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.