Three Cheers for Boycotts (2009 Sep)

by Barry A. Liebling

When someone in business is actively pushing a political agenda that you find abhorrent what should you do? Easy – stop dealing with him. And you can go a step further; urge anyone who will listen to shun the offender. Participate in a boycott. This could be the start of something big.

Recently boycotts have been in the news. Glenn Beck – a television and radio commentator who generally attacks progressivism, statism, and government expansion – insulted President Obama on the Fox News Channel. There was a swift response from ColorOfChange.Org exhorting advertisers to pull their spots from Glenn Beck’s program. A number of major sponsors – including GEICO, Con Agra, and Procter & Gamble – have complied with the demand.

John Mackey, a founder of Whole Foods Market, made a big splash with his column “The Whole Foods Alternative to ObamaCare” where he said he has a problem with socialism, that our country does not need “a government takeover of our health-care system”, and that he favors “moving in the opposite direction – toward less government control and more individual empowerment.” On cue left-leaning savants expressed their displeasure by calling for a boycott ( of Whole Foods.

Some who sympathize with Glenn Beck and John Mackey have said that playing the boycott card is unwarranted and borders on censorship. They are mistaken. Censorship only comes into play when the government intervenes. Mr Beck and Mr Mackey were exercising their right to free speech by expressing their opinions. And anyone repelled by their sentiments also has the right to speak out and make a case for ostracizing them.

On balance, the use of boycotts is likely to bring about more good than harm. Here are three reasons why.

First, boycotts are a natural consequence of living in a free society. One of the core principles of business ethics is to deal only by mutual consent. People should be free to decide whether they want to trade with you, and you should be free to accept or reject their offer. I understand that if my speaking out on politics offends someone he may not want to deal with me. That is the chance I take when I publicly express myself. And it works in both directions. For example, I have deliberately avoided purchasing cosmetics from The Body Shop or ice cream from Ben & Jerry’s because these companies have been consistent boosters of radical leftist causes. Even as their commitment to “social responsibility” has endeared them to some consumers, it has made them unpalatable to those of us who are turned off by communitarian politics.

Second, the more that people initiate boycotts the more company executives will be forced to consider their political positions carefully. When GEICO stops advertising on Glenn Beck it is not only demonstrating its disapproval of Mr Beck; it is also implicitly endorsing the politics of programs it continues to sponsor. Are you sure, GEICO management, you want to go there? If you pull your ads once you better be ready to pull them again. What is your standard for deciding which shows merit your ad dollars? Astute observers will notice if GEICO invariably follows the leftist party line. If it does, GEICO may please statists, but it will alienate me and other free market advocates – which puts it at risk of being the target of a boycott itself. If GEICO is inconsistent it will be recognized as insincere. Once in the spotlight GEICO management will have to be deliberate about where it stands on the issues.

Of course, a company’s management might decide to steer clear of politics and adhere to Swiss-like neutrality. A company could say, “we sell products and buy advertising but want no part of the controversies of the day.” While this is not as good as supporting individual freedom, it is much better than caving in to the demands of left wing bosses.

Third, as boycotts become more widespread executives and consumers will be encouraged to think about the significance of a company’s political endorsements. And more clear thinking is a healthy development that will favor the self-responsibility free-market position to the detriment of those who push for government intervention. Why? Aside from the fact that the case for individualism is correct, it can seem fresh and daring to uncommitted citizens not familiar with the reasoning that vindicates free enterprise. For a long time leftists have had a near monopoly on the topic of business ethics. “Social responsibility” advocates have asserted, mostly unchallenged, that their statist prescriptions are the morally right way to go. But now when a “progressive” calls for a boycott there is bound to be a backlash from people who disagree. The backlash will stimulate discussion and debate, free-market advocates can present persuasive arguments, and the statist party line can be exposed as foolish.

Don’t be afraid of boycotts. Even when they are unjustified boycotts can be the source of opportunities. This could be the start of something big.

*** See other entries at in “Monthly Columns.” ***

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