Strategies from the Past: Boycott, Part 2

This article appeared in Freedom Daily, October 2000.

by Wendy McElroy

Why, then, does boycott in the form of strikes and blacklists elicit such public condemnation? The 19th-century libertarian Steven Byington offered an explanation: “The State is afraid of it. The boycott offers a means for making another do as you wish without calling in the State’s aid.” Byington believed that the state recognized the boycott as a powerful competitor with whom it could not deal effectively. “They [statists] have the advantage” in the use of force but “they are paralyzed” when confronted by “non-invasive methods.” The impotence of the state when confronted with noncooperation is one of the things that prompted it to commit violence and pass laws against strikers in the late 19th century. The inexcusable violence of many strikers who attacked or otherwise interfered with replacement workers justified such laws in the eyes of the public.

Boycott within modern libertarianism

Boycott is not a common strategy within modern libertarianism for several reasons. The most prominent reason may be that government has usurped the strategy and made it coercive by imposing boycotts on errant nations as a foreign-policy measure. Such imposed boycotts — called “embargoes” — not only violate the rights of those who wish to trade with people in the targeted nations, they are also ineffective. This is inevitable because an effective boycott requires voluntary noncooperation on the part of the boycotters. If noncooperation is forced, black marketeers merely skirt the restrictions and cash in on the higher profits brought by higher risk.

Another form of boycott that has fallen into disfavor within libertarianism is the social boycott — that is, ostracism with a goal beyond punishment. Yet the refusal to continue social relations with an unacceptable person was a mainstay of 19th-century libertarian strategy. In his publication The Periodical Letter on the Principles and Progress of the Equity Movement (1854-58), the libertarian Josiah Warren described the workings of an experimental community named Modern Times. In its pages, a member of the community explained how Modern Times protected itself against disruptive individuals and preserved the core vision:

When we wish to rid ourselves of unpleasant persons, we simply let them alone. We buy nothing of them, sell them nothing, exchange no words with them — in short, by establishing a complete system of non- interference with them we show them unmistakably that they are not wanted here, and they usually go away on their own accord. <

The effectiveness of social boycott

Social boycott has more-flexible goals than mere exclusion. In part 2 of his definitive three-volume work on strategy, The Politics of Nonviolent Action, Gene Sharp addressed three ways in which resistance movements have used social boycott effectively. In some cases, the ostracism was meant to pressure people into inclusion, rather than exclusion. In the first use, ostracism could “induce large sections of a population to join” a resistance movement, such as the Gandhian crusade in British India or the French Resistance during World War II. A second use was to induce people to refrain from collaboration with the enemy. Third, “to apply pressure on ... the opponent’s representatives, especially his police or troops.”

To be effective, social boycott need not be conducted on a massive scale, however. Ostracism on a small scale occurs almost naturally within organizations and ideologies, where it is sometimes called “peer pressure.” Indeed, the strength of social boycott is indicated by the fact that peer pressure occurs spontaneously throughout all levels of human interaction. Thus, social boycott does nothing more than purposefully coordinate a naturally occurring human response in order to achieve a desired goal. The 19th- century Tuckerite feminist Gertrude Kelly considered peer pressure to be so powerful that she called it the foremost reason that women did not rise to equality with men. In a Liberty article entitled “A Woman’s Warning to Reformers,” Kelly declared,

Men ... have always denied to women the opportunity to think; and, if some women have had courage enough to dare public opinion, and insist upon thinking for themselves, they have been so beaten by that most powerful weapon in society’s arsenal, ridicule, that it has effectively prevented the great majority from making any attempt to come out of slavery.
Fortunately, such pressure can also be used to liberate rather than enslave.

Another expression of boycott is political. Sharp explained that such boycott usually involves the “temporary suspension of normal political obedience, cooperation, and behavior.” A recent example of a political boycott was the widespread refusal to provide information to Census 2000. Sharp’s book offers no fewer than 38 methods through which “an almost infinite variety” of political noncooperation can be expressed. One of the methods is the “withdrawal from government educational institutions,” which is basically what home schooling accomplishes.

Economic boycotts

Perhaps the most prominent form of boycott is economic, which Sharp defines as “the refusal to continue or to undertake certain economic relationships, especially the buying, selling, or handling of goods and services.” In America, economic boycott is associated with the labor movement that is associated, in turn, with left-wing politics. This may be another reason why libertarians overlook or dismiss the powerful strategy of economic boycott.

The connection with the left is particularly strong in the non-cooperation expressed through strikes and unionizing, even though there is nothing inherently leftist or coercive about such tactics. These characteristics can be attributed entirely to the manner in which the labor movement evolved within the United States. Around the turn of the 20th century, leftist radicals — with their disdain for capitalism and property — came to dominate American labor, if not through numbers, then through the impact of their ideology.

But 19th-century libertarians vigorously defended both strikes and trade unions, which Tucker called voluntary. He was not blind to the coercive nature of strikers who refused to allow employers to hire replacement workers. “Trade unionists frequently use force against non-unionist workmen,” he admitted, “but the trades union is essentially a voluntary institution.” But Tucker was aware of the Achilles heel of the labor movement: namely, its inability to recognize the main enemy — government. Instead, the labor movement looked to government for privileges through legislation and for resolutions through compulsory arbitration. Nevertheless, the Tucker circle promoted “peaceful” strikes that eschewed government as a formidable weapon against tyranny. Indeed, the power of a strike resided precisely in its ability to affect commerce while ignoring the state. The downfall of the strike as a strategy for freedom came from including the state within the process.

The best argument as to why economic boycott should be redeemed within libertarian strategy may be a mere listing of its diversity. Putting aside “secondary boycott” (e.g., the strike), Sharp discussed a myriad of refinements on the more basic form of economic boycott — refusing to buy, sell, or engage in services. These refinements include:

Action by consumers:
Action by workers and producers:
Action by middlemen:
Action by owners and management:
Action by holders of financial resources:
Each of these diverse strategies is nonviolent, is consistent with libertarian principle, and has a proven history of success.


As political disillusionment spreads throughout the American psyche, it would be prudent to remember that society — not government — is the true engine of social change. Losing belief in the political means does not entail the loss of an important strategy for freedom. Instead, it means eliminating an important barrier.

Unfortunately, another obstacle to freedom exists, namely, the tendency of modern libertarianism to dismiss the voluntary strategies that were championed by its predecessors. The application of boycott in its many forms has been refined and sophisticated through centuries of use. Like any other strategy, boycott will not address every situation and it can fail. But the greatest strategic failure is to dismiss it out of hand.

Return to Part 1

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