San Francisco’s Unconstitutional Arizona ‘Boycott’
By Bruce Walker
San Francisco and other city governments have jumped on the bandwagon of formally “boycotting” business with Arizona in response to that border state’s new law to assist the enforcement of federal immigration laws. Boycotts are an honorable way to influence governments or citizens. When the Nazis came to power, millions of Americans boycotted German imports. Blacks in Mississippi boycotted the Montgomery Bus System for its discriminatory practices toward blacks five decades ago. American patriots boycotted British goods prior to the Revolutionary War. Conservatives prior to our toppling Saddam Hussein called for boycotts of French goods.
Boycotts have been used against conservatives like Dr. Laura and against leftists like Rosie O’Donnell. In a world in which we have enough “stuff,” there is a compelling case to be made that all of us should use our votes in the marketplace to support values we treasure instead of just getting the best economic bargain. Many of us do that. I have not watched new television programming for decades. Millions of us boycott Hollywood.
The term “boycott” derives from a British officer, Captain Charles Boycott, who zealously enforced the legal but draconian rights of British landlords against Irish tenants in 1880. The Irish people voluntarily decided to have absolutely nothing to do with Captain Boycott. They neither offered nor threatened violence. They acted as a group, but as a group of private individuals. Within a fairly short period of time, the captain and his family left Ireland and returned to England.
Those cities threatening to “boycott” Arizona, however, are not threatening a boycott at all. Instead, as governments under our Constitution, these leftist city councils are creating an embargo. This is wrong, and it is unconstitutional. Under our federal system, state governments and their political subdivisions may not impose undue burdens on interstate commerce. Moreover, states and cities have no right to punish private citizens in other states for the actions of the state governments. Citizens have the right, within our federal system, to be treated equally and fairly.
Arizona, for example, could not pass a law preventing any business with San Francisco until that city modified its ordinances on sexual relations or gun control. It would not matter if an overwhelming majority of Arizonans thought this embargo was good. Political majorities and politicians backed by those majorities may not discriminate against citizens or states which displease them.
Likewise, San Francisco could not refuse to carry merchant traffic from its port facilities to Arizona. Likewise, Arizona could not stop interstate commerce traveling from San Francisco through Arizona. If state and city governments begin to exercise an extra-constitutional power to obstruct interstate commerce by imposing political filters, then there is no logical ending point to a feud between politicians from one part of the country and those in another part of the country. State and local governments throughout the nation have duties to each other. Apolitical and open trade is one of those duties.
Who is hurt when the City of San Francisco “boycotts” (i.e., embargoes) trade with the State of Arizona? The injured parties are the citizens of San Francisco and the citizens of Arizona. Commerce between those governments would exist only if that commerce made economic sense. In other words, the only time in which the prohibitions enacted by San Francisco government would go into effect would be when it makes economic sense to do business with Arizona. Ordinary citizens — who have always had the private right to boycott those they dislike — lose.
Who wins from an embargo when leftist run cities artificially substitute politics for market value in investments? Politicians with an almost insatiable appetite for power and praise win politically — after all, it is not their businesses hurt by an economically irrational embargo against Arizona. Who wins financially? Shrewd investors who buy undervalued assets in places like Arizona! The effect of an utterly political embargo is to reward those who ignore it.
An unconstitutional embargo could also easily cause economic blowback. What if Arizona passed a retaliatory embargo on commerce with the City of San Francisco? How short a step would that government-to-government embargo be from an Arizona embargo that precluded commerce with any business licensed by the City of San Francisco? Such businesses, after all, must largely conform to San Francisco municipal laws, and those laws would formally discriminate against Arizona. What argument would there be against such a discriminatory embargo by Arizona — particularly when the underlying rationale for a San Francisco government embargo on business with Arizona is explicitly to hurt Arizona businesses?
The underlying problem reflects a concern which I expressed in a recent article: The gravest problem in America today is not government, per se, but the use of government as a sock puppet for an angry, relentless partisan or interest group movement. When those groups seize governments, then the general welfare, as opposed to the welfare of special groups, melts into limp glop. The welfare of the citizens of the several states, even the welfare of ordinary San Franciscans, is abandoned so that political bosses can kowtow to particular interests.
America has an excellent mechanism for punishing those who follow the law but behave badly. It is called the free market. Nearly all of us make our consumer choices based upon complex factors which include more than pure economics. Just as we give our money to churches and to synagogues and we give our time to charities and to community activities, so we buy goods and services, in part, because we approve of the values of those selling. The danger of substituting brute state force for persuaded consumer opinion is that there is no end to the cycle of action and reaction — and no resolution to any of the underlying problems.