Are Mobs a Good Thing?

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In recent days, the Indiana “religious objections” law has often occupied the number one spot in the news, despite competition from the Iran nuclear negotiations, the mass slaughter of Christians in Kenya, the machinations of leading candidates for the presidency, and other inarguably more important topics.

I’m no expert on the law, and I won’t pretend to be, but I suspect that neither the governor of Indiana nor the gay and liberal lobbies that are attacking him could ever be convicted of libertarianism. We knew that, coming in.

It does seem obvious, however, that both conservative and liberal lobbies have made a lot of money on this controversy, and will make plenty more on mass emails with 20-point type. Less obvious, but vaguely predictable, is that the conservatives will benefit from a sizable backlash and, even more, from the precedent set by liberal lobbyists in promoting business boycotts that crippled the governance of a state, and all because of something that is, in itself, pretty clearly a minor issue.

From this, I believe, libertarians can learn two equal but opposite lessons.

1. In America, in the digital age, boycotts can actually work; and a minor issue can be the best thing to use in promoting such boycotts. Campaigns about minor issues don’t have demonstrably worrying entailments. They can be reduced to simple messages and used to embarrass people who don’t join a boycott. “What do you mean, you don’t celebrate Cesar Chavez Day? What do you mean, you don’t start your meetings with a flag salute?” Not libertarian examples, I know . . . but given a little ingenuity, people inclined toward liberty could use this weapon to mobilize opposition to governmental entities that offend in some clear though minor way, thus encouraging them not to offend in mightier ways.

2. In America, moral mobs are easily formed. America is, for good and bad reasons, a moralistic country. It’s a country that had Prohibition, for God’s sake. It’s the kingdom of political correctness. Anyone who claims to be offended in America can elevate the “issue” to moral status and make the alleged offender wish that he or she were dead. Libertarians are just as vulnerable to this treatment as anybody else, and the precedent set by the liberal mobs zeroing in on Indiana — or Duke University, or the University of X, or Company Y . . . fill in your own favorite atrocity — is not a happy one. It appears less happy when one reflects that even after the mobs have been shown to be lynching the wrong people, their impetus doesn’t go away. They just find another victim.

Two lessons. No conclusions. Sorry.

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