Some Concerns With the Amazon Boycott

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Many opponents
of the U.S. empire are calling for a boycott against Amazon, after
its capitulation to Sen.
Joe Lieberman's calls
for it to stop hosting WikiLeaks on its
servers. This is a controversial issue, with even LRC bloggers taking
nuanced positions (e.g. here
and here).
Although it's possible someone could give me a compelling
argument for boycotting Amazon, I am not yet convinced. Furthermore,
there are several concerns that I haven't seen the proponents of
a boycott address.

Of Course
You Have a Right To Boycott Amazon

Before I dive
in, let me defuse one objection. I have seen many boycotters argue,
"Hey, it's my money and I have the right to do what I want
with it." Well of course you do; nobody is denying that.
By the same token, I have the right to send $10,000 to Jonah Goldberg
because I'm outraged at what just happened. It doesn't mean that
my action would make a whole lot of sense, though.

So in the rest
of this article, we take it for granted that this isn't a discussion
about libertarian or antiwar principles per se; nobody is a criminal
for either using Amazon, or for boycotting it. I am just trying
to clarify some of the issues involved, to make sure the boycotters
have thought this through.

Why Single
Out Amazon?

My first concern
is that Amazon is being targeted only because it initially hosted
WikiLeaks. That's the only reason this is even an issue. If
Amazon is "censoring" WikiLeaks because it won't host
it, then the same is true for every other company that owns servers
in the world, except for the one in Sweden (Bahnhof AB) that currently
hosts WikiLeaks.

Now the boycotter
could respond that this is just silly, and that there are plenty
of principled owners of server space out there, who would be glad
to host WikiLeaks. OK fine, then that shows in the grand scheme,
Amazon didn't really "hurt the cause." And in actual fact,
WikiLeaks was down
for less than a day
. Anyone who wants to sift through the secret
material still has it all at his disposal; Amazon's decision in
no way will protect the government from embarrassment.

I am sure the
average boycotter will think I am being incredibly obtuse: Why,
the whole point is that some companies — like the one in
Sweden — need to be brave and stand up to the U.S. government, rather
than fold at the first sign of trouble, as Amazon did.

Yet if this
is the argument, then still I have to ask: Why single out Amazon
for the boycott? To repeat, at least Amazon initially hosted
WikiLeaks; this actually surprised me when I heard it, since I thought
major corporations wouldn't want to touch Assange's website with
a ten-foot pole in this environment.

If we are to
boycott Amazon because it supported WikiLeaks, but then abandoned
it when things started to heat up, then surely we should also boycott
those corporations which we know would never have supported WikiLeaks
in the first place. For example, we should never buy another GE
appliance, because of the pro-empire spin of its media outlets.

And for a really
tough one: Are we still allowed to watch Judge Napolitano's show?
After all, he's associated with FOX, some of whose personalities
have not been entirely supportive of Assange. If the answer is,
"Yes, we can watch Napolitano because he's good on civil liberties,"
then why can't we buy Thoreau books from Amazon?

My concern
on singling out Amazon is best summed up by the declaration from
many boycotters that they would take their business to Barnes &
Noble. But why? Did Barnes & Noble host WikiLeaks? How did they
suddenly become the corporate heroes who laugh at profits and go
to the barricades for liberty?

The boycotters
seem quite sure that this episode will send a signal to major corporations
that they shouldn't leave critics of the government high and dry.
But this might actually backfire, and be akin to raising the minimum
wage, thinking it helps unskilled workers. Specifically, the lesson
to major corporations might be: "Whoa, let's not get ourselves
involved with any dubious groups or individuals, in case the government
cracks down and makes us look like the bad guys."

How Long
Will the Boycott Last?

I have another
question: How long is the boycott supposed to last? Until Amazon
once again hosts WikiLeaks? Until the War on Terror is over? Are
the boycotters really never going to use Amazon again?

As with the
invasion of Iraq after 9/11, I am concerned that some of the boycotters
are lashing out in rage because they don't like what just happened,
even though they haven't carefully thought through what their actual
objectives are, and what their "exit strategy" is.

The Real

Let's not lose
sight of the fact that it was Joe Lieberman, representing
the might of the U.S. federal government, who caused Amazon to drop
WikiLeaks as a customer. I have read some boycotters arguing that
Amazon should have put up more of a fight, at least waiting for
a court order.

This strikes
me as very naïve. The government has all sorts of tools at
its disposal. The IRS could've hit Amazon with an audit. The company
could have lost its sales tax exemption. OSHA could've discovered
all sorts of safety violations at its offices. If Amazon had wanted
to acquire another company, the government could've held up approval.

Look at how
effortlessly Assange was demonized the world over, when he crossed
these people. This is the same group that is currently using robots
to blow people up, and claims the authority to unilaterally kill
U.S. citizens with no due process. So Amazon executives were supposed
to tell Lieberman to beat it, then lawyer-up and be immune from
government retaliation?

It's ironic
to think through exactly why Amazon ended up being the target of
the boycott, when even the boycotters would all quickly admit that
it was Lieberman who was more culpable than the Amazon executives.
Consider: If a would-be boycotter wanted to cause economic pain
because of the silencing of WikiLeaks, then the obvious move would
be to stop sending more money to the very government that is waging
wars and harassing Assange.

Yet the boycotters
aren't saying, "Hey everyone, let's stop sending our money
to D.C." Why? Because they are afraid of what the government
would do to them. In other words, they are behaving exactly
like the Amazon executives.

Let us not
forget that all of us, to the extent we pay taxes, are funding the
very organization that is carrying out operations that WikiLeaks
is trying to stop. In that light, it's odd to become indignant over
Amazon for merely withdrawing its support from WikiLeaks,
when the boycotters themselves continue to send their money to the
organization actively trying to shut down WikiLeaks.

To Each His Own

I hope this
essay is not construed as an attack on those who urge a boycott
of Amazon. Especially after Amazon's
weasely press release
, I completely understand the disgust with
large corporations that "play nice" with the government.

Judging from
the debates on this topic that I have seen, it seems the boycotters
and non-boycotters are content to go their separate ways in peace.
Nobody, for example, is suggesting that the boycotters be
boycotted for their unfair "disruption of commerce"; that
would be silly. And by the same token, I haven't seen any boycotters
threatening to disassociate from someone for crossing the picket
line and ordering Christmas presents from Amazon.

Yet it is this
very attitude of tolerance that makes me reluctant to punish Amazon.
I'm not going to stop doing business with somebody, just because
he boycotts Amazon. Why then would I stop doing business with Amazon,
just because they boycotted WikiLeaks?

As I said in
the beginning of this essay, these are not matters of property rights,
but rather ones of strategy for gaining one's ultimate objectives.
I do not condone the current U.S. apparatus of worldwide military
occupation and police state surveillance, and am going to use whatever
peaceful methods I can, to persuade as many people as possible that
there is another way to live.

Along the way,
I have made decisions, such as refusing to work for the government
in any capacity, including as a professor at a State-funded school.
That doesn't mean I condemn people who teach at State schools as
"sell-outs," it just means it was a decision I made for
myself. On the other hand, I pay my taxes in accordance with the
law, even though I know there are some extreme libertarians who
would condemn me for "feeding the beast" and perpetuating
the very system I claim to oppose.

It's very hard
to live a principled life, and the rapacious State makes it that
much harder. If someone wants to boycott Amazon because it dropped
WikiLeaks, I understand the motivation. I would just hope the boycotter
has thought it through.

Murphy [send him mail],
adjunct scholar of the Mises Institute,
is the author of The
Politically Incorrect Guide to Capitalism
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

Best of Bob Murphy

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