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Boycotts Do Not Help the Poor

Religious groups that consider themselves progressive are always urging a boycott of one form or another. But an example that has gained national attention is unique in this respect: it is so absurdly silly that it might provide a good learning opportunity.

It seems that the restaurant Taco Bell buys some of the tomatoes it uses to make its food from growers in the Immokalee region of Southwest Florida, who rely heavily on low-wage migrant workers. These growers employ people who otherwise have few opportunities, which one might think is a wonderful thing. Taco Bell, in turn, is glad to find low-priced suppliers so that it can keep its food affordable and broaden its customer base to include even the poorest among us. This is a win-win situation for everyone, especially the workers who are undoubtedly pleased for the opportunity.

But activists do not see it this way. A boycott of Taco Bell began three years ago with a few people in the Florida area, but has been widely supported by national religious organizations. What will the boycott accomplish? It could cause lower profits for Taco Bell, leading to curbs on its production, leading to fewer tomato purchases, which leads to lower profits for growers and thus lower wages and layoffs. The end result is that the workers will be worse off. No matter how bad off you think these workers are, there is one sure way to make their plight worse: cut off their place within the economy of the division of labor.

And yet, that is precisely what the activists propose to do. Whether they do it through consumer boycotts or by forcing all migrant workers into a union that will impose high wage costs on the growers, it cannot be good for the poor. If the growers were to pay high wages, they would be culling from a different segment of the labor pool, and leave the poor to languish.

No one doubts the sincerity of these activists. But they are not thinking beyond step one. Their policy prescriptions such as kicking corporations out of the developing world, unionizing workers, taxing businesses of all sorts, imposing benefits that business cannot afford to pay, can only make everyone worse off. These policies harm economic growth, impede on the right of association, violate private property, and hamper the hard work of enterprise and economic development.

Perhaps the activists could take the afternoon off from writing letters, giving radio interviews, building websites, and otherwise engaging in agitation and curl up with a book on economics. Just one afternoon spent learning about production, prices, wage formation, profit, consumer demand, and the vast web of market relations in which people voluntarily trade toward their own betterment and that of society as a whole, would save them a lifetime a wasted effort. Instead of stamping out opportunities for people, they might actually do some good in creating some for a change.