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Strategies from the Past: Boycott, Part 1

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The current disillusionment with politicians — which may be Clinton’s true legacy — will be positive only if it becomes disillusionment with the political means itself. Otherwise, people will continue to look primarily to the “state” for solutions instead of to “society.”

State vs. society

The German sociologist Franz Oppenheimer explained the difference between these two terms in his classic work, The State. By “state,” Oppenheimer meant “that summation of privileges and dominating positions which are brought into being by extra-economic power.” By “society,” he meant “the totality of concepts of all purely natural relations and institutions between man and man….” In other words, the state uses the political means — or force — to acquire wealth and power. Society uses the economic means, or cooperation. An example of the political means is to acquire wealth through taxation. An example of the economic means is the acquisition of wealth through productive labor.

The goal of libertarianism is to persuade people to look to the economic means, first and foremost, to achieve their goals. When this is achieved, society will be both peaceful and voluntary. Thus, it is necessary to demonstrate effective nonviolent strategies that can provide for social change and redress wrongs. Fortunately, libertarianism has used nonviolence for centuries and its history is a textbook rich in such strategies. One of them is the boycott.

Defining boycott

Ostracism and boycott are such closely related social tactics that one is often considered a form of the other. Ostracism dates back to ancient Greece (at least) and refers to the act of excluding an unacceptable person from the fellowship of society through general consent. The term “boycott” was coined in 1880 by the Irish Home Rule leader Charles Stewart Parnell to describe the version of ostracism being used against a certain Captain Charles Cunningham Boycott by his Irish neighbors. This specific form of ostracism became an effective tactic in the struggle of the Irish peasants against English landlords who enjoyed legal privileges. By contrast, Irish tenants faced legal barriers to ownership and paid racking rents that left them near starvation. In 1879, Parnell and Michael Davitt founded the Land League in order to achieve the three “Fs”: fair rent, free sale, and fixity of tenure. The League evolved into a widespread peasant rebellion — the first peaceful mass uprising that Ireland had enjoyed.

The campaign against Captain Boycott was the League’s most notable early victory. The captain was a much-hated overseer for Lord Erne, an absentee landlord in County Mayo. In 1880, when he refused to lower rents for the tenants, an audacious scheme was hatched. Servants no longer worked in his house, stores sold him nothing, no mail was delivered, and laborers refused to bring in the harvest. Boycott imported politically friendly labor from the county of Ulster but the expense of doing so proved disastrous. A humiliated Boycott was forced to leave Ireland. The rebel success galvanized Ireland and boycotts erupted across the island. Landlords who evicted tenants suddenly found that no other family would move into the vacated house.

A basic difference between ostracism and boycott becomes clear through this example. Ostracism is often no more than the punishment of an individual while boycott aims at achieving social change. Since boycott is pursued to achieve a separate goal, it has a better claim to the word “strategy.” And ostracism with a such a goal is best referred to as “social boycott.” In a more general sense, boycott can be defined as “a refusal to associate with someone or to purchase or participate in something as an act of protest aimed at changing a policy or practice.”

Libertarians and the boycott

Boycott was a popular strategy with the 19th-century libertarians who congregated around Benjamin Tucker’s pivotal periodical Liberty. Indeed, it had been well received by the earlier New England Labor Reform League for which Ezra Heywood’s libertarian periodical The Word served as a voice. Boycott seemed to provide a peaceful social means by which people could address actions they considered so immoral as to be intolerable. Without such a means, libertarians feared that people would turn to government for relief.

Tucker was fascinated with the Irish “no-rent” movement, the main organ of which was Patrick Ford’s Irish World.Liberty is not always satisfied with it [Irish World],” Tucker wrote, “but, all things considered, deems it the most potent agency for good now at work on this planet.” Of the Irish Land League, he wrote, “Ireland’s true order: the wonderful Land League, the nearest approach, on a large scale, to perfect Anarchistic organization….”

Tucker was not alone in his admiration. Two of Liberty’s most frequent contributors — Henry Appleton and Sidney H. Morse — also wrote columns for Irish World under the pseudonyms of Honorius and Phillip, respectively. Tucker eventually became disillusioned with the Land League, however. He believed that movement had been sold out for political advantage by its leaders, especially by Parnell. In Instead of a Book, Tucker lamented that the Irish Land League failed “because the peasants were acting, not intelligently in obedience to their wisdom, but blindly in obedience to leaders who betrayed them at the critical moment.”

But the Land League had vindicated the strategy of boycott in the minds of 19th-century American libertarians. Tucker later commented on what he called Ireland’s shortest road to success: “no payment of rent now or hereafter; no payment of compulsory taxes now or hereafter; utter disregard of the British parliament and its so-called laws; entire abstention from the polls henceforth; rigorous but non-invasive “boycotting” of deserters, cowards, traitors, and oppressors….” Boycott was an integral part of the “passive but stubborn resistance” that Tucker considered to be the only strategic alternative to open revolution and terror, both of which he rejected. He favored passive resistance, which he called “the most potent weapon ever wielded by man against oppression” and “prominent features of every great national movement.”

Not all of Tucker’s circle was as enthusiastic about boycott, however. Indeed, some contributors considered the tactic to be invasive because it interfered with another’s ability to make a living. Again and again, Tucker staunchly insisted that everyone had the right to ignore others and that such treatment could not constitute invasion or interference.

Secondary boycotts

Other contributors to Liberty accepted “primary” boycott — that is, the personal refusal to deal with people or agencies — but rejected “secondary” boycott — that is, the use of strikes or blacklists. The latter tactics were termed “secondary” because they were usually used to aid and expand a “primary” boycott. Many, if not most, of Tucker’s circle had great reservations about “secondary” boycott. Nevertheless, Tucker defended even blacklists as nothing more than a form of “employer boycott” and repeated that the refusal to cooperate or associate could never be a form of coercion.

A century later, free-market economist Murray Rothbard would echo Tucker. In The Ethics of Liberty, Rothbard wrote,

Furthermore, “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.

Regarding what is arguably the most hated and vilified type of boycott, Rothbard observed, “The blacklist — a form of boycott — would be legal in a free society.”

The only problem Rothbard perceived with boycott lay in practices that were closely associated with but entirely separable from the strategy. For example, the common practice of picketing might be invasive if it blocked access to private property or constituted a threat to so-called scabs who crossed the line. But these associated practices 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.”

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    Wendy McElroy is an author for The Future of Freedom Foundation, a fellow of the Independent Institute, and the author of The Reasonable Woman: A Guide to Intellectual Survival (Prometheus Books, 1998).