David R. Henderson  

More on Economic Sanctions

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Because discussion after about 12 hours on a given post tends to be ignored, I'm using this post to respond to some of the comments on my previous post.

Commenter Mike Rulle argues:

It is incorrect to say that people can wash their hands of responsibility for their government's actions. They either are not willing to oppose injustice or are complicit in its creation.

This cannot be correct as, I think, an example will show. Take the Congress's attempt to impose further control over health care and health insurance. I have opposed it with articles, appearances on talk shows, and speeches. Yet I am not responsible for what Congress does or complicit in its creation because I'm not a Senator or Representative. But let's say I were a Senator or Representative. What if I argued against it, wrote articles against it, spoke on talk shows against it, and even voted against it. But I lost. In what sense can it reasonably be said that I'm not willing to oppose injustice or am complicit in its creation?

If you don't like my example because you think this further government control is just, then choose your own example.

In his sentence immediately preceding the ones I quoted, Mike Rulle writes:

The people either implicitly or explicitly support their government.

This is false too, and the problem has to do with his use of the term "the people." The vast majority of people probably do implicitly or explicitly support their government. And shame on them. But there is often a substantial minority that doesn't.

But let's go back to this vast majority. It's precisely because they do support their government that my argument in my article holds. If a foreign government inflicts pain on them, then, whatever questioning of their own government's actions would have occurred, there will be less of it and more of a coming together to oppose the foreigner. That's why I asked the reader to imagine that a foreign government imposes sanctions on us because it's upset with what one of our unpopular presidents does. Some commenters obliged by saying that they would give the finger to the foreign government that did that. That's precisely my point.

Interestingly, even the Wall Street Journal editorial page, which tends to be quite hawkish and whose lead editorial today says, quite rightly, that there is a "peoples' [sic] revolt" in Iran, doesn't make the case that the people involved in this revolt want the U.S. government and others to cut off their supply of gasoline.

Update: I didn't add, because I thought it would be obvious, that dissident Iranians don't want sanctions. But a comment below made me realize that I should have added it. Here's the link.


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CATEGORIES: International Trade



COMMENTS (15 to date)
E. Barandiaran writes:

David, you're not discussing economic sanctions in an appropriate context. At best they are one the early steps in the process of dealing with someone you see as your enemy.
Regarding your last paragraph, it's much more important that the revolting people didn't denounce the economic sanctions as aggression to their country. Think about it.

darjen writes:

Let's say I were a Senator or Representative. What if I argued against it, wrote articles against it, spoke on talk shows against it, and even voted against it. But I lost. In what sense can it reasonably be said that I'm not willing to oppose injustice or am complicit in its creation?

If you're willing to participate in Congress, don't you acknowledge the legitimacy of its actions? Basically, you agree that the laws Congress passes are just... whether or not you voted or spoke out against them.

David R. Henderson writes:

Darjen,
Do you really mean that? Just because a law is passed, no matter how oppressive, my participation in the process, no matter how strongly I opposed it, makes it just? You can't conceive of any law that would be unjust in the minds of people in Congress? I think you think less of Congress than I do, a rare occurrence.
Best,
David

Matt writes:

I couldn't agree with you more, David. This is how democracy works. If you think there is a built-in notion of consent, dispite political opposition, you completely miss the point of democracy and America. If not through your votes and your voice, then I wonder what would be the standard for non-consent? Violence?

Despite how much one person cares about any given policy, they are still only one piece of a group known as "the people." Each person gets one vote. And no matter how right you are on a topic, you won't get any extra.

David C writes:

darjen, what alternative to participation would you propose? Revolution?

Jim writes:

If not through your votes and your voice, then I wonder what would be the standard for non-consent? Violence?

How about exit?

The claim that David's responding to here seems to be that by failing to exercise voice, violence, or exit in opposition, the people in the country targeted by the sanctions deserve to suffer because they are complicit with the local government.

This is wrong for two reasons: 1)the countries that the US targets for sanctions are often the very ones that most effectively suppress opposition by any of these means (North Korea, Cuba) and 2)where we do see widespread opposition this is usually used as a justification for turning up the heat with tougher sanctions (Iran). Damned if you do, damned if you don't.

darjen writes:

Do you really mean that? Just because a law is passed, no matter how oppressive, my participation in the process, no matter how strongly I opposed it, makes it just? You can't conceive of any law that would be unjust in the minds of people in Congress? I think you think less of Congress than I do, a rare occurrence.

No, I don't think I really mean that. It was just one of the responses that popped into my head.

I'm sure there are some laws that would be unjust in Congress minds. But, it never ceases to amaze me what they do pass. Kind of makes me wonder what they might think is unjust.

darjen, what alternative to participation would you propose? Revolution?

Not... just don't participate in those laws. (This happens a lot already)

Kurbla writes:

Let's say I'm member of a street gang, and we vote about robbing the neighbour. I may vote against it, but if I'm outvoted, and I still participate - I'm guilty, no matter of my voting. I'm only slightly less guilty than one who voted for robbery.

How citizen participates in actions of his country? He usually do some things for a benefit of his country. Most obviously, he pays taxes. Health insurance is not that bad, but one cannot pay taxes in genocidal regime and behave like it is not his problem. He should leave the country, on the same way as he would leave the country if genocide is planned against his group.

There are other alternatives. Joining guerilla, living as hermit, committing suicide should work.

If one is not ready for hermit or suicide solution, he'll certainly participate in many evils in his life due to his membership in political organization (and individual actions, but it is other issue). He can (and should) do some good things during that life, and hope that in total sum, he'll have positive impact. It is not perfect (killing two guys and saving three doesn't mean I'm not guilty for those two guys), but I do not see anything better.

David C writes:

"Let's say I'm member of a street gang, and we vote about robbing the neighbour. I may vote against it, but if I'm outvoted, and I still participate - I'm guilty, no matter of my voting. I'm only slightly less guilty than one who voted for robbery." - Kurbla

In a gang, you have the option of leaving the gang or, if not that, simply not joining the gang in the first place. People do not choose the country they are born, and although people technically have the option of leaving their country (most of the time), they do not have the option of entering a new one. More importantly, people do not have the option of choosing which laws they like and don't like. If they don't like a rule and they break it and get caught, they go to jail. Since there are only around 180 countries, even if we had open borders, given the wide variety of possibilities governments have, almost everyone is going to have disagreements, even with their preferred country. Congressional action or some other form of lawmaking is the only civil way of trying to resolve these differences.

"Not... just don't participate in those laws. (This happens a lot already)"
So then, when all the people who disagree with a particular law are locked up, how does that solve anything?

Tom West writes:

E. Barandiaran has it right. Sanctions are essentially a step on the spectrum of action that at one end has total war. If we accept the morality of the destruction of the innocent going to war (and the destruction caused to citizens not directly involved), then we're pretty much accepting the morality of sanctions.

Both acts (sanctions and war) are meant as existential threats to the leaders (by either revolution because of internal unhappiness or direct removal).

The main thing to be said for sanctions is that they usually cause less damage to the populace (good) and they are cheaper to implement, thus making them more likely to be used (bad).

Eric H writes:

The sanction debate highlights the false collectivist notions held in common by the left and the right. Both sides believe, at least when it suits them to do so, that things like countries, governments, and legislatures are capable of manifesting a singular will. Believing so allows sanction proponents to ignore the individual's right to dissent.

Joe Cushing writes:

Of course sanctions don't work. We talk a lot about how freedom can help people become wealthy but I also believe it is the other way around; wealth can help people become free. When we sanction another country we are preventing freedom not promoting it. The best thing we could do for Cuba would be to flood them with business. Take China for example; reforms there do not come because the government made them happen, they come from the black market activities that the government eventually lifts prohibition on in order to prevent themselves from being overthrown. If we flooded Cuba with business, it would go the way of China.

Mike Rulle writes:

David,
it is not possible in a short comment to spell out all the conditions where I believe my comment is applicable. I think commenter Darjen does touch on the key point however. The issue is whether a given government is legitimate or just. I don't dismiss the complexity of this question. But it is a legitimate question to pose.

Your position on sanctions has extreme implications, I think. I am not making a utilitarian point which answers the question of "do sanctions work". That is an empirical issue. If they don't work, then of course we shouldn't do it. The question is if it does work, is it moral?

If sanctions are immoral, then I don't see how war can ever be moral. Sanctions are "soft war". I doubt you are a pacifist, but if you are a pacifist, at least that would be consistent.

Your example of opposing health care as unjust agrees with my view. But I don't think the level of injustice of ObamaCare rises to the level of making our government illigitimate. With out getting into a detailed discussion of whether Iran is illigitimate, for the sake of my general point let's assume it is (or country "x" is unjust if you prefer). Now what?

First, it is a horrible situation for the people. But if we were under a dictatorship, it would be our moral obligation to oppose it. You may not agree, I don't know. If sanctions did work (again, an empirical question) then it follows I should support these sanctions even if it personally harms me. This is analogous to my soldier analogy. Should only soldiers be obligated to put themselves at risk for the sake of a just cause? It is difficult to believe in the concept of a "just cause" if the answer to that is yes. I don't believe we should hide under the banner of, for example, "innocent civilians". That seems cowardly to me.

I am also not minimizing the difficulty of deterning when a foreign regime is unjust. I also am not minimizing the difficulty of determining when an act of war (which sanctions borders on, and a blockade would clearly be). To repeat myself, I am also not making an argument for the utility of sanctions--that is a separate question.

But once those judgments are made, then we all are morally required to be engaged. So yes, Iranians should be morally required to support sanctions, just as I think the German people were morally obligated to support actions against the Nazis.

This also requires a special requirement on our part (say, in opposing Hitler or Khameni) to support those inside those nations who are on "our side". None of this is easy, but once a Hitler is in power we have all already been engaged. Tragedy cannot always be avoided. It never has.

In this sense, sanctions are moral in their nature. By engaging in this behavior, we potentially avoid a greater damage.

There may be many good reasons not to go to war or impose sanctions (the enemy is not a danger; the enemy is not immoral; war or sanctions may be ineffective; etc). But if those conditions do hold, then my original point holds. If they do not, then I ask how you would justify any war ever?

If your answer is you would under certain conditions, then your argument seems inconsistent. If you answer is you never would, then that is simply a different discussion all together.

Mike

Mike Rulle writes:

Please excuse my typo errors above. IPhones are great machines, but accurate editing is not the easiest thing to accomplish. That's my story and I'm sticking to it

SpotCash writes:

The United States is different because we elect our representatives and executives. We, the People, did consent to the recent legislation in DC. We voted for, or did not vote against, the politicians doing the deed.

Over the two most recent election cycles, the Libertarians have treated the Republicans as the moral equivalents of the Democrats. That treatment continues today. They are emphatically not. The differences are real and vast. Because the Libertarians and their fellow travelers refused to vote for the "wicked Republicans," you got the Democrats who believe that the People support them and their policies (the only poll that counts is on election day).

The political political problem of most of the Libertarians, some of the GMU economists, and their fellow travelers is that they all lack a fundamental and practical understanding of how this country works. You may not like it, you may abhor it, but the nation works in accordance with politics that rely on compromise. These types of people make the same mistake that Marx did; man is not (or not merely) homo economicus but he may well be homo politicus. Economics, thus, will not answer all the questions. What appears as disbelief in the post and the comments reflects a profound misapprehension of the United States in 2009.

You can find the answers in the twin political virtues of prudence and practicality. If you want to win, you must support on of two choices and thereby capture the one you support. The only party capable of being captured by the non-statists is the Republican Party. It's there for the taking. But if you stand aside in self-righteous smugness, prepare to continue posting and commenting as above.

It's been the code of the west since about 1795.

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