James Leroy Wilson's blog

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Why I Don't Shun or Boycott

Imagine Adam and Bob both sell widgets, in a society where widgets are a must-have product. Adam sells $5 widgets; Bob sells $10 widgets. Lies are spread about Bob's personal life and views, destroying his reputation. Everyone who prefers Bob's high-end, better widgets decide they'd rather purchase Adam's cheap widgets than continue to do business with Bob. Bob is ruined. Then the public finds out that the information about Bob was lies. They weren't even spread by Adam, but by Carl, who is broke and gets his entertainment through perverse delights such as defaming people like Bob. As a result of the slanders against Bob . . .

  • Adam doubles his business and more than doubles his profits

  • Carl gets his laughs

Meanwhile . . .

  • Bob loses everything

  • Bob's former customers do not enjoy his superior widgets

Now, who is to blame for Bob losing everything?

Adam isn't at fault, even though he has all the profits that would have gone to Bob.

Adam shouldn't be forced to compensate Bob, because he did nothing wrong. And Carl, who is broke, can't compensate Bob.

So who are the people who ruined Bob?

The people, his former customers, who judged him for things that had nothing to do with the widgets.

If you're in jail, I wouldn't be able to do business with you anyway. If you're not in jail, why should I let things that have nothing to do with making a deal, keep me from making a deal?

I have heard it said that shunning and boycotts is a superior way to enforce ethical standards in a libertarian or anarchist society. For instance, perhaps the business-owner is strongly suspected to have sexist and racist policies, or exploits foreign labor. The proper method is shunning or boycott. (The difference I make between the two is, for instance, last year if you were upset about the Gulf oil spill: if you avoided the BP gas station and there was another gas station on the next block, you shun BP; if you avoid the BP station and the next gas station is 30 miles away, you're BOYCOTTING BP; boycotts involve an actual sacrifice of some sort.)

To be sure, shuns and boycotts are better than the Regulatory-Police State.

But here's something else to think about: Maybe things about the personal life of the widget-maker, or even the businesses practices of the the widget-maker, might even seem to be true on the surface. And yet if they're not being obvious about it, such as putting up signs saying "Blacks need not apply," how do you know they're in the wrong? Sure, if such a sign existed, I would shun the establishment. But you can be sure that no one's going to be that obvious about it. And, by definition, when things aren't obvious, there is room for doubt.

The economist Friedrich Hayek is famous for pointing out that governmental central banks will always lack enough information about the economy to determine the suppy of money or allocate it correctly.

Equally so, you don't really know what's going on with your neighbor's widget business. You may think you know a lot about it, but rarely do you know for certain. Maybe he is actually improving the lives of people that YOU, with incomplete information, think he is exploiting. Maybe his hiring and firing decisions, once you know the fuller context, make more sense than you realize.

Would you want to be shunned or boycotted because of how people perceived your personal life, your beliefs, or your business practices?

I certainly wouldn't. The shun/boycott route for enforcing morality seems to smack of too much division and condemnation from people who have insufficient information to judge.

A better route might be to foster virtues such as humility, grace, honor, and good manners. Otherwise known as, Mind Your Own Business. Try to be the person you want to be, rather than look for the flaws in others.


  1. Anonymous9:09 AM PDT

    James,I was reading some of your articles and I was interested in some kind of football advertising for a client in your articles. Would that be something that might interest you?

  2. Anonymous2:16 PM PDT

    We do. https://www.facebook.com/pages/Boycott-Flying/126801010710392

  3. Amen, James. We once put "Mind Your Own Business" on our coins, not as a put down, but as a reminder to good moral business. People who promote or practice shunning and boycotts usually find themselves becoming hypocrites, not intentionally, but because it is impossible to be everyone's nanny.