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The Jewish Ethicist: Boycotts

The Jewish Ethicist: Boycotts

Are boycotts a legitimate means to fight overpricing?

by

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 standards.

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 sizes.

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.


SOURCES:
(1) Babylonian Talmud Sukka 34b; also Pesachim 30a and Mishna
Keritot 1:7.
(2) Responsa Tzemach Tzedek 28.

Send your queries about ethics in the workplace to jewishethicist@aish.com

The Jewish Ethicist presents some general principles of Jewish law. For specific questions and direct application, please consult a qualified Rabbi.

The Jewish Ethicist is a joint project of Aish.com and the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem. To find out more about business ethics and Jewish values for the workplace, visit the JCT Center for Business Ethics website at www.besr.org.

JCT Center For Business Ethics

Copyright © JCT Center for Business Ethics.

Published: June 14, 2003


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Visitor Comments: 2

(2) malka ester fischer, July 11, 2003 12:00 AM

default in argentine

help came from abroad but most religious jews lost their savings that where deposited in the scotianbank of argentina.
FOR THE FIRST TIME IN MY LIFE i saw jewish people becoming vegeterians and begging in front of kosher stores that increased prices without any consideration for their clientele- how valuable was your article- yet, jewish people celebrated with chinese style rice shabuot -baires july 11th 2003

(1) Peter Walters, June 16, 2003 12:00 AM

thanks for the good work!

I note that there are rarely, if ever, comments about the Jewish Ethicist column, and it is true that this is the first time that I have sent a comment. This may be because your column is rarely as obviously exciting or emotionally engaging as some of the other articles; yet it is the first one that I go to each week, and the most useful, both in terms of the situations it describes and of the interest and research it stimulates in a very wide variety of issues. Many people might assume that the more feedback a column gets, the more useful it is, whereas in this case, although I am not moved to an immediate response, the column's value is most profound. So thank's very much to Rabbi Meir.

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