About that chicken chain

There is a tempest in a teapot over Chick-fil-a, a chain of fast food chicken outlets that has reportedly given money to various organizations that oppose the redefinition of marriage, a thoughtcrime meriting the death penalty in these most tolerant times. Calls for a boycott have issued; the drums of war have sounded.

In another place, Outside the Beltway‘s Doug Mataconis says: “I like the chicken. I don’t care about the politics of the owners. If you spend money to see a Sean Penn movie you give money to a guy who thinks Fidel Castro is a swell guy.” He concludes: “Personally, I am sick of politics injecting every aspect of my life, so I’ve drawn lines. I don’t care what the owners of Chick-Fil-A think. I am a huge Springsteen fan even though I know he’s a lefty. I don’t care about that.” Various responses faulted him with arguments such as “your dollars support their openly anti-gay stance” and the like, but I’m with Doug on this. I wouldn’t necessarily say that people shouldn’t do this, but it seems a little jejune, and I won’t be. I think it fair to say that there are two bases on which to rest a boycott, the “money” argument and the “association” argument,” and neither of them are persuasive.

First, the money argument, which goes like this: “I don’t want my money subsidizing a cause that I don’t like.” The amount involved is infinitessimal; CFA corporate, we’re told, which itself gets only a fraction of total receipts, gave between $1000 and $5 million (reports vary) to the Family Research Council. Let’s do the math, assuming that it’s five million. CFA’s 2011 sales were $4.1 billion, and for convenience, let’s round that down to four billion. Five million dollars is one-eighth of one percent of CFA’s receipts. Thus, for every $5 meal, you would be contributing five-eighths of one cent toward that FRC donation if we stipulate (falsely, of course) that CFA corporate gets 100% of the sales and pays no tax. (In point of fact, CFA corporate takes only 65% of every dollar spent, and that’s before the taxmen get involved.)

So the money argument fails because the amounts of money are trivial. If one was to seriously advance the proposition that one had to boycott every product for which five eights of a cent might ultimately be contributed to a cause one didn’t like, institutionalization would follow, because you would never eat or drink anything, nor purchase any product or service of any kind, nor live in a state (or country) that carries out any policy one finds immoral, because a similarly tiny fraction of your tax dollars are subsidizing that policy. The money argument is not a serious argument, it’s a gossamer rationalization for reflexive hostility toward the cause that CFA is perceived as advancing.

Second, the association argument, which goes like this: “I don’t want to be associated with a company that does X.” Even assuming that one “associates” with, say, Starbucks by purchasing their products and services, where does it stop? Suppose that Chick-fil-A gives $25,000 to a cause that you don’t like. Boycott ensues. How about if, instead, the CEO personally gives the same amount to the same cause out of his pay from the company; boycot? Surely it shouldn’t make any difference; your connection to the money isn’t any more attenuated insofar as the CEO is probably the same guy who made the call to use corporate money. Now suppose that it’s more attenuated; suppose it isn’t the CEO but a senior executive who gives the same amount to the same cause out of his pay. Boycott? Why not? Suppose it’s just an employee. Boycott? Suppose that it’s $15,000; boycott? $10k? $5k? $1k? $100? Once you’ve conceded that it’s the principle rather than the pennies (the only viable play, given the money argument’s flaws), it’s hard to imagine a limiting principle to the premise that even a trivial amount of money touching a cause is a problem.

As a subset of the association argument, I suppose that could argue that when a company is blatant about it, that’s the trigger, but that doesn’t work either. How blatant does the “association” have to be, and how specific? Contraception is immoral; must Catholics boycott every bar, restaurant, drug store, and airport that sells condoms? If there is no standard that can be articulated, the decision in any particular case is literally irrational.