Dec 122002

Arthur Silber, who used to be Ayn Rand’s personal secretary, tells an interesting story about her. You should read the whole thing, but the upshot is that she bought a Russian opera record she craved, in violation of the official Objectivist policy of refusing to buy from the Soviets.

For Arthur the moral is to distinguish between “principles — which are of crucial importance — and rules, which are merely formulaic versions of principles, applied by rote and without the much-needed attention to context, including personal context.” That’s an important moral, but of some other story, not this one. This story tells us that boycotts are silly. The value that anyone gains from a purchase, let alone what Ayn Rand would have gained from this particular purchase, so far outweighs the damage inflicted on the target by refusing to buy, that such policies are impossible to justify by ethical egoism. On the other hand, if you’re a golden-rule Kantian (if nobody bought Soviet then the regime would collapse) or an altruist (my petty purchase doesn’t matter, I’m doing this for the greater good), then boycotts make a lot more sense.

It’s no accident that boycotts are especially popular with the left. They’re passive (the virtue of not doing something), inwardly warming, and utterly useless.

  11 Responses to “Boycotts and Egoism”

  1. Yep. This reminds me of when I wander into a store and find a lot of things I sort of need, and every damn one of them was made in China. I’ll buy one of them, instead of the two or three I might have, and sort of feel OK about it. At least I only subsidized slave labor one-third as much as might otherwise have. Owch. Put that way, I might have to stop shopping altogether, since practically every damn thing from spatulas to Christmas ornaments is made in China now by God-knows-what sausage-making social equivalent.

  2. This is what I’m saying: just buy what you like. Your refusal to buy Chinese isn’t going to cost the commies one wink of sleep. Now if you were an industrialist considering going into China in a big way, that would be another matter entirely.

  3. Re boycots of foreign products.One point usually neglected in the debate is that the $$ spent on these purchases will eventually return to the US, by purchasing American products and services.This should be totally differentiated from foreign investment in these countries in alliance with the
    dictators.Buying their products may still be a good way to liberate them

  4. Boycotts are "utterly useless"? This seems a bit sweeping.

    Wouldn’t we agree that the collapse of apartheid in South Africa was if not caused, at least facilitated, by the pressure of international trade sanctions, reduced investment, and actual corporate disinvestment under shareholder — in other words, by a kind of deliberate moral action of boycott?

    Even if a single lost sale is a trivial damage to the one being boycotted, a boycott may still have an impact as a piece of communication. As an act, it can broadcast a denunciation while simultaneously illustrating the concreteness of moral connections and consequences. So it can be as "useless," or as powerful, as any piece of communication.

    Agree or disagree with the message, as you like. But dismissing boycotts themselves is like dismissing the paragraph.


  5. You are sort of restating the obvious, aren’t you? Personal boycotts are done for personal reasons, and aren’t intended to bring down huge companies. It’s an annoying trait in the individual who feels the necessity to proclaim moral superiority by virtue of his/her self-deprivation, but that’s the exception, not the norm.

    Now if you are talking about mass boycotts, then to say that they are utterly useless is incorrect. Mass boycotts are effective, in the way mass strikes are effective (while a single employee walking off the job is not). Mass boycotts are rare, but they certainly happen.

    Some boycotts are made more for political effect than for economic coercion. Effecting South African change was certainly helped by growing global pressure that included very symbolic gestures such as restricting South African athletes from participation in international sporting competitions.

    Boycotts can also effect intermediate change. A good example is organic foods – the organic food market is much larger than it was 20 years ago, and that’s because enough people put themselves out (by avoiding more readily available non-organic foods) that small organic companies were able to survive and grow, and some of the larger agribusinesses saw value in providing organic food products. It hasn’t put non-organic food companies out of business, but it has created a niche that many people prefer.

    Perhaps I misinterpret what you mean by "utterly useless".

    – Itea

  6. Aaron: To be honest I don’t know much about apartheid so I’ll take your word for it regarding the economic impact of boycotts. My version certainly makes a more heroic story, which may be why it shows up in popular encyclopedias (, paragraph 11).

    The whole speech vs. act question is an interesting one, isn’t it? Just for the fun of it, here’s a grab bag of borderline cases:

    * Rosa Parks refuses to cede her seat on the bus. An act, or a piece of speech?

    * A silent sit-in on the Pentagon lawn that attracts media attention, but does not directly disrupt the operations of the government. An act, or a piece of speech?

    And on the other side:

    * In a marriage ceremoney, the officiating priest says "I now pronounce you man and wife." Speech, or an act?

    * In the correct ceremonial context, the ruling king stands up and says, "I hereby declare it a new and valid law of the land, that written paragraphs are illegal." Speech, or an act?

  7. Alexis: In the case of South Africa I fear that we can’t agree. Economic pressure didn’t end apartheid; there really wasn’t very much of it. Most of South Africa’s important foreign investors, IBM most notably, refused to subscribe to the Sullivan Principles, for the excellent reason that disinvestment would merely have punished South African blacks. Nor has history been kind to sanctions generally.

    Speech is speech and acts are acts and never the twain shall meet. Speech has ended many an illicit regime and immoral practice, which is more than I can say for boycotts, and anyone who wants to complain about the Chinese government does so with my blessing. Speech propagates ideas, while boycotts are just a form of personal righteousness. I am an ardent defender of the paragraph. Look, two of them right there!

  8. So Miss Rand "valued" an economic boycott of Russia due to her personal beliefs. But she "valued" owning the Russian opera more.

    I am not sure whether this is a simple conflict of values, or a nice juicy rationalization, or what ever. But comeing from the prophet of individualism herself, it is disconcerning. At least until you realize that it made her human, and not the perfection that she preaches.

    I wonder, is there any difference between her buying the opera recording and an excutive slightly padding his expense account. Or even worse, to a Christian that sins in some slight way?

  9. During a lecture in the 70’s, with Rand in the audience, Peikoff stated that the "Don’t Buy Soviet" idea–he never called it a "principle" in itself–is highly contextual and depends on the
    availability of other substitutes, among other things. To my knowledge, and I have researched this area, none of Rand’s associates, friends, etc. ever faced Rand’s anger for "Buying Soviet," so the idea that this is something that could create anger in Rand is without foundation–unless Mr. Silber has some evidence of which I am not aware. Quite recently, in fact, Peikoff, again at a public lecture, indicated that the effort it takes to boycott "Terrorist" oil creates the context of its applicability. He said this even when confronted with lists of oil
    companies that do business with the suspect nations. Mr. Silber has misunderstood the original "principle" rather badly. He should have had the guts to ask Rand herself.

    Western markets kept the Soviet Empire going for decades longer than it could have lasted on its
    own. If no Western consumers “bought Soviet,” they would have collapsed (economically) much
    earlier, as Sutton and Keller have proven so well. True, Henry Ford’s business meant a lot more to
    them than the average consumer’s, but all of it kept them going. Moreover, every nickel in itself
    was harmful–just one more nickel’s worth of torture and slavery.

  10. I probably should have said "generally useless" instead of "utterly useless." There have been cases where business boycotts at least contributed to the overthrow of evil governments. One little adverb, getting me in so much trouble…

    In general, people should worry less about moral perfection in small matters and more about moral adequacy in large matters. Buying or not buying Russian or Chinese or South African is always, for the individual consumer, a small matter.

    Itea: Not every consumer preference is a boycott. Most people bought organic food, I daresay, because they preferred it, not because they wanted to stick it to evil agribusiness. That organic food is now widely available I see as a triumph for consumer preference, nothing more.

    Alexis: if we want to be literal, all speech is action. Nonetheless in practice the distinction between action that attempts to propagate ideas (I will stick with that admittedly loose definition of speech for now) and action that doesn’t is clear enough. Of course there are borderline cases, but there are far more easy ones. (Lest I be accused of evading the issue: I think your first two cases are speech, and your last two are acts.)

    Curtis: buying a record is hardly on a par, where moral failings are concerned, with chiseling one’s employer. In fact the point of my post was that it isn’t really a moral failing at all.

    James: I haven’t read Sutton, but what consumers bought or didn’t buy hardly figures into Keller’s book at all. A major industrialist investing in the Soviet Union is a serious matter. Ayn Rand buying a Russian opera record just isn’t.

  11. Aaron:

    Boycott has many definitions. You are apparently restricting its meaning (in this case) to an act of self-deprivation for a political cause? I know people who will be hungry but won’t buy non-organic food (I’m not one of them), so I’m not sure whether their non-purchase qualifies as a boycott by your standards. It does by mine. It’s not necessarily an attempt to bring down large agribusinesses; it’s a statement of dissatisfaction with the choices available at that particular store.

    Addressing your original statements, it’s also rather incorrect to suggest that boycotts are especially popular with the left. They are plenty popular with many people who would consider themselves conservatives. Who writes corporations to tell them to stop advertising during "offensive" TV shows? It ain’t the ACLU. Who takes their kids out of public schools to avoid non-Biblical teachings? Not hard to figure out.

    And here’s an essay from Freedom Daily.

    I liked your original point – that you think Rand thought it silly to deny herself. I think it was valid until you tried to extrapolate larger truths from it.

    I didn’t make a list of what I consider effective boycotts because anyone can go to google and type "effective boycotts" and check out the results. But there have been many (coincidentally, Alexis mentioned Rosa Parks right after I wrote in a slightly different context – the Montgomery bus boycott was certainly effective on the political level [though I imagine the actual economic effect is overstated]).

    – Itea

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