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.
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.
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).
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.