The Jewish Ethicist: Boycotts.
Are boycotts a legitimate means to fight overpricing?
Q. One vital product in our community is sold by two large companies and a
number of small ones, all charging similar prices. Recent price increases
have been really outrageous. A total boycott of a vital product is not really
practical, but can we organize a boycott of the large companies, who we
think are behind the increases?
A. In last week's column we explained that Jewish
tradition is sympathetic to the right of workers to organize for their
common benefit, but that this right has to be used in a responsible and accountable
fashion. The exact same statement could be made about consumers. The Talmud
records a number of cases where boycotts were used to lower prices, but as
we will see, these cases involved a number of common justifying elements.
In three distinct cases in the Mishna and Talmud, we find that sellers were
taking advantage of the fact that Jews were stringent in their performance
of commandments and insisted on buying mitzvah objects of the highest
The sellers considered that they had the buyers "over a barrel", and
exploited this fact to collude to raise prices. For example, the Talmud records that
the prices for the best myrtles for the "four species" which are used at Sukkot
were exaggeratedly high.
In each of these three cases, the leading rabbi enforced a de facto boycott
of the overpriced item by instructing people that temporarily there was no
longer any religious need for the good; in the case we mentioned, the ruling was
that ordinary myrtles were perfectly adequate.(1) Four hundred years ago a
leading rabbi similarly ordered his constituents to avoid eating fish on Shabbat for
a period of weeks, though this is considered also a way of enhancing Shabbat
enjoyment; the reason was that local fish merchants were cooperating to raise
prices knowing that Jews would pay an exaggerated price to honor the Shabbat.(2)
These four situations have in common two characteristics that gave the sellers
lopsided and unfair bargaining power. First of all, since the item was a
necessity, sellers had buyers over a barrel. Second of all, in each case the
sellers joined together in a cartel; the agreement of consumers to join in a
boycott was basically a necessity in order to create "countervailing power."
These elements correspond to two important justifications for labor unions:
employers generally don't suffer from a few months of bad performance,
whereas the worker is desperate for his monthly pay (laborers over a barrel); and
the relatively small number of employers find it easy to collude, implicitly or
otherwise, whereas the large and dispersed community of workers have much
more difficulty organizing (cartel).
Let us apply these insights to your question. The first condition is
certainly present, since the good in question is a vital one. However, there is some
doubt about the second one -- cooperation among sellers. Common sense tells
us that collusion is not so easy in a market with a number of sellers of varying
The most prudent course of action is to see if you can find convincing
evidence of collusion among sellers. If you can present the public with such
evidence, your plan for a boycott will gain more ethical legitimacy, a greater
chance of persuading consumers to join, and a more realistic opportunity to
have an impact on prices.
(1) Babylonian Talmud Sukka 34b; also Pesachim 30a and Mishna
(2) Responsa Tzemach Tzedek 28.
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