A Boycott of the Boycott the Boycotts Movement

Photograph by Charles Hewitt/Picture Post/Getty Images

There are good boycotts and bad boycotts, writes Bradley Smith in the May 2 Wall Street Journal. The good boycotts, primary boycotts, actually target an organization that has done something wrong—National City Lines, for example, which ran the buses in Montgomery in 1956. The bad boycotts, secondary boycotts, target an organization that is related to an organization that has done something wrong—Target Corp., for example, for supporting Tom Emmer, a politician who opposed same-sex marriage. Smith wonders where it ends, and supposes that it will not be a good place:

“… opponents of same-sex marriage—who appear to be roughly equal if not superior in number to proponents—could start boycotting companies that contribute to pro-gay rights organizations. Soon everyone is boycotting everyone, trade is restricted, political tensions increase, and life is generally unpleasant. Secondary boycotts create an environment in which political conflict, rather than peaceful trade, dominates our relationships.”

Goodness. Well, peaceful trade is important, so we definitely want to hold on to it. Smith, who served as commissioner of the Federal Election Commission for five years under George W. Bush, imagines us losing it at the bottom of a slippery slope. If boycotts work, he reasons, then we should exercise restraint before we launch one, lest things get out of hand and we arrive, as he titles his piece, in Boycott Nation. Completely by coincidence, he points out that secondary boycotts are “largely a left-wing phenomenon.” But let’s ignore the politics of his argument and focus on its logic, which breaks down right around the point where he writes “soon everyone is boycotting everyone.”

This will never happen. Boycotts succeed because a sufficient number of people find the action of a company morally repugnant. And Lawrence Glickman, a professor at the University of South Carolina who has traced consumer action in America back through the abolitionists, points out a truth in his book Buying Power that should provide Bradley Smith some comfort: “The vast majority of boycotts throughout American history have been putative failures.” Boycotts don’t always work. They fail when they are too silly, when consumers cannot summon enough moral repugnance to exceed the convenience of a purchase. Smith is urging America to exercise restraint in launching boycotts, but the restraint is already there, and always has been. We restrain ourselves from participating in a boycott if we are unconvinced by its purpose. It’s a miracle how this happens, it just comes about because humans possess judgment and free will.

And it’s hard even to completely understand where a primary boycott (the good kind) ends and where a secondary boycott (the bad kind) begins. If people find Rush Limbaugh repugnant, they stop listening to his show. If people find companies who buy airtime from Rush Limbaugh repugnant, they can stop buying from those companies. If people find companies who stop buying airtime from Rush Limbaugh repugnant, they can stop buying from those companies, too. It doesn’t matter whether these are “primary” or “secondary” boycotts. Each asks a consumer to make a moral decision with economic behavior. It seems arbitrary and doctrinal to divide boycotts up into structural categories and say that only some are good for democracy. There are only two kinds of boycotts, ones that work and ones that don’t. The ones that work all work for the same reason: Enough people agree. When Bradley Smith wrings his hands about the future demise of peaceful trade, he’s saying that maybe we, the consumers, don’t possess the moral core to decide whether we agree or not.

So let’s launch boycotts with reckless abandon. Then let’s see whether they take. I am announcing today a boycott of the D.C. Metro, for its offensive policy of preventing me from eating breakfast on my morning commute. Who’s with me?

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