Still Not Convinced on Amazon Boycott

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As
most readers already know, Senator Joe Lieberman publicly called
on Amazon to stop hosting WikiLeaks on its servers. When Amazon
capitulated to this request, many heroic opponents of US foreign
policy — whom we at LRC respect very highly — demanded a boycott
of Amazon (e.g. here,
here,
and here).
I did not understand the hostility to Amazon, and wrote
a column
explaining why. Justin Raimondo was not
convinced
, and reiterated calls to boycott Amazon.

I'm
still not convinced, and in particular I think Mr. Raimondo's article
does not explain — as my original piece asked — why are we singling
out Amazon?

Why
Single Out Amazon?

The
main reason I personally was not outraged at Amazon's decision,
is that I initially was very surprised that they hosted WikiLeaks
in the first place. I had been driving in the car, listening
to some right-wing AM talk show (much the same way I use my tongue
to play with canker sores because I'm curious about how bad it will
be). During the news break, the announcer said matter-of-factly
that WikiLeaks' main host had gone down, and that Amazon was now
hosting the controversial website instead.

I
was extremely surprised, bordering on flabbergasted. After all,
for months public figures had been calling for the "treasonous"
Assange, with "blood on his hands," to be executed without
trial. In such a climate, for a huge, public company like Amazon
— which depends on a huge volume of traffic for its low-margin business
— to publicly stand with WikiLeaks, bordered on extraordinary. I
was expecting the announcer to say that some obscure server in Australia
was hosting the site, not Amazon for crying out loud. This
was like Disneyland opening up an Abu Ghraib ride.

Teaching
Amazon a Lesson

With
this background, let me reiterate my point about what "lesson"
a painful boycott of Amazon would actually serve. The lesson is
not, "If you fail to disseminate information that is
critical of the U.S. empire, then you lose my business." As
I pointed out, there are plenty of companies that have done far
more to promote the U.S. empire, than Amazon ever did. Some
candidates include:

  • The radio
    station I listened to earlier this morning, which reminded people
    of the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in a very rah-rah sort
    of way.
  • The airline
    (I don't remember which one) that had a stewardess ask us to clap
    for the servicemen and women on board the flight as we taxied
    toward the gate, when I flew on Veteran's Day.
  • Walmart
    because of this.
  • Judge Napolitano's
    show because it's on FOX.
  • 30 Rock
    because it's on NBC.
  • The Daily
    Show because Jon Stewart is obviously still an Obama supporter,
    when all is said and done.

Now
it's true, if the Amazon boycott were large enough to cause a huge
dent in their business this holiday season, then other visible corporations
who were already associated with WikiLeaks might think twice
before seeming to capitulate to U.S. government demands.

However,
it is also true that no other visible business would become
associated with WikiLeaks in the future. For example, suppose there
were a major law firm, thinking about representing Assange because
its younger partners are actually true believers in civil liberties.

However,
some of the older partners warn them, "We don't want to take
this guy on; he's too hot. We'd have Bill O'Reilly calling us traitors,
and we'd have senators asking us to drop Assange. We'd lose lots
of business from clients who didn't want to be associated with a
firm that was sticking its finger in the government's eye, because
they'd be worried that our trial cases would go against us."

Now
suppose some of the younger partners say, "Well let's at least
try and see what happens. You're just assuming all of those
bad things. But let's at least take Assange on, present our arguments
to the press that this is a free country where we're ruled by laws,
not men. If the heat gets to be too much, then OK we'll back off.
But let's at least give it a shot."

Yet
that option is no longer available to our hypothetical law firm.
Once they become intertwined with WikiLeaks, if they ever disassociate
from it, then they are on the wrong side of the barricades. Unless
they are willing to get dragged off to jail, saying, "To hell
with the government!" they are subject to a boycott for their
cowardice, at least according to Raimondo's
explanation
for the Amazon boycott.

So
if those are the alternatives, how many companies are going to help
WikiLeaks with any of its business operations, going forward?

Holding
Up Amazon to a Stricter Standard Than Oneself?

I
also want to reiterate that it is naïve to think that Amazon
had nothing to fear from Lieberman. We don't really know what happened
behind the scenes. But the idea that Amazon could have hired expensive
lawyers and been fine, is silly. The FBI has been raiding multi-billion
dollar hedge funds for the amorphous crime of "insider trading."
Don't those Wall Street fat cats know how to hire a lawyer?

If
the people running the U.S. government wanted to apply pressure
to Amazon executives, they could simply announce that they were
investigating them for child pornography, and then name some of
the top people at Amazon who were under suspicion. It wouldn't even
matter if there ended up being no shred of evidence at all, save
some anonymous leaks to reporters. Those people's lives would effectively
be ruined. Who the heck is going to go to a cocktail party of someone
accused of child pornography in the New York Times?

Do
not misunderstand: If a large corporation went to the barricades,
like Sewell Avery, and its top executives ended up going to jail
in defense of liberty, then they would be heroes in my book. My
point is, failure to throw away your life in defense of WikiLeaks
— when the capitulation meant that WikiLeaks was down for a matter
of hours — is not a sufficient reason in my book to boycott Amazon.

How
many of the boycotters would take, say, a 10% pay cut this year,
in order that WikiLeaks not have its site interrupted for a few
hours? That is the immediate decision that Amazon may have faced.
(If Lieberman and other government officials called for a boycott
of Amazon heading into the holiday season, accusing them of aiding
a troop killer and committing treason, that could have been disastrous
for their sales.)

As
I pointed out in the previous article, it would be much more logical
— in response to the Lieberman/Amazon episode — for websites to
publicly call for a boycott of the IRS, to say, "We can no
longer in good conscience send our money to this organization."
But that's not what happened, because that would have drawn too
much heat. The lack of such a call is not a sign of cowardice, but
of prudence.

Conclusion

It
is true, as Raimondo pointed out, that some libertarians are praising
Amazon's business model (although that was never part of my argument).
Yet by the same token, there are many antiwar activists who are
clearly picking on Amazon precisely because it is a big,
rich company. The most obvious illustration of this is that Glenn
Greenwald — on the same day he called
for a boycott of Amazon
— expressed nothing
but sympathy
for Tableau, a Seattle-based software company that
stopped hosting completely innocuous charts for WikiLeaks in response
to Lieberman's demands. As I read Greenwald's post, I kept waiting
for him to explain why Amazon was evil but Tableau was a victim;
he never did so.

It
should go without saying that I (and presumably everyone associated
with LRC) applaud the heroic work of Justin Raimondo and others
who were outraged with Amazon. I am simply questioning the rationale
behind their calls for a boycott.

It
is an unfortunate fact that many Americans do not agree with our
assessment of the growing American empire and police state. Rather
than launching punitive campaigns, and drawing lines in the sand
saying that you are either with us or against us, I think the causes
of peace and liberty will be better advanced through gentle persuasion.

Bob
Murphy [send him mail],
adjunct scholar of the Mises Institute,
is the author of The
Politically Incorrect Guide to Capitalism
,
The
Human Action Study Guide
,
and The
Man, Economy, and State Study Guide
.
His latest book is The
Politically Incorrect Guide to the Great Depression and the New
Deal
.

The
Best of Bob Murphy

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