A hundred thousand merchants

BY CLIFFORD GINN

In “Resistance to Civil Government,” Thoreau argues that, while we have no duty to devote ourselves to the elimination of evil, we must never be “the agent of injustice to another.” His refusal to pay a tax that would support theft from Mexicans and Native Americans and enslavement of Blacks was thus not a strategy for effecting political ends, but a withholding of allegiance from a wicked government. However, as Prof. Kateb has argued, Thoreau’s later work on the Underground Railroad implied an acknowledgment that an evil can gain such magnitude that nonsupport, with nothing more, still constitutes moral responsibility.

Today, our taxes provide weapons to some of the worst human rights violators in the world, support “public works” projects in Third World countries that displace millions of native people from their homes and fund other acts of wickedness too numerous to detail here. However, I do not call on you to renounce your citizenship next April, but rather to recognize that actions have consequences.

Indeed, for anyone who wishes to avoid being an agent of injustice, a mere trip to the supermarket is fraught with danger. The corporations, who provide the bulk of the products we consume, cause a great deal of suffering in the world today. However, like the State in “Resistance to Civil Government,” Shell Oil could neither arm a single Nigerian paramilitary nor poison a single indigenous water supply without your money.

No positive law demands that you give your money to one company or another; the police will neither arrest you nor seize your property if you refuse to buy Pepsi (supported right-wing coup in Chile) or Coke (sucking up water supplies in India). While finding principled companies with whom to do business takes time, this hardly constitutes a significant sacrifice. Websites such as www.responsibleshopper.org can tell you in seconds a company’s workplace, environmental and disclosure ratings. We thus have no reasonable excuse to eschew principled shopping.

While the Republican Party may find the idea of refusing to do business with criminals horrifying (they objected vehemently to a Clinton order disallowing procurements from companies guilty of fraud, environmental crimes and various felonies), most people would prefer not to support injustice. I can therefore only attribute the continued success of Philip Morris subsidiaries (Kraft, Miller, etc.) to moral laziness.

It takes scant little to make your purchases and investments a reflection of your values. Do you value community and autonomy? Don’t drink Starbucks coffee. Think that salaries should allow workers to feed their families? Buy fair trade products. Recognizing the impact of pesticides and genetically modified foods on biodiversity and human health may drive you to buy organic food. Opening an account with Wainwright Bank expresses your approval of corporate social responsibility.

Of course, refusing to buy from a corporate criminal accomplishes little in and of itself, apart from bringing you closer to principled living. However, telling others what you do and why you do it, and telling the company itself, can effect extraordinary change, in a way that Thoreau’s confrontation with his tax-collecting neighbor did not. Companies respond much more quickly to consumer demands than do political representatives to constituent demands. A concerted boycott campaign by a small number of consumers convinced Home Depot and other companies to stop buying rain forest wood, but the Massachusetts legislature has yet to appropriate money for a clean-election fund voted into existence by a strong majority of the state’s citizens.

A number of U.N. reports have called on corporations to help effect stated policy goals, recognizing the growing impotence of nation states, and activist groups of all stripes are increasingly directing campaigns not at elected officials, but at the companies who employ them. While this is hardly a desirable state of affairs, a recognition that corporations wield much of the economic and political power that the State did in Thoreau’s day shows us clearly the path of conscience in our age. While most of us will not actively fight injustice in our careers, we can all refuse to lend our wallets to it.

Globalization is dramatically expanding the causal web of our actions. As our ability to see where our money ultimately goes diminishes, the power that money has to injure others grows. We owe it to our own best selves, as well as the people whom we affect through our actions, to think carefully before we buy.

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