David R. Henderson  

Sanctions and Boycotts in an Interconnected World

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Hawking's decision to join the boycott of Israel is quite hypocritical for an individual who prides himself on his own intellectual accomplishment. His whole computer-based communication system runs on a chip designed by Israel's Intel team. I suggest that if he truly wants to pull out of Israel he should also pull out his Intel Core i7 from his tablet. He calls it an independent decision based on the unanimous advice of his own academic contacts here. I propose he first seek the advice of Intel engineers working here. He seems to have no understanding of this world.
This is a statement by Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, founder and director of the Israel Center, in response to physicist Stephen Hawking's decision to boycott a conference in Israel.

I could have done without the last line: I think Ms. Darshan-Leitner would have to grant that Hawking has at least a working knowledge of physics, for example. But the rest of her paragraph is on target. The simple fact is that we live in an interconnected world, one in which a good made in country X is rarely made from items produced solely in country X. This is not a new phenomenon. Think back to "I, Pencil," which Leonard Read wrote back in 1958. He identified 6 countries that supplied the raw materials that went into a simple pencil. That interconnectedness, by the way, is, on net, good, not bad. Commerce between countries makes the world more peaceful than otherwise.

I learned about this quote from an excellent article that appeared this morning on antiwar.com. It's by Justin Raimondo. Justin is not known, to put it mildly, for his sympathy for Israel. He argues that it is unjust to punish innocent people for the sins of their governments. He makes a good case. I won't repeat it here: the article is short enough for you to read it yourself. I will highlight one powerful excerpt and point out one disagreement.

The excerpt:

We live in an interconnected world: to actually boycott all Israeli products, or those with significant Israeli components, is well nigh impossible - not to mention unjust. A blanket boycott of all things Israeli fails to make an elementary and crucial distinction between the Israeli government - which is pursuing policies decent people must condemn - and Israelis as individuals, who may or may not agree with the policies of their government.

My disagreement is about some of the following paragraph:
The same argument against slapping sanctions on Iran also applies to Israel: sanctions only hurt the innocent. The political class - the people responsible for making policy - suffers not at all, nor do sanctions give the Iranian rulers any incentive to change their behavior in the direction we would like to see. Indeed, punitive measures only serve to reinforce a bunker mentality that strengthens the regime's hold on the populace, providing hard-liners with a convenient rationale for their policies: they tell their people "The whole world's against us."

The difference between boycotts and sanctions is huge. Boycotts are voluntarily undertaken by people who organize others who also voluntarily comply. Sanctions are imposed by governments and they take away our choice. That is a big distinction and it is one that I especially would have expected a libertarian to make. I agree with Justin that both are wrong, but they're wrong in different ways. A boycott can be a mistake and I think this one is. One can even argue that it is immoral because it hurts innocent people. But it is not immoral in the same way that sanctions are immoral because sanctions involve the use of force.

That's my big disagreement. My nit-pick is that it's not true to say that sanctions hurt only the innocent. They hurt the innocent and the guilty. The political class suffers, but not nearly as much as the innocents. I have written on sanctions and embargoes here and here.

HT to Anthony Gregory.

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CATEGORIES: International Trade

COMMENTS (15 to date)
Ted Levy writes:

Why is this not a simple application of freedom of association? How is it reasonable to say that Hawking is hurting innocent people by simply refusing to attend a conference and giving his reasons why?

gwern writes:

[Comment removed for foul language.--Econlib Ed.]

David R. Henderson writes:

@Ted Levy,
Why is this not a simple application of freedom of association?
It is a simple application of freedom of association. That was the point of my criticism of Justin.
How is it reasonable to say that Hawking is hurting innocent people by simply refusing to attend a conference and giving his reasons why?
I'm guessing that many of the attendees at the conference are innocent people. They would be hurt by his non-attendance.

Ted Levy writes:

They would be no more hurt by his non-attendance than grocer A is hurt by my shopping instead at grocer B. This is a dangerously expansive notion of harm, it seems to me, for a free market advocate to use.

Dan Carroll writes:

Politics is about symbolism. I don't think Hawking cares where his chips are made. He is a high profile figure making a symbolic political statement to draw attention to it. I agree that sanctions are economically stupid, though sanctions are partly about symbolism, too. I have no problem with boycotts, as I think they are an exercise of political speech.

John Hall writes:

Hawking is a busy person. He is likely invited to many conferences or interviews all over the world and he is not able to appear at them all. Given the choice between one non-controversial event and another event sponsored by a group where he has political differences with, I don't see any issue in choosing the non-controversial one if the events are of the same quality. The choice of choosing between different chips used in his computer is far more difficult, because there would need to be quality comparisons between different chips and for the i, pencil reasons you mention.

JKB writes:

While Hawking no doubt has a very deep understanding of the universe, that does not imply he has a good understanding of the world in the context of: "The earth and its inhabitants, with their concerns; the sum of human affairs and interests. [1913 Webster]"

Having the deepest of understanding of physics implies little in regards to understanding "the sum of human affairs and interests". And often seen with academics, especially those at the height of a very complex field, they have less understanding of "this world" outside their discipline.

In any case, Hawking chose to enter this area of human affairs and interests by publicly withdrawing from the conference for a stated political reason. The citing of the Intel chip simply demonstrates the commitment to the political purpose, that is as long as it doesn't require any real sacrifice on his part. Otherwise, the boycott should extend to use of the "Israeli bandage" in emergencies or any number of medical devices and procedures developed in Israel.

Ken B writes:

@Ted Levy:
All such boycotts are attempts to stigmatize the nation of Israel, not just its government. As such they harm Israelis in general. This is quite clear when you see the double standards that are applied to Israel, or listen to the rhetoric aimed at Israel.

If Hawking is too naive to understand this then his "understanding of this world" is indeed deficient.

Ken B writes:


I'm guessing that many of the attendees at the conference are innocent people. They would be hurt by his non-attendance.

I want to pick a nit with this. They would suffer to the same extent if Hawking accepted another invitation and so did not attend. That would not in any sense be immoral. So if Hawking's action causes any harm for which he may be culpable I think it cannot be the harm to the other participants caused by his mere absence which you identify. It must be harm that flows from the nature of the choice he makes, in this case its symbolic value. I believe that in this case it does do harm. It stigmatizes Israel, and Israelis. It arguably stigmatizes those who do attend, but I don't think that should count.

Aaron Zierman writes:

I believe boycotts are often foolish, but fully agree that individuals have the right to exercise a boycott.

Government enforced economic sanctions, however, are an unbelievable failure. The intent is to cause reform or revolution within the subjected nation. How often has that worked? I truly cannot think of an instance where sanctions have been successful.


Do they instead help consolidate power in the government? Give a common enemy to the government and the citizens? Something to think about.

Ken B writes:

@Aaron Zierman:

Have patience. The Cuba embargo will start working any day now.

Philo writes:

Publicly, noisily boycotting a conference in Israel is making a political gesture (as, to a lesser degree, would be *attending* a conference in Israel--even if that were done quietly). But it is almost impossible to *decline to buy a certain computer because it contains a chip designed or manufactured in Israel* in a way that had significant political effect (nor, on the other hand, would buying such a computer be much of a political gesture). It is quite reasonable for someone aiming at political effect, but not wishing to inconvenience himself much, to boycott an Israeli conference (loudly) while continuing to trade (at least indirectly) with Israelis.

Whether Hawking's political judgment is sound is another question.

Sean writes:

This sentiment is unfair. The BDS movement is quite clear that their activities are not directed against Israeli people, products or institutions as a whole.

The problem with the IPC in particular is that it is a celebration of Israel's political elites, sponsored by government institutions. These, unlike Intel, are legitimate targets of boycott.

David C writes:

I concur with Dan Carroll. The conference is hosted by the President of Israel. It's very clearly not private, but a government organized event. The comparison to a chip designed by a private company is quite misleading.

David C writes:

Just to reinforce how much this is a political event, here's the full list of speakers:

Stephen Hawking
Daniel Kahneman
Prince Albert II of Monaco
Ruth Gavison
Dan Ariely
David Axelrod
Tony Blair
Mikhail Gorbachev
Daphne Koller
Larry Brilliant
Wendy Kopp
Bill Clinton
Stanley Fischer
Natan Sharansky
Shibley Telhami

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