The Boycott Mania
[Posted April 22, 2003]
When I click onto the Drudgereport.com site these days, I often am greeted with an advertising bar at the top of the page that declares, "Boycott France." As we have heard ad nauseum, France was against the war, so France is against the United States, so we should not buy French products to punish the insolence of those people.
For the past few decades, the boycott has been a tool of choice by interest groups seeking to spread the impact of their various causes. During the 1980s, we were told to "boycott Nestle" because that company sold infant formula in Third World countries, which supposedly was bad. We are instructed to boycott Nabisco products, since the parent company is RJ Reynolds, which we all know produces "killer" tobacco.
Boycotts supposedly are a free-market approach to making a point about social issues. After all, they are voluntary and simply permit firms to know that consumers ultimately direct not only the where's and why's of production, but also the very choices of governance within a firm. Thus, if consumers are unhappy with the wages Nike pays the workers who produce its shoes in Vietnam, while they cannot be in the boardroom in person to force Nike to give those employees a raise, at least they can express their displeasure by refusing to purchase Air Jordans or whatever Nike is selling these days.
Leftists are not the only ones making statements about corporate policies. Take the boycott against Target stores, for example. About 10 years ago, Target's parent company, Dayton-Hudson Corporation, notified Planned Parenthood that it would no longer contribute its annual $50 thousand to the organization, as it wanted to move away from contributions that could be deemed political.
Planned Parenthood's leaders, which permit no dissent, immediately swung its public relations machine into highest gear and announced it would organize a boycott of Target unless Dayton-Hudson relented and gave Planned Parenthood the $50 grand that was rightfully theirs. The threat was successful and Dayton-Hudson gave in and continued its "donation."
That was hardly the end of the story. Pro-life activists then swung their PR machines into high gear and called for a boycott of Target. To make matters worse, the singer Amy Grant, who started her career in Christian pop music, did endorsements for Target, so it was not long before the anti-abortion groups pointed their big guns at her. Thus, we saw the "logical" chain of causality: Dayton-Hudson gives $50 thousand to Planned Parenthood, Dayton-Hudson must support abortion on demand, Dayton-Hudson owns Target, Target's profits enrich Dayton-Hudson, with some money going to Planned Parenthood, and since Amy Grant does commercials for Target, Amy Grant is wittingly or unwittingly supporting abortion on demand. Therefore, if pro-lifers refuse to purchase Amy Grant CDs and if Christian radio stations say no to her music, then Grant will back down and pro-lifers supposedly will have won a Great Victory over abortion on demand. And all of this is based upon voluntary choice, so it falls completely within the domain of a free society.
Of course, Planned Parenthood and right-to-life groups hardly are the only participants. Jesse Jackson has made a career out of threatening boycotts and lawsuits against firms for ostensibly "racist" practices. These companies, however, can make it all go away in return for a sizeable donation to Operation PUSH, Jackson's base of operations. In fact, after he made such threats against beer distributors in the Chicago area several years ago, one of the companies created a lucrative distributorship—and gave it to one of Jackson's sons.
Like the current French boycotts, all of these examples point to something that ultimately destroys any free society, not to mention a free market. The modern boycotts come about precisely because modern society has been poisoned by politics, and a politicized society is inherently not free. In such a society, every choice—and I mean every—is examined not from the perspective of the individual, but rather from the collectivist viewpoint. To put it another way, when Gloria Steinem three decades ago declared that "the personal is political," she was saying that all choices that individuals make must ultimately be judged by the political impacts they create, or at least the political effects Steinem and her allies believe they are creating.
For example, if one purchases Nike shoes, according to the anti-Nike activists, one is implicitly supporting all of Nike's employment policies, since one chooses to give money to that company. Of course, in a free market, one is not giving money to anything in the process of purchasing a good. Economic exchange is not an act of donation; it simply is the exercise of a choice to give up something in one's possession in order to gain something else.
That a boycott of Nike products means that those poor, "underpaid" workers of the Third World will receive nothing in the wake of loss of demand for shoes means nothing to the activists. In fact, given their support for government policies that prevent workers from freely contracting with employers over things like pay and benefits, the ultimate beneficiaries of such actions are not the workers themselves but the boycotters, who can claim "victory" in their quest for political hegemony.
Boycotters do not wish to target only business firms; they also are trying to influence the political process by directing political campaigns against people and causes that the pressure groups want to marginalize. Take the current anti-French boycott, for example. Not only are private organizations urging Americans not to purchase French products, but politicians are also introducing legislation either to ban or heavily tax goods that happen to have originated from France. Notice that there is not a peep of dissent from the anti-France groups for this political intrusion into personal choices. Indeed, the politicians are carrying out part of the boycotters' agenda. So much for "voluntary" action.
In a free society, individuals are free to choose (and refuse) whomever they will patronize. If a waiter at a local restaurant gives me surly service and insults my ancestry, I am free to decline to eat at that establishment in the future. However, my choice not to eat there anymore might likely involve the self-imposition of a cost that I will have to bear, but it is my choice and mine alone.
Boycotts, however, do not operate in that manner. First, they usually are politically motivated, which means that individuals are supposed to live their lives based upon politics über alles, something that ultimately threatens free choice. Second, it is rare that boycotters do not enlist the support of politicians to aid them in their righteous causes, thus bringing the ugliness of politics to the fore.
Politics by its very nature is coercive, and is inimical to a free society. Yes, by all means if I do not wish to purchase goods from certain people, I should be free to do so. However, do not disguise a process that ultimately is based upon coercion and tell me that it is all voluntary. Boycotts, then, are not the product of people who respect the choices of other individuals, but are nothing more than the continual slide of a society into the sewer of politics.
Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.