Sunday, February 26, 2017

The Bleak Future Of Boycotts

You’ve probably been there yourself. I know I have. A news story comes out about a company doing some nefarious thing and you decide to express your dissatisfaction by boycotting them. When I was a kid there was something about Nestlé and baby milk, and I suddenly found out just how many things are made by Nestlé. Every so often there’s one about McDonald’s, and more recently there have been boycott-inducing stories about Uber and Byron Burgers. I don’t know whether it achieves what it’s supposed to achieve. I joined in with the Byron Burgers thing, and I didn’t have to decide about the Uber one because I don’t have a smartphone.

It seems like a good idea in principle. A company does something you disapprove of, and you try to stop them doing it by withholding your custom. Or maybe you’re not trying to change their behaviour but you just don’t want to give these ne’erdowells the benefit of your custom, even if it means forgoing their products and services. Cutting off one’s nose to spite someone else’s face makes a certain amount of sense.

Lately I’ve noticed some boycotts being encouraged to protest more mainstream associations like Donald Trump and the Daily Mail. The idea is that if you don’t like Trump then you boycott companies run by people that do, and if you don’t like the Daily Mail then you boycott companies that advertise in the Mail.

In principle this doesn’t make any less sense than using boycotts to protest less controversially awful things. If you think advertising in the Daily Mail is as bad as whatever Nestlé and Byron Burgers did, then it doesn’t really matter that lots of people think the Daily Mail is great. But I worry about where it leads.

It seems to be the received wisdom that politics, at least in America, is becoming more polarized and tribal. If members of one tribe boycott a lot of the companies belonging to the other, the way they already kind of do with media outlets, then you’ll end up with two parallel economies. That’s bad for competition, presumably, but it also might lead to governments from one tribe punishing companies from the other. That sounds bad. I hope it doesn’t happen.

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