Hardly a day goes by without a call for a boycott of one corporation or another. Either it's religious conservatives angry about what Amazon.com is selling or it's liberals angry about how Nike treats its overseas employees.
It's gotten to the point where the previously simple act of shopping has become fraught with moral peril. I agree that where, as well as how, we spend our money says something about our values. But at least part of boycott mania arises from a failure to address how the marketplace itself shapes the culture.
In addition to not buying books at Amazon, the conscientious religious conservative isn't supposed to wear Levis (not even the button-fly ones) or take his kids to Disney World. The reasons these companies are considered off-limits is that, according to groups like the American Family Association, some of their business practices undermine traditional values. In the case of Amazon, the boycott was prompted by certain books that Amazon sells. One book in particular was accused--correctly, in my opinion--of celebrating pedophilia. While Amazon no longer carries that particular title, other supposedly objectionable titles have kept the boycott in place.
In the case of Disney and Levi-Strauss, the issue isn't so much their products as their personnel practices. Like many other companies, Disney and Levi-Strauss (which is renowned for treating its people well) extend health and life insurance benefits to the partners of gay and lesbian employees. For the American Family Association and the Southern Baptist Convention, extending these benefits to same-sex unions is tantamount to declaring an equivalency between these relationships and marriage--promoting what the AFA terms "the assault on the institution of marriage" and "the moral dissolution" of our culture.
Even if you sympathize with the boycotters' goals, the problem is that their argument proves too much. If Christians are to have no part of any institution that contributes to moral dissolution, why stop at Disney and Levi-Strauss? Why not boycott every company that extends similar benefits? Since, say, Microsoft and Apple extend these kinds of benefits, applying the boycott consistently would be difficult: no computers or e-mail.
What the activists forget is that, more than the actions of any one company, it's the operation of the marketplace itself that has contributed to the problems that trouble them. You can see the impact of the marketplace--what Joseph Schumpeter once called capitalism's "creative destruction"--in two areas that are at the heart of religious conservatives' cultural concerns: abortion and family structure.
Two decades ago, abortion-rights advocates learned that denying the humanity of the fetus wouldn't get them very far. What they needed was an expression that would resonate with ordinary Americans. That expression was "freedom of choice"--a phrase straight out of the marketplace. Americans are told hundreds of times a day that an important measure of the good life is the number of choices we have. Being able to choose is a sign of empowerment--whether what's being chosen is television channels, coffee flavors, or the sandwich toppings.
Even ads that don't overtly mention the word "choice" are selling choice. You've probably seen those ads for QWEST, the ones that talk about instant access to every movie ever made or every book ever written. While QWEST is ostensibly selling bandwidth, it's really saying, "Why accept limitations?" With this kind of indoctrination, no one should have been surprised at Americans' willingness to apply the idea of choice beyond the marketplace.
In the case of family structure, the effects are just as pronounced. As my former colleague Nancy Pearcey has written, it was the industrial revolution that first took fathers away from the farm, which meant away from home. It was the marketplace, not the government or Hollywood, that reduced the amount of time that fathers spent with their children and that transformed the relationship between men and their families into an economic one.
Yet, you'll rarely come across a discussion of the market's impact on the family, or on any other aspect of the culture, in publications put out by groups such as the American Family Association. (This isn't true of religious liberals, who, unlike their conservative brethren, have always been suspicious of the market.) Why don't religious conservatives decry the market? The cynical answer would be that these organizations don't want to offend contributors. As a friend says, evangelicals have always been good at commerce.
While there's some truth to that explanation, the fact is that, for reasons rooted in the history of American evangelicalism, it has probably never occurred to many of these folks to ask how the market shapes s the culture. In his book "The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind," the historian Mark Noll writes about what he calls "the Evangelical-American Cultural Synthesis." Noll notes that, at the time of the American Revolution, evangelicals were so convinced that God was behind the founding of the United States that they have never asked whether the basic economic and political tenets of the American experiment--what scholars call classical liberalism--were compatible with Protestant evangelical Christianity. Instead, they assumed the compatibility.
More than two centuries later, American evangelicals still assume the compatibility. The actions of Disney and others are regarded as a betrayal of the principles that America was founded on, rather than being the logical extension of those principles.
This sense of betrayal plays into another tendency described by Noll: a predilection for action over reflection. Boycotts satisfy the need to do something; asking what can realistically be expected from publicly held corporations, whose first responsibility is to their shareholders, does not.
This preference for action is unfortunate, because reflection could only help the effort to create a more family-friendly marketplace by identifying which practices should be the object of protests. For instance, for those concerned about the erosion of parental authority, a good place to start would be the way companies bypass parents altogether and market products directly to children.
Or take the issue of the increasingly long hours that the average parent works. As Stephen Roach of Morgan Stanley Dean Witter recently wrote in The New York Times, many Americans now work at jobs that are "24/7." Even when they're not in the office, their minds are on work. And it's America's kids who get shortchanged.
"Doing something" about these practices would benefit American families, and the state of our culture, much more than would protests over a company's personnel practices or products. It's not that we shouldn't be concerned about these issues. It's that if our goal is real change, rather than a sense of movement, there's no substitute to thinking before we act.