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Economic Sanctions: Who Has What Rights?


Christmas is one of the most joyful times of the year for most Americans. Gaily decorated houses, yards, and Christmas trees sprout nationwide in November and last until the New Year season closes the holidays with fireworks, parties and, finally, the Super Bowl.

People decorate their Christmas trees in many ways, but one of the staples is bright, multicolored strings of lights wrapped around the tree. Driving through an American neighborhood during the holidays is always a treat, for in the windows of many houses, the Christmas trees shine with warmth and jollity, reminding us of the festive nature of the season.

While decorating those millions of trees, how many Americans have glanced at the box in which their Christmas tree lights came and have seen the label “Made in China”? Especially during the last few years, those Christmas lights and many of the other decorations and toys are similarly marked.

Unfortunately, it is also true that the hands that put those sparkling lights and toys in the boxes in the first place were not those of similarly festive celebrants. Instead, they belonged to Chinese people living under inhumane and brutal conditions in thousands of labor camps all over China. These are people who are forced to produce the lights, decorations, and toys exported to the United States so that the Chinese kleptocracy can have the foreign exchange those exports earn.

Harry Wu has exposed the Chinese slave-labor production system in his book Laogai — The Chinese Gulag. (See the review by Richard Ebeling in Freedom Daily, January 1993.) What preoccupies civilized men and women of goodwill elsewhere is what to do about the slave-labor system in China. Also in question are the similar abuses in North Korea, Cuba, and other countries where human rights are systematically violated to extort wealth for the benefit of criminal gangs recognized as “governments” by otherwise semi-civilized nations such as the United States.

One of the traditional responses to human rights violations in other countries is to propose U.S. government trade sanctions against the offending nation. So, in response to the Tiananmen Square massacre of civilians by Chinese military troops and the multifarious other human rights violations ubiquitous in China, such as the laogai system of slave labor, it is frequently proposed that trade sanctions be imposed on China by the U.S. government. The most drastic proposals aim to cut all trade ties with China.

What this means to Americans in practical terms is that the federal government’s coercive power would be used to prevent American citizens from freely engaging in trading activity with Chinese people, institutions, and government agents. Any American violating the specifics of the sanctions would be subject to criminal prosecution. Thus would the ends of justice in the pursuit of human rights supposedly be served.

But would that indeed be justice?

By what right does the federal government of the United States sanction its own citizens for international trades it deems inappropriate? And if our government fails to do that — or lacks the power to punish the offending government — is there anything that an individual American can do about the involuntary use of human beings, innocent of any real crime, in the production process of another country?

The first question is relatively easy to answer. The Congress of the United States has no legitimate right to forbid or obstruct the international trading activities of its citizens.

Unfortunately, Article I, Section 8, of the Constitution of the United States gives Congress the power to impose uniform duties and imposts and to regulate commerce with foreign nations. Even still, to regulate means to make an activity orderly or regular. It does not mean, as “regulators” today so often assume, to curtail or forbid.

Among the “long train of abuses and usurpations” of George III, cited as bases for American independence in 1776, was his complicity in restricting colonial trade “with all Parts of the World.” We should remember that it was because of their political philosophy that the Founding Fathers of the United States of America identified trade restrictions as despotic abuses. This philosophy is neither arcane nor ambiguous. Instead, it is stated in clearest terms in the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence.

Not just citizens, but all men are held to be created equal and endowed with certain unalienable rights — among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And it is a commonplace that property rights must be protected if the other rights are to have substance. Property rights have no substance if one cannot freely use or alienate one’s property, given that such use directly violates no one else’s rights. Further, the purpose of all nondespotic forms of government is held to be to protect those political rights, using powers granted by those governed “to effect their safety and happiness.”

Rather than using its powers for this purpose, however, our government now uses the same techniques as those governments it wishes to sanction — imprisonment, confiscation, and fines. American traders who fail to obey U.S. trade sanctions are robbed of their wealth or consigned to prison or both — much as is done in China to people convicted of violating Chinese economic laws (as differentiated from laws prohibiting violence against person or property).

It also is argued that current federal government trade policies are legitimate exercises of its sovereignty. There is no truth to this claim. The United States government is not sovereign; the people are — and the federal government legitimately possesses only enumerated powers. As argued above, obstructing trade is not among them.

In sum, there is no basis in the Constitution of the United States or in the political philosophy that underlies the Constitution to impose trade sanctions on the American people. It does not matter how egregious the human rights abuses are in the countries targeted by those sanctions. Human rights in the United States cannot legitimately be violated in response to human rights violations in other countries.

Now to the second question: what does a civilized person do in response to the human rights situation in China — or anywhere for that matter? The answer is that he does what he would do if offered a product by people he abhors, or one he suspects was obtained immorally, or just one he doesn’t want. He responds to the offer with a refusal.

If I believe that Christmas lights made in China have been involuntarily made by people imprisoned (as was Harry Wu) for exercising their rights of free speech or press or religion or peaceful use of property or peaceful association or any other human right stemming from their basic rights to life and liberty, I can refuse to buy it. And I can try to persuade others to boycott it. I can join voluntary associations to boycott and urge others to do so as well.

Further, if I am able to obtain sure knowledge, I can also publicly identify those persons and firms who gain from the trading activity I spurn and I can boycott them. If an American bank is renting space in Shanghai that has been built with laogai labor, or an American firm is producing shoes in Vietnam using the involuntary labor of innocent persons, I will not patronize it. If an American firm is knowingly importing and selling Christmas lights made with laogai labor, I will not patronize it.

Others are free to make their own decisions. People may buy products that physically harm them. They may financially support politicians, businesses, and organizations whose net effect is to increase the evil in the world. They may engage in what I regard as frivolous consumption activities. And they may buy products made by slaves. If they do so peacefully, I have no right to interfere with them, but I might morally condemn their actions.

Of course, my own trading choices may be costly to me. I may deny myself some cheaper commodities. Politically free labor is typically paid more for its product than labor extorted involuntarily. That is why it is extorted. China does not use laogai labor at market rates. It systematically brutalizes, starves, and tortures the 20 million inmates of its labor camps to produce wealth in service of the goals of its kleptocracy. And those who buy those products are furthering that cause.

But what if I am wrong? What if my suspicions of the pedigree of Chinese Christmas lights or of that watch I was offered for $10 in the airlines terminal are not well founded and I deny a market for a product legitimately made or acquired by willing labor?

Then I lose the potential benefits of that trade, as does the seller. But he has no right to make that sale or receive those benefits from me, unless I so choose. And he has every incentive to refute those who would misinform me and provide information that obtains my cooperation, if he would gain by it.

The Chinese government does not allay my fears concerning the laogai system when it prevents open access by foreign journalists and human rights activist organizations to those camps. Instead, it reinforces my concerns. It confirmed my suspicions when it arrested and imprisoned Harry Wu in 1995 for “stealing state secrets” when he attempted to travel in China and document the laogai system.

In sum, the right of individuals to use economic sanctions is part of their freedom. A nondespotic, legitimate government cannot deny or supplant that right with measures that contradict liberty. Economic sanctions are not the proper province of the government of the United States. For that matter, neither is the power to regulate trade in any respect. These are matters of individual freedom and conscience.

So, this Christmas, let’s boycott Chinese goods made with slave labor. But let’s leave the U.S. government out of it. Let’s fight tyranny with freedom.

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    Sam Bostaph is a professor of economics and chairman of the Department of Economics, University of Dallas, and an academic advisor to The Future of Freedom Foundation.