Saturday, July 13, 2019

To Buy, Or Not To Buy

Bernard Marcus, co-founder and first CEO of The Home Depot, has pledged financial support for President Trump's 2020 reelection campaign. Those people who ardently oppose President Trump being reelected are unhappy with this, and have called for a boycott of The Home Depot; presumably in an attempt to lever Mr. Marcus into keeping his money to himself. President Trump took to Twitter to denounce "the Radical Left" for "using Commerce to hurt their 'Enemy'." And some media outlets followed up with articles pointing out, in effect, that the President has no problems with calling for his supporters to use commerce to hurt their (and some would say his) perceived enemies.

While it's entertaining to watch the back-and-forth, it's unlikely to amount to anything other than noise. Because, as with any number of things, boycotts aren't understood to be either good or bad on the basis of what is being done. Rather, who is doing it and who it is being done to become proxies for broader questions of questions of right or wrong. It's possible to view the success or failure of a boycott as merely an indicator of public sentiment, and leave it at that. Whether the boycott succeeds or fails, it served to illustrate the public's general understanding of some or another issue. But when boycotts are viewed as being an enforcement mechanism for objective moral or ethical principles, ideals that are independent of public preferences, then attitudes about them are going to shift, depending on the viewpoint of the observer.

Sometimes, at least in hindsight, there's a strong link between the action and a broad public understanding of virtue. The Montgomery Bus Boycott being a prime example. Today it's seen as a triumph of non-violent resistance to oppression. But imagine for a moment that Richard Spencer and his supporters were able to bring down a metropolitan public-transit system by boycotting it for failing to reintroduce segregation. I'd be very surprised if there were a broad media message that it was hypocritical to support Dr. King's boycott, but not Mr. Spencer's.

And in this, I think that the focus on the tactic in a way that casts the President as hypocritical is unhelpful. The President supports, and calls for, boycotts when he understands them to be in support of a preexisting standard of virtue. Okay, so that standard often comes across as self-serving, but this is nothing new; nor unique to the President. Most people's formulations of right and wrong tend to line up with their current lives and choices. Noting that people will support a specific action when it aligns with their belief systems, yet oppose it when it works against those beliefs seems to be stating the obvious.

No comments: