits of the world’s labors. You just need a few dollars that, in a commercial society, you earn by creating value for others.
And here’s the wonderful thing: If you think Walmart is gauche or tacky – I’ve seen a bumper sticker that refers to it as “your home for cheap crap”– you don’t have to shop there. You’re free to pay extra for higher quality at fancier stores. Are your favorite fancy, high-quality stores going broke in response to competition from Walmart, Target, and now Amazon? That’s unfortunate, perhaps, but in a commercial society, every dollar you earn basically lets you “vote” on what should be produced, where, when, how, and for whom. You’re being outvoted: The hoi polloi are voting with their hard-earned dollars for Walmart, and it’s hardly clear that it’s your prerogative to override their judgment and suppress their votes.
Do people make bad, tasteless choices? Yes. They always have, and they always will. I do, regularly, as when I’ve chosen to watch a BBC Shakespeare adaptation or a piece of schlock like Citizen Kane instead of 2020’s Bill & Ted Face the Music (which I still haven’t seen). To paraphrase something I first read from Sheldon Richman, just because some people cannot be trusted with liberty does not mean others can be trusted with power. It is liberty, not power, that has produced the modern cornucopia, so much so that flourishing lives rich with meaningful relationships and experiences are within easy reach of just about everyone. I’d like to think Joan of Arc would appreciate that.