When I go to a farmer’s market or shopping mall, I generally don’t ask vendors 20 questions about their background or political opinion before buying their product. I want to know: Is the product good quality? Is it worth the price?
Now, there are caveats to this: Generally, I don’t want to do business with people who I know are dishonest, immoral, or who are using their business toward ends I find reprehensible. That’s where boycotts come in (or, in another context, where tariffs and trade embargoes come in). Consumers are free to pressure companies to act a certain way. That’s always been the case.
But there’s a new, sad effort to politicize all aspects of our economy and our marketplace decisions. This will work against all of the benefits that the free enterprise system offers. It will divide us. And it will only end in misery and dysfunction.
What’s politics got to do with it?
Perhaps the most extreme recent example of this was the “cancellation” of Taking Cara Babies, a sleep consultancy business with 1.4 million Instagram followers, aimed at helping parents with newborns. Founder and CEO Cara Dumaplin was exposed as having made private donations to the Trump campaign. Online harassers and vicious character assassins came quickly for the mom and neonatal nurse. In this case, people may have actually even broken the law by sharing her copyrighted material for free online in an effort to undermine her business.
Similarly, international makeup company Sephora recently terminated a business relationship with social media influencer Amanda Ensing after online activists objected to her expressed conservative perspectives. Critics of Ensing focus on her support of former President Donald Trump, including a tweet from Jan. 6 that some construed as support for protesters who breached the Capitol building. Ensing wrote on Twitter, “There’s not enough popcorn in the world for what’s about to happen” just minutes after news broke of the breach. Ensing followed up by clarifying that she does not support violence, but it wasn’t enough. Sephora cited their “values around inclusivity” for dumping the Latina Trump supporter.
Kohl’s, Bed Bath & Beyond, and other retailers recently opted to stop carrying products from MyPillow after founder Mike Lindell supported Trump’s claims that the 2020 election result was fraudulent. Retailers cited decreasing consumer demand, possibly because of the calls for a boycott. Fair enough.
But this month, progressive activist David Hogg announced that he will launch a competing pillow company. The “pillow fight” jokes write themselves, but what’s not funny is the idea that when Americans lay their heads down at night, there’s one brand of pillow for people on the left and another for the right.
The tense 2020 election and its aftermath have certainly accelerated the trend in this direction, but it’s nothing new. Many “Harry Potter” readers and fans trashed or burned J.K. Rowling’s books because the author took an unpopular position on gender issues, including in a tweet mocking use of the phrase “people who menstruate” rather than “women” and later when she sensitively expressed her full views on transgender issues in a 3,700-word essay.
Cutting the economy in half
Of course, people are free to swear off products from particular people or companies, and, at times, boycotts are merited. But one has to ask, where do we draw the line? We should consider what is lost when so many marketplace decisions are driven by politics. Do things like baby advice, beauty tips, pillows and even the fiction we read have to be politicized? What about our choices in crafting products, lattes, and sneakers? Where does this end?
We are headed for an even more insulated world if we only want to associate or even do business with like-minded people. The internet has made it easy for us to know details about the lives of people running businesses. But, ultimately, it’s not the internet or social media that’s responsible for the accelerating trend toward a politicized economy. It’s our approach to politics that’s really at the root: What was once a simple political disagreement (“I voted for candidate A; he voted for candidate B”) is now presented as a moral divide, almost religious in nature. There is a fervor that says, “I cannot do business with this person because he or she supports toxic and abhorrent policies that are harmful to me or to people whom I love.”
The political left senses an opportunity to politicize our economy in order to demand ideological conformity. By “cancelling” those who dissent, the left intends to banish them from the marketplace of ideas, and, indeed, polite society as a whole.
Don’t embrace discrimination
But the left should take caution here, as identity-politics-as-marketing can backfire. After all, what we are really talking about is a new form of discrimination.
For example: In an effort to uplift minority businesses, Giant grocery stores are now going to label products from Black- and women-owned suppliers. But what happens if racist or sexist grocery shoppers use these labels to avoid the products? If implicit bias is as strong as critical race theorists suggest, wouldn’t they prefer colorblind (and sex-blind) shoppers who make purchasing decisions because of the product’s value?
A true celebration of tolerance would lead us to overlook our differences for the sake of serving one another and adding value. We should welcome opportunities to remember that, even if you don’t agree with the restaurateur’s or daycare provider’s politics, you still love his cuisine or her way with babies.
We hear often that the benefit of free enterprise is prosperity, but it’s more than that: It’s the incentive for diverse people to serve one another and work together toward a common goal—whether that’s manufacturing widgets, taking care of babies, or developing a new vaccine. We shouldn’t stop to ask who someone voted for first.