Anger vs. Principle

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Writes Skip Oliva:

Because I haven’t provoked enough intra-libertarian strife lately, I decided to fire a couple of rounds at those libertarians calling for a boycott of Amazon.com over the company’s reported removal of Wikileaks data from its servers at the angry demands of U.S. officials. The crux of the pro-boycott position, as I understand it, is that Amazon’s cowardice in the face of Wikileaks’ heroism must not be tolerated. How dare the company not fight to keep data unrelated to its operations on its proprietary servers!As my colleague Stephan Kinsella noted,

“Amazon’s managers have an obligation to the shareholders; they have no right to risk or waste shareholder money for political grandstanding. It’s not their money they would be risking. I also think that in addition to the anti-war libertarian activists who are up in arms about Amazon’s pursuit of profits instead of activism, a number of left-libertarians are using this as an excuse to pile on Amazon because it’s big, a corporation, and profitable.”

Indeed, I concur with Kinsella that some of the pro-boycott message is just a Trojan horse for general business-bashing. But many boycotters, I concede, are legitimately angry at Amazon for not using its position to at least offer some measure of resistance to obvious state censorship.

The problem, however, is that anger is not the same thing as principle. What I objected to in my original post was not so much the call for boycott, but the attempt to portray the boycott as some noble act of libertarian ethical consistency. I think that’s utter bullshit. People are just lashing out in anger at Amazon because it provided a convenient target for the general anger over the Wikileaks backlash. And that’s fine. I lash out all the time. I don’t consider my anger a test of libertarian purity, however.

As a general rule of thumb — not axiomatic principle — I think it’s best to separate one’s personal business from one’s politics. In other words, if you try to consistently tailor your spending and consumption habits to reward or punish people based on how you perceive their support for your politics or ideology, you’re just making yourself miserable for no reason.

This doesn’t just apply to businesses that do things you dislike. Take Whole Foods. The company’s CEO was one of the only people to ever publicly attack the Federal Trade Commission over its illegal and immoral anti-merger activities. I love him for this. But that doesn’t mean I’m going out of my way to shop at his store. Whole Foods is still too expensive for my tastes and budget. So I’ll stick with my current grocery store, even though its management may or may not share my philosophy of antitrust.

If you apply the logic of the Amazon boycott consistently, you’d almost have to walk into any store you do business with, hand the manager an affidavit swearing he supports your views on whatever ideological or political subject is most important to you, and threaten to “boycott” if he doesn’t sign it. Yes, I’m being silly, but no more so than the libertarians who in fact sent messages to Amazon demanding the company “explain itself” about Wikileaks to their satisfaction.

Now there are situations where this approach is useful. I’ve long argued that companies should not hire antitrust lawyers who are ex-FTC or ex-Justice Department officials. But my argument is practical and speaks to the firm’s fiduciary obligations, not any general sense of outrage over antitrust. I simply think that firms are not well-served by hiring lawyers whose first loyalty will always be to the antitrust establishment itself, not the firm and its shareholders. Indeed, many antitrust defendants have expressed to me their regret in hiring such lawyers after-the-fact.

2:25 pm on December 2, 2010