Secondary Boycotts and the Breakdown of Civil Society

Activist groups of various political stripes are increasingly urging boycotts of companies not because of the companies’ own behavior, but because of the behavior or speech of those the companies patronize or support. The aim of such boycotts is not to affect corporate behavior as much as it is to create economic pressure on third parties or dry up support for political opponents. Former FEC Chairman Brad Smith has an op-ed in today’s WSJ on the danger of such “secondary boycotts” to civil society.

It’s becoming hard to know with whom one can do business.

We’ve been told that if you don’t like what Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck says on the radio, you should not only not listen to their shows, you should boycott businesses that advertise on their shows. We are told that if you don’t like the activities of the American Legislative Exchange Council—a nonpartisan nonprofit that provides a meeting ground for conservative state legislators to share ideas—you should boycott companies that support the council. . . .

All these examples are what are called “secondary boycotts”—attempts to influence the actions of the target by exerting pressure on a third party. Secondary boycotts should not be confused with primary boycotts. A decision not to patronize a business that discriminates on the basis of race is an example of a primary boycott. Primary boycotts—used to great effect during the Civil Rights Movement—have a long and often laudatory history.

But secondary boycotts have long been recognized as harmful to civil society. They rend the social fabric by making it difficult for people to simply live their lives.

The problem, in part, is that one boycott can lead to another. Progressive groups have gone after corporate supporters of the American Legislative Exchange Council because it supports voter identification requirements. Yet, as Smith notes, most Americans support such laws, so what would happen if conservative groups targeted corporations that support anti-voter-ID groups. The threat of such counter-boycotts is not merely hypothetical. Just as pro-gay marriage groups have targeted companies for donating to anti-gay marriage groups (even if the donations were for wholly unrelated reasons), anti-gay marriage groups have begun organizing boycott campaigns of their own. Progressive groups were able to get some advertisers to drop Rush Limbaugh, but some conservatives responded by encouraging boycotts of companies, such as Carbonite or Arby’s, that succumbed to such pressure.

Secondary boycotts are particularly destructive when they target groups for supporting political speech. As Smith notes, the point of such boycotts is not to alter primary behavior, such as ending discriminatory practices, but to dry up economic support of unpopular speech. “The power of ideas is abandoned for the power of economic coercion.”

If it’s acceptable to place economic pressure on those who support political ideas with which one disagrees, where should this principle end? Should employers be allowed to discriminate based upon political beliefs or contributions? If unions are encouraging boycotts of business that do not declare their opposition of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, should employers refuse to hire those who embrace the anti-Walker campaign? Notes Smith, “Any decision not to hire would be, in effect, a secondary boycott of the applicant. This type of thinking will almost certainly lead to the stifling of many valuable political ideas and innovations.” This doesn’t mean secondary boycotts should be illegal, but not everything permissible is also wise.

Secondary boycotts may seem like an effective tool for progressive causes, but they also entail substantial risks. The culture of secondary boycotts threatens to balkanize all of civil society along political lines, making it ever more difficult to espouse unpopular or minority views.

People have a right not to do business with companies or individuals. But blacklists—never a healthy part of political debate—endanger the very commerce that enriches us all.