Last week a North Korean court sentenced University of Virginia student Otto Warmbier to 15 years of hard labor. His crime? He stole a North Korean political banner.
The U.S. State Department called the sentence “unduly harsh,” which it certainly is under U.S. custom and laws. But the crime wasn’t committed here. It was committed in North Korea, where the state considers political banners to be sacred property, much like many Americans consider the American flag.
So, the question arises: Should the U.S. government invade North Korea in an attempt to free Otto Warmbier?
Libertarians say no. When an American citizen travels to another country, he assumes the risk of the foreign travel. He knows that he is subject to the laws and jurisdiction of the country to which he is traveling. He knows that he is subject to judicial processes that oftentimes are dramatically different from those in the United States. For example, presumption of guilty, denial of due process, trial by tribunal (instead of jury trials), no independent defense counsel, no appellate process, and the imposition of cruel and unusual punishments. And he knows that things can go wrong, dreadfully wrong, as they have in Warmbier’s case.
But while the U.S. government can express concerns and objections, it has no moral, legal, or constitutional authority to wage war against North Korea simply because an American citizen has received a high jail sentence or even if he has been wrongfully convicted. When the citizen travels abroad, he must take full responsibility for whatever happens to him. He cannot look to his government to be his daddy. If he doesn’t want to take such risks, he should stay at home.
The same principle applies when an American company decides to do business in a foreign country. It assumes the risk that bad things can happen, such as the imposition of high taxes, unreasonable regulations, bribes, or even nationalization. If the company doesn’t want to take that risk, then it should keep its operations here in the United States. If it decides to operate abroad, it should not be looking to the U.S. government as its daddy when difficulties arise.
That’s not what happened in Cuba after Fidel Castro took power. When the Castro regime began nationalizing American properties, that’s what precipitated the imposition of the brutal U.S. embargo against Cuba that has contributed, along with Cuba’s socialist economic system, to the deep economic suffering of the Cuban people for more than 50 years.
It was never the legitimate province of the U.S. government to punish the Cuban people — and, for that matter, to infringe on the fundamental rights and freedoms of the American people — in an attempt to protect the property rights of American businesses operating in Cuba. When those U.S. businesses decided to operate in Cuba, they knew the risks. They knew that Latin American regimes have a history of nationalization. Indeed, they knew that U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt himself had nationalized the gold-coin holdings of American citizens during the 1930s. That’s what governments do sometimes. American businesses in Cuba had no moral or legal right to call on the U.S. government to enter the dispute on their behalf, either with an invasion, assassination, terrorism, or a brutal embargo, any more than Otto Warmbier can expect the federal government to go to war against North Korea on his behalf.
The terrible irony with the U.S. sanctions against Cuba is that in the attempt to combat the Cuban communist regime’s control over people’s property in Cuba, the U.S. government ended up doing the same thing — taking control over people’s property here in the United States. After all, don’t forget: Under the embargo, if an American is caught spending money in Cuba, he is put into an American jail for an economic crime, even while Cubans are being put into Cuban jails for economic crimes.
This extra-jurisdictional nonsense has gone on long enough. The Framers never intended the U.S. government to be the world’s policeman or even to be a daddy for the American people and American businesses. Things go wrong in life. If one wants to limit his risk, then he should never leave his home, his town, his state, or his country. If he does, he takes the risk of things going wrong. The U.S. government needs to butt out.