Mises Wire

Is Boycotting Target a Legitimate Protest or an Act of Terrorism?

In discussing the recent boycott of Target, University of Michigan economics professor Justin Wolfers recently told MSNBC:

[If] Target caves into this, then it says that the moment you threaten the employees of even a very large corporation, you get to control its policies. This is economic terrorism, literally terrorism, creating fear among the workers and forcing the corporations to sell the things you want, not sell the things you dont.

Professor Wolfers is wrong on multiple fronts. First, boycotting products of a company is not an act of terrorism. Boycotting a person, a store, or an organization is to engage in a concerted refusal to have dealings with it, usually to express disapproval or to force acceptance of certain conditions. On the other hand, terrorism is an act of violence where a terrorist is aggressing upon someone’s bodily or physical property. Britannica defines terrorism as “the calculated use of violence to create a general climate of fear in a population and thereby to bring about a particular political objective.”

As Professor Murray Rothbard explained:

What such aggressive violence means is that one man invades the property of another without the victim’s consent. The invasion may be against a man’s property in his person (as in the case of bodily assault), or against his property in tangible goods (as in robbery or trespass). In either case, the aggressor imposes his will over the natural property of another—he deprives the other man of his freedom of action and of the full exercise of his natural self-ownership.

Are these conservative boycotters aggressing upon Target’s properties? No. Then, their boycott is not an act of terrorism. On the other hand, several Target stores have received bomb threats from some unknown people who say they are protesting against Target’s decision to pull LGBTQ-themed clothes, something that Wolfers fails to mention.

Second, what Wolfers calls terrorism is the working of a peaceful market process in which consumers are abstaining from buying Target products because they disagree with the company’s policies. Boycotting is a peaceful way of legitimate and legal protest. In his important work Politics of Nonviolent Action, Part Two: The Methods of Nonviolent Action, Professor Gene Sharp mentions consumers’ boycotts as an important method used by peaceful people as a form of nonviolent action to achieve political goals.

Despite being a professor of economics, Wolfers doesn’t understand the workings of the peaceful market process. He is ignorant of market democracy.

Ludwig von Mises said that buying and abstaining from buying are two main ways through which consumers act as captains of the market ship and guide entrepreneurs in fulfilling the most urgent needs of those consumers instead of wasting societal resources. Consumers convey their preferences to entrepreneurs through this market democracy system of voting with their money. Mises wrote:

The consumers by their buying and abstention from buying elect the entrepreneurs in a daily repeated plebiscite as it were. They determine who should own and who not, and how much each owner should own.

As is the case with all acts of choosing a person—choosing holders of public office, employees, friends, or a consort—the decisions of the consumers are made on the ground of experience and thus necessarily always refers to the past. There is no experience of the future. The ballot of the market elevates those who in the immediate past have best served the consumers. However, the choice is not unalterable and can daily be corrected. The elected who disappoints the electorate is speedily reduced to the ranks.

Each ballot of the consumers adds only a little to the elected man’s sphere of action. To reach the upper levels of entrepreneurship he needs a great number of votes, repeated again and again over a long period of time, a protracted series of successful strokes. He must stand every day a new trial, must submit anew to reelection as it were. . . .

But in buying a commodity or abstaining from its purchase there is nothing else involved than the consumer’s longing for the best possible satisfaction of his instantaneous wishes. The consumer does not—like the voter in political voting—choose between different means whose effects appear only later. He chooses between things which immediately provide satisfaction. His decision is final.

An entrepreneur earns profit by serving the consumers, the people, as they are and not as they should be according to the fancies of some grumbler or potential dictator.

In recent times, we have seen corporations increasingly becoming political. Instead of serving their consumers, corporations have become advocates for political control over the lives of people. They are teaming with authorities in censoring the critics of those in power and their political opponents. Technocrats are increasingly usurping the role of politicians or are working with politicians to nudge society in a leftist direction.

The boycott of Target and other companies by consumers is their way of resisting this technocratic agenda of control. This is one of the most effective and peaceful ways available for citizens to fight against unwarranted state power and corporate beneficiaries.

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