Civil Liberties

Boycotts Are Hypocritical, Discriminatory, and Bad for Social Change

One can make a strong argument that boycotts merely get in the way of social change.


Gay wedding

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence's decision to sign the Religious Freedom Restoration Act—which prohibits state and local governments from placing substantial burdens on the religious beliefs of people and corporations, and could allow Christians to discriminate against gays in the workplace—has triggered a number of boycott threats from groups that oppose the law. GenCon, the largest gaming convention in the world, might pull out of Indiana in 2021, after its contract expires. And SalesForce CEO Marc Benioff declared on Twitter that his company would be "canceling all programs that require our customers/employees to travel to Indiana to face discrimination."

The Federalist's Mollie Hemingway was quick to point out the rank hypocrisy of Benioff's threat. SalesForce operates a branch in Beijing, China—a place with a quantifiably worse track record on human rights than Indiana. As Human Rights Watch notes, China "places arbitrary curbs on expression, association, assembly, and religion; prohibits independent labor unions and human rights organizations; and maintains Party control over all judicial institutions." Dissidents are imprisoned and tortured. If Benioff wants to stand on moral principle, is he so sure that Indiana is a more dangerous place for his employees than China?

It's very easy to play this game. I note that Salesforce lists Accenture as a partner firm, and Accenture has an office in Singapore, where gay people face much worse discrimination than in Indiana.

All of this is even more hypocritical when one considers the fact that the law triggering SalesForce's boycott—Indiana's RFRA—is itself about boycotts: it allows Christians to refuse to do business with people they find morally objectionable (i.e. boycott them!). Logically understood, Benioff's position must be that SalesForce has the right to boycott Indianans, but Indianans do not have the right to boycott SalesForce.

But it's not just that this boycott is hypocritical. Most boycotts are hypocritical—because boycotters are incapable of refusing to interact with all entities that engage in morally regrettable activities. We live in a blessedly interconnected world that requires daily association with people and organizations that don't share our values. For an individual, or group of individuals, to practice a uniform and consistent policy of boycotting all morally undesirable elements would be nearly impossible.

And thank goodness for that. Boycotts, I would argue, do not generally make admirable contributions to social progress (one can find exceptions, of course). On the contrary, people who are passionate about achieving some moral outcome—less discrimination against gays, for example—should do business with anti-gay bigots (or at least not flatly refuse to do so), because that's how change actually happens.

To be clear, I'm not saying boycotts are, or should be, impermissible. From a libertarian perspective, obviously, people should have the maximum freedom to choose their friends, neighbors, and business partners. You can be a libertarian and think that all entities expressing views that clash with your own should be boycotted by all right-thinking people. Nevertheless, I would disagree with you (please don't boycott me!).

One can make a strong argument that boycotts merely get in the way of social change. Has a half-century of refusing to talk to, trade with, or permit travel to Cuba made Cuba a better place?

On the other hand, it's clear that the forces of tolerance and freedom advance most rapidly when the tolerant and the intolerant interact frequently. If we are confident than our progressive social values are objectively superior, we should welcome their spread, not wall ourselves off from those who oppose them.

As Reason's Brian Doherty once put it:

The advantages of classical liberal market cosmopolitanism—the idea that it's best to set aside peaceful differences of opinion and creed and worries about different races, nationalities, and genders when deciding how we interact with the world—has a great track record of making us all richer and happier.

The idea that that people should be punished with boycott or losing their jobs over having wrong beliefs hobbles the flowering of tolerant classical liberal market cosmopolitanism. …

When we start regularly restricting people's opportunities in commerce or association over differing beliefs, what could be peaceful ideological differences start to tip over into people fighting for what they can understandably see as their metaphorical life—their social or economic life. It's a dangerous game and if pursued vigorously and across the board by everyone who disagrees with everyone else on issues or practices they consider vital, will make everyone worse off.

I should note that just like SalesForce and GenCon, I'm not a particularly big fan of RFRA in any of its various incarnations, either. As a libertarian, I hold that everyone has a legal right to discriminate against, or organize a boycott of, an entity they don't like. Laws like RFRA act as if religious reasons for discriminating against someone are valid in ways other reasons are not. To put it one way, they wrongly discriminate in favor of religiously-motivated discrimination.

The intellectually-consistent position is that all people should be legally entitled to practice discrimination, but practicing discrimination is itself a tactically unsound way to achieve social progress. And that goes for Christians who refuse service to gays, and for organizations that refuse to do business in states where Christians have the right to refuse service to gays.

Make sense?

Related: Read Brendan O'Neill on the boycott of Dolce & Gabbana here.