Liberty and the Boycott

Excerpted from the book;
Individual Liberty: Selections From the Writings of Benjamin R. Tucker
Vanguard Press, New York, 1926
Kraus Reprint Co., Millwood, NY, 1973.

London Jus does not see clearly in the matter of boycotting. "Every man," is says, "has a perfect right to refuse to hold intercourse with any other man or class from whom he chooses to keep aloof. But where does liberty come in when several persons conspire together to put pressure upon another to induce or coerce him (by threats expressed or implied) to refrain also from intercourse with the boycotted man? It is not that the boycotted man has grounds of legal complaint against those who voluntarily put him in coventry. His complaint is against those who compel (under whatsoever sanction) third persons to do likewise. Surely the distinction is specific." Specific, yes, but not rational. The line of real distinction does not run in the direction which Jus tries to give it. Its course does not lie between the second person and a third person, but between the threats of invasion and the threats of ostracism by which either the second or a third person is coerced or induced. All boycotting, no matter of what person, consists either in the utterance of a threat or in its execution. A man has a right to threaten what he has a right to execute. The boundary-line of justifiable boycotting is fixed by the nature of the threat used. B and C, laborers, are entitled to quit buying shoes of A, a manufacturer, for any reason whatever or for no reason at all. Therefore they are entitled to say to A: "If you do not discharge the non-union men in your employ, we will quit buying shoes of you." Similarly they are entitled to quit buying clothes of D, a tailor. Therefore they are entitled to. say to D.: "If you do not cooperate with us in endeavoring to induce A to discharge his non-union employees, - that is, if you do not quit buying shoes of him, - we will quit buying clothes of you." But B and C are not entitled to burn A's shop or D's shop. Hence they are not entitled to say to A that they will burn his shop unless he discharges his non-union employees, or to D that they will burn his shop unless he withdraws his patronage from A. Is it not clear that the rightful attitude of B and C depends wholly upon the question whether or not the attitude is invasive in itself, and not at all upon the question whether the object of it is A or D?

In reply, Jus, being convinced by the argument, cheerfully acknowledged its error, but asserted that the principle did not apply when two or more persons conspired to conduct a boycott, saying, "That which may not be illegal or even wrong in one person becomes both illegal and morally wrong when in a crowd of persons." Mr. Tucker then proceeded to demolish that contention:

Jus still thinks, however, that something may be said on the other side, and declares that there are some things that one person may rightfully do which become illegal and immoral when done by a crowd. I should like to have Jus give an instance. There are some invasive acts or threats which cannot be executed by individuals, but require crowds - or conspiracies, if you will - for their acccomplishment. But the guilt still arises from the invasive character of the act, and not from the fact of conspiracy. No individual has a right to do any act which is invasive, but any number of individuals may rightfully "conspire" to commit any act which is non-invasive. Jus acknowledges the force of Liberty's argument that A may as properly boycott C as B. Further consideration, I think, will compel it to acknowledge that A and B combined may as properly boycott C as may A alone or B alone.

In these days of boycott trials a great deal of nonsense is being talked and written regarding "blackmail." This is a question which the principle of Liberty settles at once. It may be well to state the verdict boldly and baldly. Here it is: Any individual may place any condition he chooses, provided the condition be not in itself invasive, upon the doing or not doing of anything which he has a right to do or not do; but no individual can rightfully be a party to any bargain which makes a necessarily invasive condition incumbent upon any of the contracting parties. From which it follows that an individual may rightfully "extort" money from another by "threatening" him with certain consequences, provided those consequences are of such a nature that he can cause them without infringing upon anybody's rights. Such "extortion" is generally rather mean business, but there are circumstances under which the most high-minded of men might resort to it without doing violence to his instincts, and under no circumstances is it invasive and therefore wrongful, unless the act threatened is invasive and therefore wrongful. Therefore to punish men who have taken money for lifting a boycott is oppression pure and simple. Whatever may be the "common law" or the "statute law" of blackmail, this - to use Mr. Spooner's phrase - is the natural law that governs it.

The courts are at last beginning to take rational views on the question of peaceable picketing and peaceable boycotting. Several refreshing decisions have been rendered within a short time in which the principle is recognized that what one man may legitimately do several men may do in concert. But even the most independent and intelligent of the judges still stultify themselves by attempting baseless distinctions between self-regarding boycotts and purely sympathetic boycotts. A, they say, may boycott B, if he has any grievance against him, but he may not ask C to boycott B and threaten to boycott him in turn in the event of refusal. When they undertake to defend this position, they fail miserably, of course, and the truth is that they shrink from the clear logic of the principle which they lay down at the outset. But let us not expect too much of them at once. "It is the first step that is difficult." Having accepted a sound principle, its corollaries will force themselves on them.

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