By Oliver W. Burt
The year is 1880, and in County Mayo, Ireland, inside a small, dusty Catholic church, a meeting is taking place. Several members of the group are of the priestly class but their discussion does not concern ecumenical matters: this is a meeting of the Irish National Land League. They are debating what should be done about Captain Charles Boycott, the local land agent. The harvest has been particularly poor this year and the farmers cannot pay their rent. Boycott’s employer, Lord Erne, had offered the farmers a ten percent reduction in rent but this was simply not enough. The farmers demanded a twenty-five percent reduction but Lord Erne refused. Now his stooge, Boycott, has begun evicting farmers who cannot pay. The League eventually agree to enact upon Boycott, and any of his new tenants that take up the evicted farmers’ lands, an innovative form of non-violent, economic protest. They would conspire with the local townspeople to refuse the business of these new tenants, and of Boycott himself, until he submitted to their demands.
This was the first implementation of the Boycott strategy suggested by Irish MP Charles Stewart Parnell, and it was so effective that it instantly became entwined with the name of its first victim. The Irish National Land League may have had a legitimate grievance with their landlord, perhaps they were making excessive demands, it is hard to know, either way their rent dispute was a far cry from the hyper-politicized boycott culture of today. Boycotts today are called less for local financial conflicts but more globally for crimes against ideological sensitivities.
The most recent, notorious example being the boycott of Fox News’ Laura Ingraham, or more precisely of those companies advertising on her Fox News prime-time show. The boycott was called for by child-come-activist, David Hogg, in retaliation to Ingraham chastising him via Twitter for “whining” about failing to secure a place at any of his preferred universities. Merely restating the casus belli of the 21st-century boycott has me reaching for the bleach that I may clense my palate.
When the 21st-century boycott is not being wielded as the WMD of petulant schoolboys, it is no less wildly detached from its humble 19-century origins. During the late 2000’s and early 2010’s, at least a dozen UK councils boycotted or divested from companies, “complicit in the illegal Israeli occupation of Palestine”; a practice that was subsequently made illegal in the UK as it was seen to be a form of left-wing insurrection.
The boycott is certainly a powerful and effective weapon but the question remains: is it an ethical strategy? Are boycotts a natural consequence of the free market and a beneficial form of non-violent mass protest, or do boycotts undermine free market principles by desecrating value in favor of political dominance through mob justice? Is it ever right for governments such as the UK to ban boycotting even if only for public bodies?
The arguably excessive scope of today’s boycotts, and the readiness with which to enact them, undoubtedly stems from the hyper-politicized and divisive nature of 21st-century discourse. I fear much suffering will await future generations if the power of the boycott is legislated into oblivion in retaliation; all because of the abuses of today’s “activist” class, who are ready to boycott anything and everything (at least for a day or two) for a moment of publicized false virtue and the accompanying dopamine kick.
However, it may be impossible for any government to clamp down on boycotts lead by independent citizens, since their implementation is indistinguishable from consumer choice. Perhaps this strange little populist conspiracy of Irish priests, politicians and farmers is not only a solid argument in defense of free market capitalism, but if used correctly it may be the very tool required to maintain the free market and expel corrupt, anti-competitive elements from therein.