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Libertarianism and Boycotts

“There oughta be a law” has become the default position for those seeking social change, and mainstream libertarianism is beginning to forget effective non-legal, non-violent strategies from the past. A powerful one is the boycott.

The term “boycott” was coined in 1880 by the Irish Home Rule leader Charles Stewart Parnell to describe a campaign of social and economic ostracism that was being waged by the Irish against the land agent Captain Charles Cunningham Boycott; he worked for an English absentee landlord who had wrongfully, albeit legally, evicted former landowners. Captain Boycott was despised, but the tactic was aimed more broadly at all usurpation of land. It went beyond the punishment of one man. Boycotts attempted to non-violently change the institution of property ownership by making the current system unworkable and in the hope that legal privileges for the English and the legal oppression of the Irish would be abolished.

Parnell once asked an Irish crowd, “What do you do with a tenant who bids for a farm from which his neighbour has been evicted?” The audience shouted, “kill him,” “shoot him.” Parnell’s response? “I wish to point out to you a very much better way — a  more Christian and charitable way, which will give the lost man an opportunity of repenting. When a man takes a farm from which another has been evicted, you must shun him on the roadside when you meet him — you must shun him in the streets of the town — you must shun him in the shop — you must shun him on the fair green and in the market place, and even in the place of worship, by leaving him alone, by putting him in moral Coventry, by isolating him from the rest of the country, as if he were the leper of old — you must show him your detestation of the crime he committed.”

With the widespread boycotts, Ireland experienced its first peaceful mass uprising.

Boycott also became popular with the 19th-century American libertarians who congregated around Benjamin Tucker’s pivotal periodical Liberty and with Ezra Heywood’s New England Labor Reform League. It became popular because it provided a peaceful means by which to address policies or laws that were so immoral as to be intolerable. Boycott was an integral part of the “passive but stubborn resistance” that Tucker considered to be the best strategic alternative to open revolution or violence. He called passive resistance “the most potent weapon ever wielded by man against oppression.” To critics who considered boycott invasive because it interfered with people’s ability to make a living, Tucker insisted that everyone had the right to ignore others and the exercise of this right did not constitute invasion or interference.

Two strategies of boycott were implemented: primary and secondary. The primary boycott was described by Parnell. The secondary boycott was the use of strikes or blacklists, which generally assisted a primary one; it was also an “employer boycott.” A century later, free-market economist Murray Rothbard wrote, “‘Secondary’ boycotts are also legitimate…. In a secondary boycott, labor unions try to persuade consumers not to buy from firms who deal with non-union (primary boycotted) firms…. [It] should be their right to try such persuasion, just as it is the right of their opponents to counter with an opposing boycott.”

Addressing what may be the most hated type of boycott, Rothbard observed, “The blacklist — a form of boycott — would be legal in a free society.” The only problems he perceived was behavior that is closely associated boycotts but entirely separable from them. Picketing could be invasive, for example, if it blocked access to private property or the picketers attacked “scabs.” This behavior did not reflect badly upon boycott itself, Rothbard concluded, “The important thing about the boycott is that it is purely voluntary, an act of attempted persuasion, and therefore that it is a perfectly legal and licit instrument of action.”

Why, then, does boycott and blacklists elicit public condemnation? The 19th-century American libertarian Steven Byington explained: “The State is afraid of it. The boycott offers a means for making another do as you wish without calling in the State’s aid.” The state’s impotence in the face of noncooperation is what prompted it to be violent and pass laws against strikers in the late 19th century. And, then, to absorb the labor movement during the presidency of  Franklin Roosevelt.

Boycotts are not common within modern libertarianism, however. One reason: government coercively uses the strategy in the form of “embargoes” on errant nations. These boycotts not only violate the rights of those who want to associate with the nations, they are also ineffective. Another reason: boycotts are now associated with the left-wing, especially the labor movement; it ceased to be non-violent and acquired legal privileges. Boycott is neither statist nor left-wing, however. It is compatible with libertarianism.

In part two of his definitive three-volume work, The Politics of Nonviolent Action, Gene Sharp addressed three ways in which resistance movements have used non-violent boycott effectively. In some cases, it pressured people and government into being inclusive, rather than exclusive. The Gandhian crusade against the British in India to grant Indians equality under the law is an example. A second use was to induce people not to collaborate with an enemy. Peaceful aspects of the French Resistance during World War II are an example. The third was “to apply pressure on … the opponent’s representatives, especially his police or troops.” Eventually, Captain Boycott left Ireland altogether.

Strategically, boycotts offer many advantages. One is that the boycott does not need to be conducted on a massive scale. Ostracism on a small scale occurs spontaneously within organizations,  ideologies, and walks of life; it is a form of “peer pressure,” which seems natural to human beings. It also has the advantage of being powerful. The 19th-century individualist-feminist Gertrude Kelly considered it to be the foremost reason that women did not rise to equality with men. In a Liberty article entitled “A Woman’s Warning to Reformers,” Kelly declared, “If some women have had courage enough to dare public opinion, and insist upon thinking for themselves, they have been so beaten by that most powerful weapon in society’s arsenal, ridicule, that it has effectively prevented the great majority from making any attempt to come out of slavery.” Fortunately, peer  pressure can be used to liberate as well.

Boycotts are also precise in what they target. They target specific people or institutions, but they also politics or economics in general. Political boycott, Sharp explained, involves the “temporary suspension of normal political obedience, cooperation, and behavior.” One expression is a “withdrawal from government educational institutions,” including home schooling. Sharp defined economic boycott as “the refusal to continue or to undertake certain economic relationships, especially the buying, selling, or handling of goods and services.”

The best argument as to why economic boycott should be redeemed within libertarian strategy may be its diversity of uses. The strategy includes: the consumption (buycott) and non-consumption of goods, a refusal to work or to produce, a general strike across an industry or the targeting of one company, the withdrawal of credit and financial services. The list goes on.

Today more than ever, it is necessary to seek out non-violent means of social change. Like every other strategy, boycott does not address every situation, and it can fail, but the greatest failure would be to dismiss it out-of-hand.

The post Libertarianism and Boycotts appeared first on The Future of Freedom Foundation.

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About The Author

Wendy McElroy

The Future of Freedom Foundation was founded in 1989 by FFF president Jacob Hornberger with the aim of establishing an educational foundation that would advance an uncompromising case for libertarianism in the context of both foreign and domestic policy. The mission of The Future of Freedom Foundation is to advance freedom by providing an uncompromising moral and economic case for individual liberty, free markets, private property, and limited government. Visit

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