Who Did More To Help the Poor: Sam Walton or Mother Teresa?

I’ll confess up front to being a Walmart stockholder. The company’s annual report arrived in my mail last week, with the statement on the front, “We save people money so they can live better.” A number of studies (for example, here, and here) suggest that Walmart has lowered prices significantly in the United States, supporting the claim on their annual report cover.

They are not just saving money for people in the United States. More than half their stores are outside the United States, including 1,469 in Mexico and 279 in China.

In making this comparison, I don’t mean to minimize Mother Teresa’s help for the poor. Wikipedia reports that her Missionaries of Charity, which she founded in 1950 in Calcutta, had expanded to 610 missions in 123 countries by the time she died in 1997.

Worldwide, the percentage of people living in extreme poverty declined from about 40% in 1981 to about 21 percent in 2001. Most of that decline was in East Asia, where China and other countries moved away from central economic planning toward market economies. We can’t give Sam Walton credit for all that, but the move toward economic freedom more generally probably deserves most (or all) of the credit. Walmart sells in China, but the also buy Chinese products, and their presence in the market has forced other competitors to be more efficient and more productive.

Private charity helps lots of people, and Mother Teresa did some great things. I’m not arguing that markets can replace private charitable activity. But the well-being of humankind—including the poor—has been improved much more by the economic progress generated by market institutions than it has by charitable activities.

Randall G. Holcombe is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute, the DeVoe Moore Professor of Economics at Florida State University, and author of the Independent Institute book Liberty in Peril: Democracy and Power in American History.
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