Paul Jacob

Boycotts are as American as apple pie . . . with whole wheat crust.

Granted, the term boycott comes from Charles C. Boycott, an English land agent who got in a fracas with Irish tenant farmers over rents in 1880. Laborers refused to harvest Boycott's potatoes. Shopkeepers in the towns wouldn't trade with him. Even the postman declined to deliver his mail.

To bring people in to harvest the potatoes cost the British government, Boycott, and others over £10,000 — for spuds worth £350. In December of that year, Boycott left the Emerald Isle.

So, apparently, 100 years earlier, when American colonists boycotted English tea and other items in protest of British policies — most importantly, direct taxation without colonial representation — they must have called it something else altogether.

But whatever the name, it worked. The world's freest republic — ours — was fertilized through boycotts. And nearly two-hundred years later, the boycott proved instrumental in winning equal rights for black Americans.

Today, I won't buy gas at CITGO. A couple years back, a neighbor passed the station to pay a penny more a gallon somewhere else. When I asked why, she said she didn't want to fund Hugo Chavez. CITGO is a Venezuelan state-owned company. I was an easy convert. And we must not have been alone: The local 7-11 recently posted signs telling customers that their gasoline is no longer obtained from CITGO.

Boycotts are cool. As I've often told subscribers to my Common Sense e-letter, the impact of our financial decisions — even from us poor folks — is, for better or worse, usually greater than that of our votes.

But certainly not all boycotts make sense. Too often, they oppose common sense.

Ten days ago, John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods — a grocery chain self-dubbed as "selling the highest quality natural and organic products" — made the miscalculation of embracing President Barack Obama's call for more ideas on how to fix our medical care and health insurance systems. Mackey wrote an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal offering eight specific solutions that could be implemented at little or no cost to taxpayers.

Mackey's proposals are geared toward creating a freer and more competitive marketplace for medical services — without a massive and (let's admit it) costly expansion of government involvement. Paraphrasing Margaret Thatcher (no doubt his first sin), Mackey wrote: "[W]e are rapidly running out of other people's money. These deficits are simply not sustainable. They are either going to result in unprecedented new taxes and inflation, or they will bankrupt us."

Then, he offered some simple steps in the direction of permitting a marketplace in health care: (1) remove obstacles to Health Savings Accounts, (2) allow individuals the same tax-deductibility as businesses on medical insurance, (3) allow insurance companies to compete across state lines, (4) repeal government mandates on what ailments insurance companies must cover, (5) pass tort reform, (6) require transparency on medical bills, (7) enact Medicare reform (since it is headed for bankruptcy), and (8) permit citizens to donate money on their tax form to provide medical coverage for those less fortunate.

One can agree or disagree with John Mackey's prescriptions, of course. But at least he has some. No plan has been presented by the Obama administration; our president has merely played the cheerleader for a moving target of proposals being negotiated in Congress.

And who can really be against allowing us to provide help to others on our tax forms? Why hasn't that been done?

But the biggest blasphemy by the Whole Foods CEO may have been to speak a simple truth: "A careful reading of both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution will not reveal any intrinsic right to health care, food or shelter. That's because there isn't any."

Mackey argued that "Health care is a service that we all need, but just like food and shelter it is best provided through voluntary and mutually beneficial market exchanges."

Politicians in Washington have long argued that medical care is a right. Those who believe all is possible through the federal government also consider this an article of faith.

They're mistaken. You don't have to pay for your rights. We only need to be left alone. In the case of medical insurance, citizens are likely to be forced to purchase their brand-new birthright, by federal government mandate.

A mandate runs on completely different principles than a right.

Still, a boycott of Whole Foods has sprung forth on the Internet and with pickets at stores in several cities. While the impact on the store's bottom line doesn't appear to be significant, the company is certainly taking the boycott seriously.

Let's take it seriously as well. Go to Whole Foods and buy some food that will likely make you feel better and live longer. My nearest store is only 12 miles away.

Thank goodness, John Mackey stepped up to the plate to offer his opinion. His company happens to provide excellent medical benefits to 89 percent of his employees (those working 30 hours or more a week). And his company makes a profit at the same time.

He deserves a thoughtful response. Not a boycott.

Boycotts battling unwarranted discrimination, unrepresentative taxation, and other tyrannical behavior have left a heroic legacy to this political activity. Boycotts against opinions? Well, not so much. 


Paul Jacob

Paul Jacob is President of Citizens in Charge Foundation and Citizens in Charge. His daily Common Sense commentary appears on the Web and via e-mail.