Conveniently tying together two recent posts, Dworkin has an extended discussion of courtesy in Law’s Empire, which he uses to illustrate some points about the interpretation of social institutions, but which has some independent interests. On the familiar account of somewhat ritualized behavior like tipping your hat to people you encounter, or saying “Please” and “Thank you” at the appropriate times, these are ways of showing respect. But he suggests an alternative, quite plausible, interpretation on which these little rituals are ways of smoothing social interaction by making it less dependent on or reflective of personal assessment of respect. Etiquette and politeness, in other words, are ways of making our behavior somewhat more automatic so that we treat people reasonably sociably under certain conditions whether or not we particularly like them. And there’s a broader class of norms like that, which we tend to call “civilized” if we’re praising them and “bourgeois” if we want to give them a pejorative sting, but which actually have the same etymological meaning: Approximately, this is the way people in cities (civitatem/burgos) behave. Which makes a fair amount of sense if you think about the function of those norms as enabling social cooperation across larger groups—like you find in dense urban population centers—than you can sustain through thicker and more direct forms of community or kinship or affection, like an Amish barn raising or a tribal hunt. To the extent the latter are completely displaced, it’s certainly understandable that people will be displeased if it starts to seem like “cash payment has become the sole nexus of man to man,” but it has the virtue of enabling much broader cooperation with all the benefits that come from that.
This, I think, is at the core of what bugs me about the Whole Foods boycott. It’s not necessarily that I agree with Mackey—health care isn’t really my issue, so I don’t know whether I do—and it’s certainly not that I think he’s somehow entitled to have people shop at his stores rather than Trader Joe’s. It’s more that I think it’s actually a significant achievement of liberal societies that, not only do we refrain from clapping you in irons if you’ve got the wrong religious or political views, but that we’re more generally disposed to bracket those things in our non-intimate relationships and just take them out of the calculus when we’re engaged in most forms of polite interaction and market cooperation, at least when we’re not talking about views that are really wildly beyond the pale. One of the ways markets and liberalism more generally dovetail is that they function by giving us the luxury of ignorance: I don’t need to know why the goods I’m selling are suddenly in greater or lesser demand, or what particular purpose they’re being put to, and vice versa for the money I give others for goods—I just need to respond to the price signals generated by that demand. And in social life more generally, I treat my neighbors with a certain level of respect just as fellow citizens without much bothering about what they do in the bedroom or whether it’s Ronald Dworkin or Michelle Malkin on their bookshelves, even if I happen to know these things.
In economic life, it’s clearly to a certain extent a good thing if, being better informed about the practices of the companies we deal with in the information age, we make our consumption decisions not just on the basis of the price and quality of the product, but on what we know about how they treat workers, whether they’re ecologically responsible, and so on. To the extent that Whole Foods has taken advantage of this, I guess you could argue Mackey’s being hoist on his own petard: Live by the lifestyle brand, die by the lifestyle brand. But I get uneasy when this starts getting extended to disapproved expression less obviously related to the company’s practices. I think most of us would find it upsetting if an employer declined to hire someone because he didn’t want some percentage of the salary he paid out to be donated to the Mormons or the Heritage Foundation or Move On or whatever. Obviously it’s not really symmetrical: Unlike most prospective employees, John Mackey’s going to be a multi-millionaire no matter what, so at some level, sure, boo-hoo. But insofar as I think the disposition to bracket is a good thing, I’m unhappy to see it eroded.
Tangent: As I mentioned in a previous post, Mackey has given money to my former employers at Reason and it seems likely he’s done the same for soon-to-be employer Cato. In the past, my policy has generally been that I don’t want to know who the donors are because I don’t want that even in the back of my head when I’m writing. Of course, the problem is that you can’t do these sort of “full disclosure” caveats when you don’t know that—I’m curious if folks have thoughts on what a good approach to this is.