Economic Sanctions

Resolved: Economic sanctions ought not be used to achieve foreign policy objectives. That’s the next LD topic. Let’s see what we can do with just a bit of Wikipedia clicking…

Wikipedia states that “Economic sanctions are domestic penalties applied by one country (or group of countries) on another for a variety of reasons. Economic sanctions include, but are not limited to, tariffs, trade barriers, import duties, and import or export quotas.”

Additionally, “A country’s foreign policy… is a set of goals outlining how the country will interact with other countries economically, politically, socially and militarily… Foreign policies are designed to help protect a country’s national interests, national security, ideological goals, and economic prosperity.”

So the resolution is asking the affirmative to show why tariffs, trade barriers, import duties, et al, should not — due to a moral standard — be used to achieve foreign policy objectives which are designed to help protect a country’s national interests etc.

I suspect that the easy case for the affirmative to make is that economic sanctions on a country are designed to influence the policy maker — who is necessarily a despotic tyrant, or possibly a despotic oligarchy — to be nice to us. The evil-doer practically never notices because being the person with power over a nation has the perk of not having to suffer like your citizenry. So the nefarious head-of-state continues to live in luxury (and not submit to our will or succumb to our foreign policy objectives) while their citizens suffer from lack of economic interface with us. Tragic, right?

So why would we do it at all? It’s because we believe in the capability of those suffering citizens as humans and as citizens of their country. We believe that governments derive their just powers from the consent of their governed (it’s in our Declaration of Independence) thus if the current head-of-state isn’t willing to cooperate with our foreign policy objectives, then the citizens of that nation probably generally aren’t either. So if we can convince them — economically, without dropping bombs on them — that some regime change might improve their lot in life and they act on it, then our ideology about “consent of the governed” is upheld and if they don’t change their head-of-state, then there’s a measure of complicity in the head-of-state’s actions that we’ve thrown economic sanctions against. In other words: let them suffer because they’re not opposing their government that is opposing us.

Except that it doesn’t work so well. Economic sanctions against Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Libya, and — of course — Cuba all show that economic sanctions don’t bring about regime change. Generally they either help the people of the nation feel strong and independent because they don’t need our help to do as well as they’re doing, or the suffering citizens live in fear of their oppressive and well-fed government and its military. Really, when was the last time there was a successful coup d’etat that wasn’t executed by a nation’s military?

So the short of it is that the historically bad track record of economic sanctions for achieving major foreign policy objectives is pretty poor, with the mass of citizenry being the people who bear the brunt of the punative punishment for their government’s offenses. If Immanuel Kant — to poll a name at not-at-all random — were to examine this situation using deontological ethics, he would probably say that we’re not acting out of good will because we’re (at best) intending for people to suffer until they’re motivated to cause suffering to their government and (at worst) ignoring the humanity of the people who we will be causing to suffer as a means of altering the behavior of their government.

So, when looking at the ought-factor here, we see that we need to make a moral decision — and thus we’ll value Morality. And as the criterion for determining whether or not we’re acting in a moral fashion, we’ll refer back to Kant, citing this time his formulations of the Categorical Imperative which Wikipedia summarizes as

  • Act only according to that maxim by which you can also will that it would become a universal law.
  • Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end.
  • Act as though you were, through your maxims, a law-making member of a kingdom of ends.

And while the third one doesn’t really apply — we are talking about national and foreign policy here such that we are, effectively, law-making members — it is clear to see that we wouldn’t want economic sanctions against our nation and, more uniquely and distressingly, we can be seen as treating the citizens of foreign nations as a means to end certain policies of their government. Ergo, it is immoral to use economic sanctions to achieve foreign policy goals and we ought to not use them.

Of course, a canny negative speaker would stand up and ask if, since the affirmative is not actually a policy-maker, if they are only calling the behaviors of actual policy-makers immoral to win a debate and are, in fact, thus using the policy-makers — who are people — as a means to the end of winning a debate.

So if the negative were to take Kant and run with it, the negative would say that passing broad and preclusive judgment on the possible actions of other people without full respect for the nuances and humanity of their situation fails to pass the morality standards set by the categorical imperative: we do not want to rush to judgment on this matter or to disrespect the very human job and role of our policy-makers. Ergo, voting affirmative is immoral in this case and should not be done. Since the tab room won’t let you turn in a blank ballot, please write in “neg” instead.

The negative position relies on three elements here: First, Kamm’s Principle of Permissible Harm (see Deontology in Wikipedia again) which says that it is always morally permissible to do the least amount of harm. Thus, if a set of economic sanctions are being used instead of violence to prevent war against an intractable and non-cooperative nation such as North Korea or Iran, then it is possible that those sanctions are doing less harm than an alternative method to avoid significant net harms. In as much as the economic sanctions constitute a less-immoral practice, they must be accepted as morally permissible in order for a possibility for moral action.

Secondly, extending on that point, the affirmative fails to acknowledge the existence of foreign nations full of free moral agents who are choosing whether or not to act with or against our foreign policy objectives. We’re not simply slapping economic sanctions on nations because we’re the big rude hegemon of the world; we’re doing it because they are refusing to do something we need them to do in order to maintain a good, healthy, cooperative relationship with them. Both nations (and all citizens thereof) are free moral agents and to be treated as such we must acknowledge that their actions — inclusive of possibly responding to possible maleficence with economic sanctions — do not happen in a deontological bubble that we can judge to be immoral from this little half-hour debate round.

Third and finally, the affirmative isn’t really showing that people generally suffer from economic sanctions. Any independent and free nation can survive just fine even with economic sanctions in place against it. Cuba tenaciously continues to exist south of Florida despite an exceptionally long-running set of economic sanctions against it. Generally, and most commonly, people may not be able to get imported goods as cheaply or as readily as they otherwise might, but is — for example — a lack of computer CPUs (which are export-restricted due to cryptographic capabilities) really causing an immoral amount of suffering in the world? Not so much, no.

So let’s get real: economic sanctions are a barely effective way to pursue foreign policy objectives. They do not directly attempt to harm anybody and any suffering that might be felt in a nation subject to particularly stringent sanctions is almost certainly being felt because the economic sanctions have been set in response to threats of harm from that nation to the nation (or nations) laying out the sanctions while being in lieu of actual (and quasi-arbitrary) violence, thus making them morally permissible. Certainly more morally permissible than branding all of our policy-makers who frequently use some degree of economic sanctions or another in pursuit of foreign policy objectives as acting immorally for the sake of a debate round.

As a judge, I’d vote for the negative there. So I think the affirmative needs a different strategy.

So for something that’s coming a bit more out of left field, I’d say that economic sanctions ought not be used because using economic sanctions precludes corporations’ ability to autonomously fulfill their fiduciary duty to their stockholders.

Generally, as a society, we value fulfilling our duties. So when we say we value Duty, we’re using duty as “a term that conveys a sense of moral commitment to someone or something. The moral commitment is the sort that results in action, and it is not a matter of passive feeling or mere recognition. When someone recognizes a duty, that person commits himself/herself to the cause involved without considering the self-interested courses of actions that may have been relevant previously. This is not to suggest that living a life of duty precludes one from the best sort of life, but duty does involve some sacrifice of immediate self-interest.” (Wikipedia on Duty) The key thing to bear in mind is that accepting a duty is accepting a commitment that generally involves a sacrifice of self-interest.

Now you might find yourself thinking about “noble” right about now, and people heeding the call of duty. We don’t want to interfere with people acting out of a sense of duty or discharging their duties, so we’re going to use a very simple weighing mechanism here: who can avoid interfering with duties? We’re not necessarily trying to fulfill duties here — those who are called to or bound by duty are responsible for their duties — but we should not interfere with them any more than we would want somebody to interfere with us if we were so called or obligated.

And economic sanctions preclude corporations from fully carrying out their fiduciary duties to their shareholders.

Going back to Wikipedia (on “fiduciary duty”) “A fiduciary duty is the highest standard of care at either equity or law. A fiduciary (abbreviation fid) is expected to be extremely loyal to the person to whom he owes the duty (the “principal”): he must not put his personal interests before the duty, and must not profit from his position as a fiduciary, unless the principal consents… corporate directors, may be held to a fiduciary duty similar in some respects to that of a trustee. This happens when… the directors of a corporation are trustees for the stockholders…” Put another way, the constant duty of a corporation is to make money for the corporations’ shareholders, regardless of the personal interests of the people running the corporation. And economic sanctions against a nation alter the flow of free capitalistic trade, specifically preventing at least one (but usually many) corporations — both domestic and foreign — from fulfilling their fiduciary duties to their shareholders.

  1. Now the negative may object that a corporation is not a moral entity and thus failure to carry out a fiduciary duty is not immoral and thus fails to prove that we ought not interfere with it but: “Despite not being natural persons, corporations are recognized by the law to have rights and responsibilities like actual people. Corporations can exercise human rights against real individuals and the state, and they may be responsible for human rights violations. Just as they are “born” into existence through its members obtaining a certificate of incorporation, they can “die” when they lose money into insolvency. Corporations can even be convicted of criminal offenses, such as fraud and manslaughter.” (Wikipedia: Corporation) It is worth noting, however, that they are generally not considered to be actual citizens and, despite usually paying taxes, they are not considered to have an actual vote in democratic societies. I wouldn’t claim that this is taxation without representation at this juncture, but I would note that this explicit lack of representation disenfranchises the corporate duties and interest from national interests.
  2. The shareholder to whom the corporation is bound by fiduciary duty are, ultimately, people and thus breaking the discharge of the duty would constitute a harm to the people and thus be immoral.

An important example in this case is Halliburton. And while I shudder to hold Halliburton up as an example of moral behavior, it is hard to contend that Halliburton’s opening of a second corporate headquarters in Dubai — which was widely regarded as a transparent move designed to get around economic sanctions the United States placed on Iran — was motivated not by CEO David J. Lesar’s desire to be expatriated, but by their fiduciary responsibility to their shareholders to pursue profit and return on investment. They rightly set aside their self-interest to pursue the more-correct business strategy to carry out their fiduciary duty. And our economic sanctions against Iran created barriers that mitigated their ability to do so and increased the investment that they had to make to pursue this strategy, thus necessarily reducing their return on investment and harming Halliburton’s investors. We ought not do that.

Now the negative is probably going to stand up and say that we need some level of economic sanctions to prevent exporting weaponry to our enemies which, frankly, I have just justified. To this, there are two obvious responses:

  1. The black market will always supply our enemies with plenty of weapons, be they recycled, second-hand, or simply lost in transit on their way to our not-enemies. Economic sanctions are ineffective in preventing the flow of weapons; they only reduce the profit available for the discharge of the corporate fiduciary duty. Watch the movie Lord of War — it’s an eye-opener. But more importantly,
  2. The real problem isn’t the exporting of “goods” per se, but the exporting of devices that can do harm. If we didn’t allow the formation of corporations that exist to create things that do harm — if we didn’t make it possible for people to burden a corporation with a fiduciary responsibility to facilitate harming people — then we wouldn’t be nearly so worried about where they sell their wares. But inasmuch as we allow these corporations to exist and create these harmful products for the profit of the people who choose to invest in them (which may be considered reprehensible), then we must necessarily treat them as equals with other corporations that have identical fiduciary duties to their respective shareholders — so it’s still wrong to intervene in their discharge of fiduciary duties.

And the assured preclusion of proper discharge of fiduciary duties by corporations, foreign and domestic, when economic sanctions are used for any reason — to achieve foreign policy objectives or not — is why we ought not use economic sanctions. It is unacceptable to interfere in the discharge of legally codified duties.

But I suspect that a “foreign policy objectives are hegemonic evil” is going to be more common affirmative case than that corporation-friendly case there.  To which, the negative might respond with something like this…

  1. The usage of the ‘to’ places emphasis on the agent for focus of this debate. That foreign policy objectives are ultimately going to be achieved — regardless of their morality — is not in question.  What is in question is whether or not (or not or whether, actually) we ought use economic sanctions in the potentially protracted and/or protractable process of achieving them.  Point being that just because foreign policy objectives are bad things to have, achieve or pursue does not automatically warrant an affirmative ballot.  See,
  2. Per Kamm’s Principle of Permissible Harm, we can realize that economic sanctions are less immoral than other options — hegemonic assassinations, proactive wars, etc — to achieve the foreign policy objectives which will be achieved in some way, so it seems entirely possible that economic sanctions are the least immoral way to achieve these objectives and are thus the only way we ought to achieve them.
  3. Economic sanctions don’t even work to achieve those immoral hegemonic foreign policy objectives.  Really, look at Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Et Cetera.  But we like economic sanctions because they’re the least evil way to still feel like we’re powerful and hegemonic and in the meantime, the more-immoral actions which would more effectively achieve those evil foreign policy objectives are deferred while we wait to see if the less-harmful actions are effective.  They aren’t, but time marches on while they’re not and during that time, we’re less-immoral than we otherwise would be if we were taking more direct action.

So, on the whole, yes, foreign policy objectives are bad.  But we’re not debating that — we’re debating about whether there are better or worse ways to get to an agreed-upon bad ends.  (That’s the “to” in the resolution, remember — without that “to,” the affirmative isn’t topical.)  And what I’ve just told you is that economic sanctions are the laziest, least-effective, least-impactful, least harmful way that we regularly use to pursue those hegemonically bad foreign policy objectives and because it is the least-wrong thing we can do, economic sanctions are therefore the only thing we ought to do when we’re pursuing those bad ends — because simply not pursuing them is outside of the scope of this debate.

Of course, the negative shifting the focus of the debate should get a question in cross-examination related to the usage of “To,” which may be responded to by the negative thusly: “Your easily-affirmed interpretation of the resolution would be better stated as ‘foreign policy objectives ought not be achieved via economic sanctions’ which couples the ought-not to the achieve verb on the foreign policy objective, with economic sanctions being an incidental frame.  Our resolution, however, couples ought-not with use of economic sanctions; the achievement of foreign policy objectives being the incidental frame.  I expect you are trying to affirm the topical reading of the resolution, so that’s what I’m arguing against — but if you’re happy with being off-topic, I’ll happily drop my arguments since I don’t need to argue against something that doesn’t affirm the resolution.”

January 11, 2010: Going through old articles today, I ran across a list of corporations that have moved their headquarters abroad for (at least partially) tax reasons.