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The Evils of Economic Sanctions

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Americans are undoubtedly sleeping soundly in the knowledge that U.S. Customs agents in the last year tripled the number of Cuban cigars seized before they could be brought into the country. The Customs Service says that it grabbed nearly 90,000 cigars, thwarting 1,285 acts of smuggling. The cigars were valued at more than $1 million, according to USA Today.

Why are government agents stopping Americans from bringing the coveted Havana cigar home with them when they travel? Because since 1962 the United States has enforced economic sanctions against the nearby island nation ruled by the Marxist dictator Fidel Castro.

There is something surreal about the situation: You can walk into a tobacco shop in any country of the world but one and find Cuban cigars. The exception is the United States of America, land of the free. If you get caught bringing even one such cigar into the country with you, it will be confiscated and you could be punished, though imprisonment is unusual.

If you take a State Department-approved trip to Cuba, you may bring back up to 100 cigars for your own use. But if you are just a regular tourist, forget it. That kind of arrogance of power has characterized the Cuban embargo from the start. According to Pierre Salinger, President John F. Kennedy’s press secretary, on the night before the embargo was announced, Kennedy asked him to buy up 1,000 Cuban cigars from Washington tobacconists.

The United States has used economic sanctions many times since World War II. The record of achievement on the government’s own terms is not good. The last two unrepentant communist economies in the world, Cuba and North Korea, have been under sanctions for decades.

A most visible harm of sanctions is the hardship inflicted on the citizens of the target country. The rulers usually have ways of continuing to live in the manner to which they have become accustomed. The people do not. Yasmine Bahrani, whose family lives in Iraq, wrote in the Washington Post that the people of that country have difficulty getting medicines because of the U.S. led United Nations sanctions imposed after the invasion of Kuwait. Here’s the irony: medicines are not embargoed. But the sanctions have so reduced incomes that people cannot afford them.

That Saddam Hussein still rules Iraq answers one of the claims made for sanctions, namely, that they can help drive a tyrant from power. Where has that strategy worked? Rulers such as Saddam and Castro use propaganda to justify their power. There is no better grist for the propaganda mill than an embargo imposed by the big bad United States. When a dictator’s socialist policies produce the inevitable havoc and hardship, what more persuasive explanation is there than: “it’s capitalist America’s fault”?

But free exchange would transmit ideas about the virtues of capitalism. It is no stretch of the imagination to believe that without the embargo, Cuba would have given up communism long ago.

Sanctions almost seem designed to cause the target population to rally around its government, at least for the duration of the emergency. The suffering and resentment they engender can also prompt citizens of the target nation to seek revenge against the perceived aggressor. That could result in terrorism against innocent Americans.

The most fundamental objection to sanctions, however, is that they are based on an intolerable notion of the relationship between the citizen and the state. When sanctions are imposed, Americans are told, as if by a stern parent, that they may not trade with the people of another nation.

The very existence of sanctions in the government’s policy arsenal announces to the American people that their economic lives are subject to drastic alteration without notice. It thus undermines the very foundation of a free economy. But sanctions must not be challenged in a vacuum. The case against then must be part of the larger argument against the American government’s role as policeman of the world. As long as the United States plays that role, no American’s life and property are safe.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.