Strategies from the Past: Boycott
Non-Political Persuasion in Society

Essay by
Wendy McElroy


September 2000

Which opportunities for libertarians?

The current disillusionment with politicians — which may be Clinton's true legacy — will be positive only if it becomes disillusionment with the political means itself. Otherwise, people will continue to look primarily to the "State" for solutions instead of to "Society".

State vs. Society

The German sociologist Franz Oppenheimer explained the difference between these two terms in his classic work, The State. By "State", Oppenheimer meant "that summation of privileges and dominating positions which are brought into being by extra-economic power." By Society, he meant "the totality of concepts of all purely natural relations and institutions between man and man..." In other words, the State uses the political means — or force — to achieve wealth and power. Society uses the economic means, or co-operation. An example of the political means is to acquire wealth through taxation; an example of the economic means is to acquire wealth through productive labor.

The goal of libertarianism is to persuade people to look to the economic means, first and foremost, to achieve their goals. When this is achieved, society will be both peaceful and voluntary. Thus, it is necessary to demonstrate effective non-violent strategies that can provide for social change and redress wrongs. Fortunately, libertarianism has used non-violence for centuries and its history is a textbook rich in such strategies. One of them is the boycott.

Defining boycott

Ostracism and boycott are such closely related social tactics that one is often considered a form of the other. Ostracism dates back to ancient Greece (at least) and refers to the act of excluding an unacceptable person from the fellowship of society through general consent. The term "boycott" was coined in 1880 by the Irish Home Rule leader Charles Stewart Parnell to describe the version of ostracism being used against a certain Captain Charles Cunningham Boycott by his Irish neighbors. This specific form of ostracism became an effective tactic in the struggle of the Irish peasants against English landlords who enjoyed legal privileges. By contrast, Irish tenants faced legal barriers to ownership and paid racking rents that left them in near-starvation. In 1879, Parnell and Michael Davitt founded the Land League in order to achieve the three "Fs": fair rent, free sale, and fixity of tenure. The League evolved into a widespread peasant rebellion — the first peaceful mass uprising that Ireland had enjoyed.

The campaign against Captain Boycott was the League's most notable early victory. The Captain was a much-hated overseer for an absentee landlord, Lord Erne, in Mayo County. In 1880, when he refused to lower rents for the tenants, an audacious scheme was hatched. Servants no longer worked in his house, stores sold him nothing, no mail was delivered, and laborers refused to bring in the harvest. Boycott imported politically friendly labor from the county of Ulster but the expense of doing so proved disastrous. A humiliated Boycott was forced to leave Ireland. The rebel success galvanized Ireland and boycotts erupted across the island. Landlords who evicted tenants suddenly found that no other family would move into the vacated house.

A basic difference between ostracism and boycott becomes clear through this example. Ostracism is often no more than the punishment of an individual while boycott aims at achieving social change. Since boycott is pursued to achieve a separate goal, it has a better claim to the word "strategy". And ostracism with a such a goal is best referred to as "social boycott". In a more general sense, boycott can be defined as "a refusal to associate with someone or to purchase or participate in something as an act of protest aimed at changing a policy or practice."

Libertarians and the boycott

Boycott was a popular strategy with the 19th Century libertarians who congregated around Benjamin Tucker's pivotal periodical Liberty. Indeed, it had been well received by the earlier New England Labor Reform League for which Ezra Heywood's libertarian periodical The Word served as a voice. Boycott seemed to provide a peaceful social means by which people could address actions they considered so immoral as to be intolerable. Without such a means, libertarians feared that people would turn to government for relief.

Tucker was fascinated with the Irish "No-rent" movement, the main organ of which was Patrick Ford's Irish World. "Liberty is not always satisfied with it [Irish World]," Tucker wrote, "but, all things considered, deems it the most potent agency for good now at work on this planet." Of the Irish Land League, he wrote, "Ireland's true order: the wonderful Land League, the nearest approach, on a large scale, to perfect Anarchistic organization ..."

Tucker was not alone in his admiration. Two of Liberty's most frequent contributors — Henry Appleton and Sidney H. Morse — also wrote columns for Irish World under the pseudonyms of Honorius and Phillip, respectively. Tucker eventually became disillusioned with the Land League, however. He believed that the promise of the movement had been sold out for political advantage by its leaders, especially by Parnell. In Instead of a Book, Tucker lamented, "The Irish Land League failed because the peasants were acting, not intelligently in obedience to their wisdom, but blindly in obedience to leaders who betrayed them at the critical moment."

But the Land League had vindicated the strategy of boycott in the minds of 19th Century American libertarians. Tucker later commented on what he called Ireland's shortest route to success, "no payment of rent now or hereafter; no payment of compulsory taxes now or hereafter; utter disregard of the British parliament and its so-called laws; entire abstention from the polls henceforth; rigorous but non-invasive 'boycotting' of deserters, cowards, traitors, and oppressors ..." Boycott was an integral part of the "passive but stubborn resistance" that Tucker considered to be the only strategic alternative to open revolution and terror, both of which he rejected. He favored passive resistance, which he called "the most potent weapon ever wielded by man against oppression" and "prominent features of every great national movement."

Not all of Tucker's circle was as enthusiastic about boycott, however. Indeed, some contributors considered the tactic to be invasive because it interfered with another's ability to make a living. Again and again, Tucker staunchly insisted that everyone had the right to ignore others and that such treatment could not constitute invasion or interference.

Other contributors to Liberty accepted "primary" boycott — that is, the personal refusal to deal with people or agencies — but rejected "secondary" boycott — that is, the use of strikes or blacklists. The latter tactics were termed "secondary" because they were usually used to aid and expand a "primary" boycott. Many, if not most of Tucker's circle had great reservations about "secondary" boycott. Nevertheless, Tucker defended even blacklists as nothing more than a form of "employer boycott" and repeated that the refusal to co-operate or associate could never be a form of coercion.

A century later, the free market economist Murray Rothbard would echo Tucker. In The Ethics of Liberty, Rothbard wrote,

Furthermore, "secondary" boycotts are also legitimate. ... In a secondary boycott, labor unions try to persuade consumers not to buy from firms who deal with non-union (primary boycotted) firms. ... [It] should be their right to try such persuasion, just as it is the right of their opponents to counter with an opposing boycott." Regarding what is arguably the most hated and vilified type of boycott, Rothbard observed, "the blacklist — a form of boycott — would be legal in a free society.

The only problem Rothbard perceived with boycott lay in practices that were closely associated with but entirely separable from the strategy. For example, the common practice of picketing might be invasive if it blocked access to private property or constituted a threat to so-called "scabs" who crossed the line. But these associated practices did not reflect badly upon boycott itself. Rothbard concluded, "the important thing about the boycott is that it is purely voluntary, an act of attempted persuasion, and therefore that it is a perfectly legal and licit instrument of action."

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 non-cooperation is one of the drives 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 served 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 non-cooperation on the part of the boycotters. If non-cooperation is forced, black marketeers merely cash in on the higher profits brought by higher risk and skirt the restrictions.

Social boycott: ostracism or peer pressure

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 (1854-1858), 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."

Social boycott has more flexible goals than mere exclusion. In his definitive three-volume work on strategy, The Politics of Nonviolent Action (Part Two), 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 co-ordinate 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 the foremost reason why 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 be used to liberate rather than enslave.

Political boycott: non-cooperation with the State

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 less than thirty-eight methods through which "an almost infinite variety" of political non-cooperation can be expressed. One of the methods is the "withdrawal from government educational institutions," which is basically what home schooling accomplishes.

Economic boycott: de-selecting transactions

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, left 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" (for example, the strike), Sharp discussed a myriad of refinements on the more basic form of economic boycott — the refusal to buy, sell, or engage in services. These refinements include:

Action by consumers:

  • consumer boycotts
  • non-consumption of boycotted goods
  • policy of austerity
  • rent withholding
  • refusal to rent
  • national consumers' boycott
  • international consumers' boycott

Action by workers and producers:

  • workman's boycott
  • producer's boycott

Action by middlemen:

  • suppliers' and handlers' boycott

Action by owners and management:

  • traders' boycott
  • refusal to let or sell property
  • lockout
  • refusal of industrial assistance
  • merchants' 'general strike'

Action by holders of financial resources:

  • withdrawal of bank deposits
  • refusal to pay fees, dues and assessments
  • refusal to pay debts or interest
  • severance of funds and credit
  • revenue refusal

Each of these diverse strategies is nonviolent, 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.


© 2000 Wendy McElroy

Appeared in Freedom Daily, September & October 2000,
from the Future of Freedom Foundation

William A. Jacobson's discussions
at Legal Insurrection
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Arizona Boycott Flops, Stats Show

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