Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Boycotts, coercion and blogging handbags

Reading over at Longrider's I see he is involved in some handbag action with a blogger called Left Outside, about the legitimacy of boycotting. I may have missed some of the preliminaries, but cannot help concluding that Longrider is incorrect in his equating of pressurising and coercing. It is clear that a boycott of a business is an attempt to bring pressure to bear for a particular aim, but this should not be seen as coercion, at least not in the sense that coercion is used with regard to the libertarian principle of non-aggression. As ever, my first point of call for intellectual back-up is to the Sage Rothbard:

A boycott is an attempt to persuade other people to have nothing to do with some particular person or firm — either socially or in agreeing not to purchase the firm's product. Morally a boycott may be used for absurd, reprehensible, laudatory, or neutral goals. It may be used, for example, to attempt to persuade people not to buy non-union grapes or not to buy union grapes. From our point of view, 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.

Again, as in the case of libel, a boycott may well diminish a firm's customers and therefore cut into its property values; but such an act is still a perfectly legitimate exercise of free speech and property rights. Whether we wish any particular boycott well or ill depends on our moral values and on our attitudes toward the concrete goal or activity. But a boycott is legitimate per se. If we feel a given boycott to be morally reprehensible, then it is within the rights of those who feel this way to organize a counter-boycott to persuade the consumers otherwise, or to boycott the boycotters. All this is part of the process of dissemination of information and opinion within the framework of the rights of private property.

Any action would be legal in the libertarian society, provided that it does not invade property rights (whether of self-ownership or of material objects), and this would include boycotts against such activities, or counter-boycotts against the boycotters. The point is that coercion is not the only action that can be taken against what some consider to be immoral persons or activities; there are also such voluntary and persuasive actions as the boycott.

It goes without saying, that as soon as violence is threatened, let alone used (against person or property), then a line is crossed and a criminal act has been committed, and there will, as ever, be grey areas, such as with the use of pickets, which can be intimidatory. If the law were to be reformed along libertarian lines, it is likely that boycotting would increase, as a reaction to a host of prohibitions being repealed, such as around 'equality'. Indeed boycotting is a preferable reaction to certain things, rather than what we have now, which is a shrill call for legislative action to ban, control and prohibit.

But what of coercion? Can Rothbard help with this? Why, of course!
In his monumental work The Constitution of Liberty, F.A. Hayek attempts to establish a systematic political philosophy on behalf of individual liberty. He begins very well, by defining freedom as the absence of coercion, thus upholding “negative liberty” more cogently than does Isaiah Berlin. Unfortunately, the fundamental and grievous flaw in Hayek’s system appears when he proceeds to define “coercion.” For instead of defining coercion as is done in the present volume, as the invasive use of physical violence or the threat thereof against someone else’s person or (just) property, Hayek defines coercion far more fuzzily and inchoately: e.g., as “control of the environment or circumstances of a person by another (so) that, in order to avoid greater evil, he is forced to act not according to a coherent plan of his own but to serve the ends of another”; and again: “Coercion occurs when one man’s actions are made to serve another man’s will, not for his own but for the other’s purpose."

For Hayek, “coercion” of course includes the aggressive use of physical violence, but the term unfortunately also includes peaceful and non-aggressive actions as well. Thus, Hayek states that “the threat of force or violence is the most important form of coercion. But they are not synonymous with coercion, for the threat of physical force is not the only way in which coercion can be exercised.”

What, then, are the other, nonviolent “ways” in which Hayek believes coercion can be exercised? One is such purely voluntary ways of interacting as “a morose husband” or “a nagging wife,” who can make someone else’s “life intolerable unless their every mood is obeyed.” Here Hayek concedes that it would be absurd to advocate legal outlawry of sulkiness or nagging; but he does so on the faulty grounds that such outlawry would involve “even greater coercion.” But “coercion” is not really an additive quantity; how can we quantitatively compare different “degrees” of coercion, especially when they involve comparisons among different people? Is there no fundamental qualitative difference, a difference in kind, between a nagging wife and using the apparatus of physical violence to outlaw or restrict such nagging? It seems clear that the fundamental problem is Hayek’s use of “ coercion” as a portmanteau term to include, not only physical violence but also voluntary, nonviolent, and non-invasive actions such as nagging.
It seems that Longrider is making this same mistake, that of abjuring the limited definition of coercion as: The invasive use of physical violence or the threat thereof against someone else’s person or (just) property, and stretching it out, so that a clear line between coercion and non-coercion is not possible. Perhaps Longrider, who passes by this way on occasion, may choose to follow the link, as it may well be that he agrees further with Hayek's position, especially with regard to the examples of employer - employee situations.

All that said, I now must turn the guns round on Left Outside, who ends his/her side of the spat with this attack on libertarians:
The reason these people were protesting (peacefully and without threat of coercion) about the sexist T-Shirt on sale was because it was sexist and they don’t want people telling them what to do, and sexism involves being told how to behave. Their definition of being left alone and to not be told what to do extended beyond merely what is legislated to include what those around say and do – just as Jackart and Longrider’s definition does. They are entirely analogous, much as I’m sure each is repulsed to find such common ground with the other.

I hope you Libertarians can understand what I mean when I call Libertarianism “asymmetric” now. The argument is not that “Libertarians are all selfish white men”, that is obviously false. But when it is women, foreigners, the poor, the helpless who are in need of help actually existing Libertarianism tends to be implacable. Societal pressures are unimportant, only property rights and non-interference matter. There is no room at this inn, get on your bike (and no, I will not lend you mine). Libertarianism is its most pigheaded and most insistent, to the point of calling peaceful protesters totalitarian, when it is the wealthy and privileged who are attacked (even non-violently).

Although, as I've said, I agree with Left Outside about the legitimacy of boycotting, I must take issue with some of this.

Firstly, there is the notion in the first paragraph that a slogan on a teeshirt is, essentially, an act of aggression or coercion against those who dislike the message. LO states; "[the teeshirt boycotters'] definition of being left alone and to not be told what to do extended beyond merely what is legislated to include what those around say and do". This is nonsense. The suggestion here is that if I wear a teeshirt that you don't like I am in some way infringing your liberty to be left alone. Also there is an implicit endorsement of all the legislation to date which limit our property rights with regards to free speech and freedom of association. My attitude is that I would like to see the boycott in place of much of today's legislation, not as a lobby for more of it.

Now, dealing with the second paragraph, I'll leave 'asymmetric', as the metaphor escapes me, but what we certainly find is the common misunderstanding of the libertarian position regarding law and morality and their separate spheres. Usually, the libertarian wants to limit the law to the protection of property rights. This means that a number of acts currently considered crimes would cease to be so. My recent quotation from Lysander Spooner draws attention to the distinction between vice and crime. The distinction is that vice only harms the person and property of the perpetrator. But there is more to morality than the matter of private vice. There are also questions of our moral responsibilities to others. LO riffs on the selfishness of libertarians by stating: "There is no room at this inn, get on your bike (and no, I will not lend you mine)." What this statement indicates is the position vis à vis property rights. Indeed, the inn-keeper has a right to turn someone away, and is under no obligation to lend his bike. However, he may perceive a moral duty over and above the lawful requirement to respect property rights (i.e. to abstain from aggression), a moral duty to help his fellow man. It is only that the libertarian does not believe that such moral duties should be enforced by the coercive power of the state via legislation, and indeed a coerced act of virtue is a contradiction in terms. Doing the right thing only has a meaning when there is a choice.

Charles Cunningham Boycott - the original target


Longrider said...

Actually, you are making a mistake in your assessment of my position here. I have never said that boycotting is illegitimate - nor did anything that I said imply that. Indeed, I reaffirmed that during the discussion.

However, one cannot deny that campaigning for a boycott is, indeed, an attempt to change behaviour and is, therefore the application of coercion - that is how they are designed to work. If they didn't, no one would bother, after all.

Those who state that coercion is merely the application of force are ignoring the fact that force is not necessarily violence as one commentator seemed to think, it can be subtle; the raising of awareness that damages reputation, for example, is a perfectly apt demonstration of the initiation of pressure designed to change behaviour in the subject.

Nowhere at any point in the discussion did I say that people should not be allowed to do this, merely that I disapproved of a group of people campaigning to have a product removed to suit their prejudices and everyone else be damned. Such behaviour is reprehensible. One commenter likened it to a witch hunt. He has a point.

My first point of call for intellectual backup is not political philosophers, rather it is the etymology of the words we are using, the structure of the English language we use to convey our meaning. Clearly some folk didn't like that. However, I am not the one doing a Humpty Dumpty here. My use of language was accurate and words do not always have one narrow meaning.

Yes, I am with Hayek here and no, his use is not wrong, nor is there any need for confusion.

It is an interesting example used in the link about the employer threatening dismissal in the event of employees not going along with actions not originally contracted for. The article then falls back on the defence of the capital owning employer not wishing to engage in further exchanges. No, wrong, he is trying to enforce a unilateral change to the contract via coercion - the loss of work being the force. And Rothbard makes the error of assuming that the employee can just move and take other employment. As I well know from recent experience, this is not the case. In periods of economic downturn, the employee will often be trapped, the contractual arrangements are one-sided in favour of the employer. T ignore that one party has more power in a contract is to ignore real life facts. Providing the employer behaves equitably, that is fine, no problem. However, the insistence on unpaid overtime is an arbitrary variation to contract and the threat of dismissal is, most definitely intentional coercion, the employer knowing full well that moving to another town for work is not a simple matter, nor is there any guarantee of finding alternative employment there, nor is it cheap to do. Rothbard is wrong here as he is ignoring the real world in favour of a hypothetical one. Hayek, however has grasped the pressures that apply in the real world to real people in difficult situations. Do you think for one moment I would still be stacking shelves in Sainsbury's if I had a choice in the matter (or even taken the job in the first place)? A soon as I manage to find a suitable opening, I'll be gone like a shot and I won't be working any notice, either. Their failure to apply their legal duty of care is a breach of contract. They have persistently refused to abide by it, so the contract is void as far as I am concerned.

Yes, absolutely I am with Hayek all the way.

Some interesting and thought provoking stuff here. I might exp[and over at mine later on.

Longrider said...

I wrote a long and thoughtful response here and it seems to have disappeared. Bugger!

Trooper Thompson said...

It got caught in spam - I don't know why. I shall respond when i get a chance.

Longrider said...

Okay, I am writing a fairly long screed in response over at mine at the moment.

James Higham said...

Boycotting and coercing - well yes, they're different but the argument seems a tad different to that.

Trooper Thompson said...


a large part of the argument is over the definition of the word 'coercion'. That is, in itself, a small matter.

A second part is around, I think, the limits which a libertarian would put on the law, those limits being the protection of property rights and no more. This leads to certain things which are morally unjust being permissible by law.

Nevertheless, I would argue for freedom, both from an absolutist point of view and from a utilitarian point of view.

For more of this fascinating head to head, see Longrider's post:


Longrider said...

I've responded in some detail over at mine. Regards LR