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As pundits debate how much the Trump administration's penalties have contributed to Venezuela's economic crisis and as European governments move forward with a plan to trade with Iran in the face of U.S. sanctions reimposed on the Islamic Republic, it's time for some calm and straight talk about sanctions.
People who oppose putatively humanitarian military interventions are frequently charged with supporting genocidal tyrants. In the same way, people who oppose sanctions on disfavored regimes are often criticized as apologists for those regimes. Each charge is a non sequitur.
Suppose the American government sought to impose a general trade embargo on Bozarkia, a (fictional) country with a disturbing human rights record. No doubt some people would oppose the move because they happened to like the regime. But there would be good reasons to oppose sanctions on Bozarkia even if we found little or nothing to like about its government.
Sanctions are bad news for the same reasons trade barriers of all kinds are bad news. After all, they're designed to impede particular commercial relationships. If robust property rights are human rights that hold consistently across borders, and if these rights matter—because they promote prosperity, safeguard autonomy, reduce conflict, and so forth—then sanctions are obviously problematic, because they interfere with people's rights to use their property as they see fit.
An embargo on Americans' trade with Bozarkia would impede Americans' own property rights. It would involve the threat of force against the property and bodies of people who trade with that country. It would also, obviously, prevent Bozarkians from making unconstrained choices about the use of their property. For anyone who sees strong property rights as foundational to people's abilities to pursue their own projects, the obvious property-rights violations effected by sanctions should be sufficient to rule them out.
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