Time to Close the Government to Close the Government

Doug Bandow

The year is drawing to a close and we are supposed to be happy that the lame duck Congress survived its usual year-end brinkmanship and threats of a government shutdown. Horrors! What would the helpless people do if politicians weren’t able to legislate, regulate, and dictate in the “public interest”? Why, the republic would collapse.


The traditional civics book notion of government at all levels is that the state does for us what we cannot do for ourselves. That’s typically seen as creating the framework for a free society—police, courts, defense, basic health and safety, “public” goods which otherwise wouldn’t be provided.

If the state was this focused on its most important and basic tasks, we might notice if it closed. If you rely on government as a matter of necessity for something that truly matters, then it’s obvious when it’s not there.

Unfortunately, the state has turned into something very different. It’s now a welfare agency for the wealthy, a vast soup kitchen for special interests, an engine for social engineering at home and abroad, and a national nanny determined to run citizens’ lives.

While the beneficiaries of programs get excited when the money disappears, no one else cares. To the contrary, closing down Washington’s great income redistribution racket actually would help most Americans.

Yet perhaps the most irritating, even infuriating, government activity is paternalism. What is worse than government taking your money in order to run your life? Often the worst culprits are at the state or local levels.

It’s the basic difference between a gang of highwaymen and caucus of legislators. The first group takes your cash and then leaves you alone. The second group empties your wallet or purse, and then insists on sticking around for your benefit to make sure you’re eating and dressing right, have correct posture, aren’t taking undue risks, and are exercising properly. Your new overseers expect not only regular payment but eternal gratitude for their services.

Consider the concerted campaign against smoking. I’ve never liked the habit. But adults are entitled to smoke cancer sticks if they like. And the idea that not one restaurant or bar in a city of thousands or state of millions can allow someone to smoke is, well, outrageous, especially when people continue to prattle on about the U.S. being a free society.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg attempted to ban large cups of soda. He’s the worst sort of “public servant,” substituting his preferences for those of the people he is supposed to “serve.”

Last month the city of Berkeley, California took a slightly different approach. It became the first city to impose a special tax on drinks with sugar. Nearly three-quarters of Americans say they oppose the sugar fascists, that didn’t matter in Berkeley. Sugar (or other caloric sweetener) tax measures have been advanced in two dozen states and cities since 2009, but leave it to Berkeley to be the first one to act. No word yet on whether the tax man next will target chocolate bars, ice cream, and households lacking an exercise bike or elliptical trainer.

In October the city of Burien, Washington, banned body odor. Or at least too much body odor in public, as determined by the cops. Explained City Manager Kamuron Gurol, “Occasionally, people will unfortunately have such a bodily odor that it’s very hard for other patrons to physically be in the same place.” So what could be more obvious than to turn the problem over to government?! And are mandatory public showers next?

Around the same time the authorities in North Attleboro, Massachusetts, rejected Selectman Patrick Reynolds’s request to eliminate the ban on playing ball in the street after the police broke up a game being played by friends. After all, responded the police chief: what would people think of the city if it appeared the community okayed this horrid practice? Makes you wonder how Americans survive for so many years without the assistance of the paternalists like those in North Attleboro.

In August the state of California did something right by revising its earlier prohibition on people bringing dogs into dining facilities. Until then only service animals were allowed.

Now under a set of specific conditions—in an outdoor area, kept clean in case of an “accident,” animal in a carrier or on a leash but not allowed on any furniture, any food and drink for man’s best friend only “in single-use disposable containers”—dogs can join their owners at a meal. Why not simply leave the decision up to the owner? Why do exalted elected officials believe they must tell a restaurant to clean up after an animal goes do-do on its premises? If patrons don’t like seeing a dog at their feet, why not let them go elsewhere, rather than call in the state authorities?

The FDA long has been perhaps the government’s deadliest paternalist, delaying the approval of life-saving drugs, thereby actually killing thousands of people over the years, far more than the number of people likely saved by preventing the sale of dangerous medicines. Ensuring that patients and doctors can’t make choices based on individual circumstances and preferences apparently doesn’t keep the agency busy enough.

Last year it outlawed mimolette cheese because mimolette rinds could contain trace quantities of cheese mites. The latter are harmless, but never mind. Earlier this year the FDA decided to ban cheese aged on boards—which, alas, means most European cheese imports. After all, “The porous structure of wood enables it to absorb and retain bacteria, therefore bacteria generally colonize not only the surface but also the inside layers of wood.” As a result millions, no, tens of millions of Europeans die every year from cheese poisoning. Well, not really. But you never can be too careful!

Actually, you can. And government too frequently is, at least when it comes to regulating people’s lives. When it comes to spending taxpayers’ money, tossing folks into jail, and invading foreign countries, government officials instead go wild and crazy, tossing caution to the wind.

Republican Party leaders ran from the idea of a government shutdown for political reasons. And when seen as a consequence of partisan deadlock a shutdown probably does lose votes. But it’s time to shut down government for the purpose of shutting down the activities of government that aren’t legitimate. Like most of them.

And especially paternalism. Government should do what we can’t, not what we can but which government officials believe they can do better, such as running our own lives.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is the author and editor of several books, including The Politics of Plunder: Misgovernment in Washington (Transaction).

Circus Harmony Coming to Fractious Ferguson

Nat Hentoff

Increasingly known throughout the United States and abroad, the “Circus Lady” – the founder, executive and artistic director of St. Louis-based Circus Harmony – “has a long history of building bridges,” as St. Louis Public Radio’s Linda Lockhart reports (“Reactions to Grand Jury’s Decision Reflect Diversity of Perspectives,” Linda Lockhart, stlpublicradio.org, Nov. 25).

“Over the past 10 years,” Lockhart writes, “she has developed youth circus troupes that consist of Jewish, Christian, Caucasian, Hispanic, African-American and Asian children from throughout the St. Louis area.”

And, the Circus Lady “has gone all the way to Israel,” where this past summer, she “took members of her tumbling group, the St. Louis Arches.

“There, the Arches joined with Arab and Israeli youth from the Galilee Circus, where they work and learned together, setting aside religious, political and cultural differences.”

This Circus Lady is Jessica Hentoff, my daughter. I have written about her and her involvement in Circus Harmony before – my interest as a reporter going far beyond parental pride, which certainly does exist.

“I’m following in your footsteps,” she once said to me.

But I haven’t traveled an inch near the life-changing effect she has had on the members of her circus troupes.

The mission of the nonprofit Circus Harmony is clear: “Through teaching and performance of circus arts, we help people defy gravity, soar with confidence, and leap over social barriers, all at the same time” (circusharmony.org/about).

As she has explained to me and others: “Children involved in Circus Harmony learn how to defy gravity, becoming part of a creative team, and how to overcome the prejudices society places upon them because of race, religion or socioeconomic standing.

“Our programs teach valuable life skills like perseverance, focus and teamwork. Learning circus with others teaches trust responsibility and cooperation.

“Perhaps the most important experience we give our participants is the opportunity to meet with and interact with children from different socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds than their own.

“Many children live under certain labels imposed on them because they are a certain race or from a particular neighborhood. Our students learn to define themselves as capable community members and creative performing artists … the circus has given them confidence and the courage to be themselves.”

When Circus Harmony starts a troupe in Ferguson, Missouri, in February (funded in part by a social impact grant from the St. Louis Regional Arts Commission), the Circus Lady intends to have her experienced students take charge of teaching their new associates.

“The kids,” she tells the (St. Louis) Riverfront Times, “are more responsive to a lesson taught by a peer, especially an accomplished peer” (“After Performing for Peace in Israel, Circus Harmony Brings Message of Unity to Ferguson,” Lindsay Toler, Riverfront Times, Dec. 23).

Here is her initial program for Ferguson: “The series of circus workshops will include children aged 8 to 18 in acrobatics, juggling and balancing arts … and then engage audiences in their neighborhoods and beyond in something innovative, inspiring and positive. In light of recent events in Ferguson, this will be meaningful for the participants, their audiences and the entire St. Louis community.”

And dig this from the Circus Lady’s approach to teaching there: “We will monitor students’ circus progress through use of our circus log books and personal interviews. We will be able to see if they learn to juggle, do a back handspring or balance a feather in the circus classes.”

As for the Circus Lady’s background, according to her biography, “Jessica Hentoff has been involved in circus arts since 1973. She has toured with numerous circuses throughout the United States and Canada performing as an aerialist, clown, juggler, bareback-rider, small animal trainer and fire-eater. Jessica has taught circus skills to children and adults of all ages and levels for over 30 years (including deaf children, adolescents with Down Syndrome and children with all labels)” (everydaycircus.net).

She was the St. Louis Arts and Education Council’s 2009 Arts Innovator of the Year, and she has been a speaker on the topic of social circus at the World Circus Federation/European Circus Association symposium.

Among her grants: The National Endowment for the Arts.

In an interview with the publication St. Louis Jewish Light, Hentoff talked about how the idea of “tikkun olam” within the Jewish religion is connected with circus:

“This is the concept that the world shattered into a million pieces years ago. It is our job, as humans, to repair the world. My theory is that everyone uses their own kind of glue. Some use music or theater or medicine or journalism. I use circus” (“A life in circus,” Ellen Futterman, St. Louis Jewish Light, Feb. 6, 2009).

In a 2007 Washington Times story I wrote about the circus’s trip to Israel, Jessica Hentoff quoted a member of the Arches as saying “that he doesn’t know which kids (he works with) are Arabs and which kids are Jewish. It doesn’t matter. We are all circus performers, and we are creating something together, which is inspirational in ways the kids don’t even think about” (my article, “Galilee Circus breaks down barriers,” The Washington Times, Aug. 20, 2007).

Adds the Circus Lady: “Learning to fly helps children believe in themselves … It changes people’s perceptions of them.”

When I’m working on a civil liberties story, or any kind of story, and give my name, the response can be: “Oh, are you the father of the Circus Lady?”

Nat Hentoff is a nationally renowned authority on the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights. He is a member of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and the Cato Institute, where he is a senior fellow.

Slovak Politics and Gay Rights

Dalibor Rohac

Post-Communist countries can be likened to Western societies operating with a time lag — repeating the same debates that their Western counterparts had some 10 years ago. One such example is Slovakia’s current controversy over gay marriage and adoption by same-sex couples.

Although the institutionalization of gay marriages or child adoptions by same-sex couples hardly figures on the agenda of most political parties, the country has come a long way since its first Gay Pride event in 2010, which was disrupted by neo-Nazi youths. Because it is probably just a matter of time until gay unions and same-sex adoptions become palatable to most Slovaks, opponents of these reforms have launched a pre-emptive assault to make these reforms legally and politically costly.

Earlier this year, Slovakia’s Christian Democrats teamed up with the governing left-populist party, “Smer” (“Direction” in Slovak) of Prime Minister Robert Fico to pass a constitutional amendment to “protect the Slovak family,” vaguely reminiscent of the infamous Defense of Marriage Act, overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court last year. Since this past September, the Constitution of Slovakia thus stipulates that “marriage is a union solely between man and woman. The Slovak Republic fully protects marriage and provides all means to secure its wellbeing.”

Encouraged, Slovakia’s traditionalists are on the offensive. Following a petition organized by the civic campaign Alliance for Family, a nationwide referendum has been called for February to provide answers to several questions, including whether any form of partnership other than between a man and a woman could be called a marriage and whether a ban should be imposed on adoption of children by same-sex couples. The initial proposal contained another question — whether any other form of cohabitation should be given the legal attributes of marriage — which was ruled invalid by the country’s Constitutional Court, as it could violate people’s fundamental rights.

Anton Chromik, one of the leaders of the Alliance for Family, claims that “homosexuals are not asking just for ‘rights,’ but want to shut the mouths of other people. They will be making decisions over other people’s lives, careers, and that has always in history resulted in dictatorships and sometimes even in mass murders.”

Supporters of the campaign also question why professional psychological and psychiatric associations, or the World Health Organization, declassified homosexuality as a mental disorder in the latter half of the 20th century, and point to allegedly successful examples of “therapy” provided to gay people.

For the government of Prime Minister Fico, the controversy is a welcome — though temporary — distraction from some very real problems facing Slovakia. While its transition from Communism was a success, the country is still plagued by rampant corruption, chronic unemployment — exceeding 30 percent in some regions — and by the intergenerational poverty of the sizeable Roma population.

The country has also seen a geopolitical shift following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, with Mr. Fico becoming one of the Kremlin’s leading apologists. Unsurprisingly, Slovakia’s anti-gay activists have a soft spot for Vladimir Putin, too. Former Prime Minister Jan Carnogursky, a former Catholic dissident and an outspoken supporter of the referendum, noted recently that “in Russia, one would not even have to campaign for this — over there, the protection of traditional Christian values is an integral part of government policy” and warned against the “gender ideology” exported from the United States.

The neighboring Czech Republic has applied its own version of civil partnerships of same-sex couples since 2006, with very little controversy — largely because none of the doomsday predictions about the demise of the “traditional family” made by the law’s opponents have materialized. The Slovak case is different, in part, because of the stronger religiosity of its population. Most churches have endorsed the Alliance’s campaign and some clergymen have played a role in heating up the rhetoric, making parallels between homosexuality and genocide, for example.

The advocates of gay unions appear frustrated by the one-sidedness of the debate. “Our arguments have been exhausted and tend to be repetitive because we are not lying,” says Romana Schlesinger, one of the main organizers of the annual Gay Pride events in Slovakia’s capital, Bratislava. “The other side is much more creative. They will make up any argument, directed at anyone, just to appear persuasive.”

It seems unlikely that Slovak traditionalists will ultimately be on the winning side of this argument. In the meantime, the mean-spirited campaigning and frequent disparaging remarks about gays and their “condition” are a poor substitute for serious policy discussions and are making the country a much less pleasant place, and not just for its gay population.

Dalibor Rohac is a policy analyst at the Cato Institute’s Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity.

Risky Business of New Year’s Forecasts

Richard W. Rahn

How many hurricanes do you think will hit the East Coast of the United States in 2015? Will the Arctic ice sheet disappear next year? How fast will the U.S. economy grow? What will the level of the Dow Jones stock index be at the end of 2015? Which team will win the World Series?

Go back and look at predictions made by the experts, and then look at what really happened. The climate alarmists 15 or so years ago were forecasting catastrophic events by this time. Yet sea levels have not been rising any faster than they have been for centuries. The major climate models were projecting steady rises in global warming each year, yet average temperatures have not risen for 17 years. Al Gore and his alarmist crowd told us that the Arctic would be free of sea ice during the summer by now and that we would be having more and stronger tornadoes and hurricanes. The Arctic sea ice is still with us, and few ships dare sail there. Many tornado and hurricane records have been broken — not because there were more — but because there have been fewer. Florida has gone a record nine straight seasons without a significant hurricane.

None of the above disproves climate change, but it should caution those who have made many rash predictions. The economist-philosopher F.A. Hayek warned about “the limits of knowledge” and the “fatal conceit” exhibited by so many “experts.” The communists and socialists claimed that they could allocate resources and income better than markets. These false claims ultimately destroyed the lives of tens of millions and caused untold human misery. Despite the never-ending failures of socialist and other collectivist schemes (such as Obamacare), colleges, governments and the media are still filled with smug — but ignorant or uncaring — individuals (think Jonathan Gruber) who still think they are smarter than markets, and thus have the self-appointed right to control your life.

Economists have little to crow about when it comes to forecasting. Most of them missed calling the Great Recession. The Federal Reserve, which employs hundreds of economists, many from the best schools, kept predicting 4 percent-plus economic growth each year, after the recession bottomed in 2009. In fact, actual growth has been about half of what they predicted — but perhaps 2015 will be the year of 4 percent growth. Too many of my fellow economists, including many of those in the administration, get things wrong, in part, because they still use Keynesian economic models that treat increases in government spending as a positive rather than a negative, among other errors.

To make an accurate forecast, one needs to know what the Fed will do in regard to monetary policy and what Congress and the administration will do in terms of taxing, spending and regulation. One also needs to know what the economic policies of other countries will be — since the United States is not an island unto itself — and when wars and tsunamis will occur. The impossibility of knowing all of this does not mean that it is not useful to attempt to forecast, but merely that it is not scientific in the way that we can precisely predict the boiling point of water at a specific atmospheric pressure.

Forecasters need to have a good understanding of the major variables that might greatly affect their reasoning. The safest starting point for most forecasts is what happened in the previous period. Tomorrow’s weather is likely to be similar to today’s. One might begin an economic forecast by assuming next year is likely to look much like this year, then alter the forecast based on assumed changes in policy. For instance, if you assume the Republican-led Congress is likely to reduce government spending as a share of gross domestic product, and if you believe, as many of us do, that government spending (at the current high levels) is a drag on growth, then it is sensible to boost the growth estimate a bit — other things being equal. This same exercise needs to be repeated with each major variable — taxes, regulations, monetary actions, changes in oil prices — and what Russia’s Vladimir Putin might do next.

Richard W. Rahn is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and chairman of the Institute for Global Economic Growth.

Ukraine Wants to Join NATO and Fight Russia: U.S. Must Say No and Make Alliance an Issue of Security, Not Charity

Doug Bandow

The Ukrainian parliament has repealed the law barring participation in NATO. As a sovereign state Kiev is entitled to ask to join the transatlantic alliance. The U.S. has an equal right, even duty, to answer no.

Throughout most of its young life Ukraine has looked both east and west. People wanted to take advantage of the bountiful economic opportunities in Europe and America while preserving commercial and cultural relations with Russia. The majority wanted to join the European Union but not NATO.

President Viktor Yushchenko, the disastrous 2005 election winner backed by the U.S., unsuccessfully pushed his country to join the Western military alliance. In 2010 his successor won approval of legislation promoting “nonalignment” and mandating “nonparticipation of Ukraine in the military-political alliances.” But after months of conflict and a revolution in government this week Ukraine’s Rada repealed that law. “Finally, we corrected a mistake,” said President Petro Poroshenko. “Ukraine’s nonaligned status is out.”

The vote is not the same as an application to join NATO and Ukrainian officials admit that their country will not soon satisfy alliance requirements. However, Poroshenko favors membership, as do a majority of Ukrainians. An application undoubtedly will be forthcoming if Kiev believes it will be approved.

Unsurprisingly, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called the move “counterproductive” and one that “only escalates confrontation.” Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said a formal application “would turn Ukraine into a potential military adversary for Russia.”

The U.S. should warn Kiev not to look to NATO for the solution to its Russia problem.”

NATO officials responded to the Rada’s action with bland generalities. An alliance spokesman said “we respect the decision,” adding that “Our door is open and Ukraine will become a member of NATO if it so requests and fulfills the standards and adheres to the necessary principles.” Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told a group of visiting Ukrainian journalists that “Ukraine is a very valued partner of NATO.” State Department spokesman Marie Harf said: “Countries that are willing to contribute to security in the Euro-Atlantic space are welcome to apply for membership.” However, no one actually issued an invitation.

In fact, joining could be counterproductive for Kiev. No doubt some Ukrainians imagine that NATO would protect them from Vladimir Putin, recovering lands lost to Russian-backed separatists and regaining Crimea from Moscow. In theory the world’s most powerful military alliance could do so. But if the consequence was a full-blown war, as is likely, it would be a disaster for Ukraine.

Moreover, capability is not enough. Also required is will. In 2008 Georgians looked to their rear expecting the American military to come to their rescue in their war with Russia. However, President Mikhail Saakashvili learned a painful lesson: U.S. President George W. Bush was willing to visit Tbilisi and whisper sweet assurances in Saakashvili’s ear, but Washington would not fight on Georgia’s behalf. Even most war-happy Neoconservatives did not advocate that step.

The Americans and Europeans were forced to reckon both costs and benefits. The allies had no principled objection to Russia supporting South Ossetia’s and Abkhazia’s bids for independence, since NATO had done essentially the same for Kosovo. Nor could Western leaders make a plausible case for going to war with Russia over such minimal geopolitical stakes after successfully avoiding conflict with Russia during the Cold War.

The allies made a similar assessment of Ukraine. Western officials have bestowed numerous international kisses on Kiev’s Poroshenko, but have provided his nation only limited practical support. The financial transfers have been modest, the “non-lethal” military shipments lackluster, real weapon provisions minimal, and troop deployments nonexistent.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has violated international norms, unleashed bitter conflict, upset the regional order, and disturbed his European neighbors. Despite the resulting sturm und drang, however, his actions have had little impact on America and Europe. Keeping Ukraine whole simply doesn’t matter enough to any NATO member to play international chicken with a nuclear-armed power. Brussels and Washington hope that Russia’s economic problems will force Putin’s retreat, but backing him into a corner is dangerous.

Thus, Ukraine might rue being inducted by NATO. The alliance would discourage Kiev from doing more for itself and addressing Russia directly, leaving Ukrainians even more vulnerable than before. Yet Kiev might find its allies to be as inconstant as Moscow was antagonistic.

The fact that Western states will not take serious risks for Ukraine means they must reject any NATO application from Kiev. Whatever the desire of Ukraine’s Rada, no country has a right to join the alliance. The U.S. should take the lead and indicate that membership ain’t going to happen. Encouraging unrealistic expectations is unfair, especially to a desperate government like Kiev. Washington and Brussels aren’t going to rescue Ukraine from its unfortunately geographic circumstances. How Ukrainians respond is of course their choice, but they should have no illusions about the Western cavalry showing up on white horses to defeat the Cossack hordes.

Past NATO expansion has added members with minimal militaries and extensive problems. Today’s least bad current candidates are nations such as Serbia and Macedonia, which don’t matter much to American security but at least aren’t likely to get into war with anyone. The worst cases are Georgia and Ukraine, which won’t defend the U.S. from anyone but have poor relations with Moscow. Providing small troop contingents for Washington’s unnecessary Third World wars (Afghanistan and Iraq, so far) isn’t nearly enough recompense to America for defending countries from a nuclear-armed power. Indeed, Ukraine is a security black hole, something to be avoided.

NATO countries should take all expansion proposals more seriously in the future. Membership should be a matter of security, not charity. New members should contribute to Americans’ safety.

Some alliance advocates contend that membership in the NATO club would encourage political and economic reform. Perhaps, though alliance membership hasn’t done much to improve affairs in Bulgaria and Romania. In any case, the proper way to promote general liberalization is through European Union membership and reduced U.S. trade barriers. Washington may have pushed NATO expansion as a means to sustain its influence, since the U.S. has no say in the EU. However, that’s a very bad reason to promise to go to war.

The most dangerous alliance illusion is that the faintest whisper from Brussels is enough to cause potential opponents to retreat in fear. If NATO would just say the word the Russian invaders would turn tail and race back to Moscow, cowering in fear. At least if the U.S. possessed more “credibility,” perhaps by bombing a few more small, defenseless states or groups. With a “stronger” president than Barack Obama, runs the argument, the U.S. would exercise “leadership” and Moscow wouldn’t dare test Western “resolve.”

Yet deterrence works both ways. Vladimir Putin is no friend of liberty, but that doesn’t make him irrational or stupid. He has taken a nation in collapse and retreat under Boris Yeltsin and restored it to something like Imperial Russia (though without its many non-Russian dependencies). Moscow desires respect from other great powers, consideration in decisions affecting its interests, and especially secure borderlands affecting the Russian state. The West challenged all of these concerns by expanding NATO (an alliance always directed against Moscow) to Russia’s borders, forcibly dismantling Serbia (a country for which Imperial Russia went to war in World War I), and pressing to incorporate into the Western bloc both Georgia and Ukraine (historically part of Imperial Russia as well as the Soviet Union).

Nor were Moscow’s antagonists as innocent as they claim. In Kosovo America’s ethnic Albanian allies ethnically cleansed hundreds of thousands of Serbs and others. Georgia started the 2008 war, bombarding Russian troops in South Ossetia. In Ukraine the West backed the ouster of the elected government which was leaning toward Moscow; the new regime refused to consider self-determination in Crimea and responded to separatist activity by launching indiscriminate attacks on ethnic Russian areas.

None of this justifies Ukraine’s forcible dismemberment, but it is important to understand why Russia acted. As my colleague Ted Galen Carpenter has pointed out, long ago Washington issued the Monroe Doctrine, under which Washington ordered the Europeans to stay out of the Western hemisphere. Such an approach may seem three centuries out of date, dismissing moral considerations and ignoring the desires of Russia’s neighbors. But Washington hardly can proclaim itself to be shocked, shocked when Moscow also trumps moral principles with practical interests.

Moreover, Russia is better able to deter the West than vice versa in Ukraine. The geopolitical stakes are far greater for Russia than for the U.S. and Europe. It doesn’t matter how often the American president talks about Ukraine. The Putin government remains willing to spend and risk more than the U.S. and Europe. Moscow already has demonstrated its “resolve” by going to war overtly against Georgia and covertly against Ukraine. The costs of retreat for Russia would be much greater than for the allies since their success likely would lead America and Europe to make even more expansive geopolitical demands in the future. Washington is not the only capital in which policymakers consider such concepts as government credibility, national will, and red lines.

In fact, history is filled with examples of alliances which failed to deter. Never mind the threats and commitments of adversaries. Countries believe they will win, their opponents will back down, their adversaries will be forced to negotiate, and, if nothing else, they have no alternative but to fight. In World War I, for instance, military relationships intended to prevent conflict instead acted as transmission belts of war, bringing in most of Europe as well as America and Japan.

Washington should issue security guarantees alone or through the alliance—despite Europe’s abundant population and wealth, NATO still stands for North America and The Others—only if it is prepared to put its citizens’ lives on the line. Fear of a hostile hegemonic power dominating Eurasia animated the promise to protect war-torn Western Europe. The Cold War is over. Russia has not replaced the Soviet Union, Ukraine is no substitute for Western Europe. Contrary to Poroshenko’s claim that his nation’s fight is the West’s fight, Kiev is not key to any Western nation’s security.

In short, NATO’s Jens Stoltenberg was correct that there is no military solution to the conflict in Eastern Ukraine. Bringing Kiev into the alliance would solve nothing. Introducing Western weapons and especially forces would not bring peace today. The most likely outcome would be a more extensive and intensive conflict. The peace achieved would be the kind that no one wants, the peace of the grave. It would be a tragedy for the West to survive the Cold War without significant combat with Moscow and afterwards initiated such a conflict for no good reason.

Recognizing the problems of military action, the allies seem inclined to take a middle course, emphasizing economic pressure. However, a potentially permanent conflict also is in no one’s interest. Ukraine is closer to collapse than is Russia: the problem is not just the cost of trying to sustain Kiev but the impact on Ukraine’s domestic institutions.

Moreover, economic warfare rarely yields positive political change. To the contrary, authoritarian governments like that in Moscow are more likely to retaliate than capitulate. Liberalism rarely emerges from catastrophic collapse. The Europeans, especially, should beware creating “Weimar Russia.” A similar screenplay seven decades ago ended badly.

Better for all to seek a negotiated settlement. Ukraine decentralizing power in return for separatists accepting Kiev’s formal authority. Ukraine acquiescing in Crimea’s separation and Russia holding an internationally monitored referendum on separation. Most important, Kiev forbearing all military ties to NATO and the U.S. and the allies dropping sanctions in return for Moscow accepting a united Ukraine and Ukrainians looking both east and west economically. Assuring Russia’s security is critical. Last month Putin spokesman Dmitri S. Peskov said: “We would like to hear a 100 percent guarantee that no one would think about Ukraine’s joining NATO.”

The Rada’s vote to end military neutrality is a desperate move, one likely to worsen Ukraine’s problems unless the Poroshenko government uses it as a bargaining chip with Russia. The U.S. and Europeans should do the same, indicating that they have no interest in adding new military clients bordering Russia and will make that commitment as part of any settlement. The latter actually is in the allies’ interest as well: Kiev is a security consumer, not provider.

Expanding NATO never benefited Washington, which bore the bulk of the added financial burden and defense risk. Adding Ukraine as a defense client makes even less sense for America. The U.S. should warn Kiev not to look to NATO for the solution to its Russia problem.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, specializing in foreign policy and civil liberties.

Now Let’s End the Embargo on Cuba

Ian Vásquez

When President Obama announced that the United States would normalize diplomatic relations with Cuba and loosen its trade embargo on the country, he became the first sitting president to acknowledge the obvious failure of this decades-long policy. The sanctions have done nothing to improve human rights, promote democracy, spur economic reform, or dislodge the Castro dictatorship.

A new approach could hardly do worse and will probably do better at increasing the freedoms of Cubans. Yet critics claim that Obama has rewarded and bestowed legitimacy on an intransigent regime, and worse, has thrown it a lifeline at a time when Venezuela’s growing economic crisis makes it an increasingly unreliable source of patronage.

If so, it is a criticism of U.S. policy toward any number of countries around the world — from China and Russia to Egypt and Vietnam — whose unsavory regimes violate human rights but with whom the United States maintains diplomatic and trade relations. Are we really to believe that everyone would be better off with U.S. embargoes on much of the world?

The more sophisticated critics point out that unlike in China, Cuba’s communist government has undertaken no meaningful economic reforms and thus does not merit trade relations, which can only strengthen the Castros. Yet the lack of economic reforms in Cuba is precisely why we should not expect that eliminating the embargo will lead to booming trade.

Castro’s willingness to re-engage with the United States represents a significant change.”

Until and unless Cuba changes the backward economic policies that have impoverished it, commercial opportunities will be limited. The fear among some conservatives that allowing trade with Cuba will somehow save communism from its inherent flaws betrays a surprising faith in that system. Lifting the embargo will instead clarify that the Castros’ repressive policies, not U.S. policies, are the source of Cuban misery.

It is true that any increased economic engagement with the United States would increase the regime’s revenues. But again, short of meaningful reform, those revenues will be limited. More economic engagement would likely also create constituencies in favor of further reform, and the greater opportunities for getting rich, even within the government system, would be corrosive of Cuban socialism.

Restoring Americans’ rights to travel to the island has the most potential to increase Cubans’ freedoms. A full lifting of the travel sanctions would put hundreds of thousands and perhaps up to a million Americans per year in direct contact with ordinary Cubans in an economy where the self-employed are growing in number.

A rise in tourism would expand those businesses and the informal economy, thus giving Cubans increased independence from the state. Cubans thus would also establish ties to Americans, creating opportunities to genuinely strengthen civil society. The fact that the United States has both an unrivaled tradition of civil society and, as the Hudson Institute has documented, Americans are among the most internationally philanthropic people in the world, could make a difference so far unseen in Cuba.

Obama, however, has only partially eased sanctions. It is up to Congress to fully lift the embargo, which Cuban leader Raul Castro continues to blame for Cuba’s suffering. Unlike in the past, when Cuba has said it wanted to improve relations only to sabotage the relationship on the various occasions when that possibility grew, Castro’s willingness to re-engage with the United States represents a significant change.

As Cuban dissident Yoani Sanchez observed, under “Fidel Castro we would have never even reached an outline of an agreement of this nature. Because the Cuban system is supported by — as one of its main pillars — the existence of a permanent rival. David can’t live without Goliath and the ideological apparatus has depended too long on this dispute.”

So Sanchez may be right in describing the agreement between the United States and Cuba as on balance a “political defeat” for the Castro regime. But we should be under no illusion about Castro’s goal to maintain control over the Cuban population and to do as little reform as possible to achieve that end. With or without sanctions, that’s the regime’s goal. Fully ending the embargo is a strategy more likely to increase freedom and to discourage the delusion that the United States can determine Cuba’s fate.

Ian Vasquez is director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity.

‘Tis the Season for Politics to Make Us Worse

Trevor Burrus

Politics makes us worse — and at no time more so than around the holidays.

“If I have to listen to my crazy Tea Party uncle say one more thing about Michael Brown and Ferguson, I’m going to flip over the dinner table and retreat to my childhood room to look at old issues of Seventeen.”

“What are these liberal universities doing to our son?!? I’m not sure we should let him go back there.”

“When did you get so angry at the world, Mom and Dad? Is there something that isn’t Obama’s fault?!?”

Welcome to an American holiday tradition. Apple pie now comes with a side of political yelling, especially after a few glasses of eggnog.

The problem, of course, is that “they” don’t get it. How could they? Mom and Dad’s brains might as well be directly hooked to Fox News like the humans in the Matrix. The children’s “progressive” universities are as hermetically sealed off from reality as North Korea. And don’t even get me started on Uncle Tim, whose rural worldview is a strange mixture of a fear of black helicopters and a demand for increased farm subsidies.

Minimal government has virtues beyond lower debt, less crowded prisons, and less militarized police. It might even save your family.”

How can you be expected to live in the same state, let alone country, with people who vote for fascism while you are voting for freedom? When they live in a fake world created by a self-serving news media and you live in reality? It’s probably best if we just double spike the eggnog and watch A Christmas Story for the third time.

But it’s not “their” fault; it’s politics’ fault — specifically, the politicization of more and more important and irreconcilable values. America is a deeply divided nation of clashing values partially because politics has made us this way. No matter what side of the political spectrum you’re on, it’s time to stop hating the players and start hating the game.

It was a nice, progressive, like-minded neighborhood until they moved in. With their “Jesus is the reason for the season” sign and their “Palin in 2016” bumper sticker, they stuck out like Bears fans at Lambeau Field. Then they started showing up at school board meetings and pushing for curriculum changes. Less environmentalism, more Founding Fathers. And others joined them, perhaps having been too scared to speak out before. Now there’s an ongoing political fight over curriculum standards and two different yearly block parties, one red and one blue. Friends are now enemies, children are not allowed to play together. But why did they have to come in and try to control the education of your children in the first place?

The answer, of course, is because politics controls education, and as long as that’s true, then it really can’t be any other way. The education of future generations is too important. Rather than give control over education to individual parents via school choice, we’ve given control to those who can galvanize 50 percent +1 of the vote. And since the outcomes are zero sum — what the winning side wins the other side loses — then the stakes are even higher. So people fight, not because they want to, but because they have to.

Like any other game, the rules create the attitudes and strategies of the players. Throw two brothers into the Colosseum for a gladiatorial fight to the death, and brotherly sentiment will quickly evaporate. Throw siblings, neighbors, or friends into a political world that increasingly controls our deepest values, and love and care are quickly traded for resentment.

But it gets even worse. The first-past-the-post rules of our democratic politics turns a continuum of possibilities into binary choices and thus imposes black-and-white thinking onto a world made mostly of grays. Teams (politicians), cheerleaders (pundits), and fans (voters) galvanize around an artificially schismatic world view.

And then our biases take over. Now that we’ve invented a problem — “which group of 50 percent +1 will control education for everyone?” — imposed a binary solution — “we will teach either creation or evolution” — and invented teams to rally around those solutions — “are you a science denier or a science supporter?” — our tribal and self-serving brains go to work assuring us that we are on the side of righteousness and truth. The shrillest and most dogmatic pundits and politicians become the most popular, feeding our sense of righteousness like southern Baptist preachers.

This is your brain on politics, and these are the people that an overly politicized world creates. And it’s inevitable if politics continues to take over more of our deepest, most divergent values.

Classical liberal and libertarian principles are about providing an operating system for free and diverse people to thrive cooperatively rather than combatively, creating a Minecraft for human ingenuity and flourishing rather than a Call of Duty fight to the death. Limiting the scope of political decision-making creates a type of mutual disarmament — “I won’t try to control your education or health care if you don’t try to control mine.”

Minimal government has virtues beyond lower debt, less crowded prisons, and less militarized police. It might even save your family.

Trevor Burrus is a research fellow at the Cato Institute’s Center for Constitutional Studies.

Obama Warmly Legitimizes Cuban Dictatorship

Nat Hentoff

I have long been reporting on Castro-ruled Cuba and, indeed, was there not long after Fidel Castro had taken over the country. What became clear, as the number of Castro’s political prisoners increased, was that his revolutionary Cuba was a dictatorship, like the regime he had ousted.

After I wrote that, a member of his administration rebuked me for my rank ignorance.

I responded by saying that he knew that if I were a Cuban in Cuba, I would be in prison.

Later, at the United Nations, I was one of a number of reporters interviewing Che Guevara, the young, dashing Latin American revolutionary who had acquired fans among many American college students.

Sitting by his side that day was a translator; we had been told he could not conduct an interview in English.

I asked him: “Mr. Guevara, can you see at any time in the future when there might be elections by freedom of choice in Cuba?”

Without waiting for the translator, Guevara burst out laughing, saying: “Aqui? In Cuba?”

I kept reporting — often using sources from within Cuba that I cannot, for their sake, name — details about the impact of the dictatorship. For example, kids who heard their parents criticize Fidel were required to inform the authorities.

Currently, Cuba is under the active leadership of Raul Castro, who is not markedly different from his brother.

In The Wall Street Journal last week, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, whose parents fled Cuba to live here in freedom, declares “it has been the policy and law of the U.S. to make clear that re-establishing diplomatic and economic relations with Cuba is possible — but only once the Cuban government stops jailing political opponents, protects free speech, and allows independent political parties to be formed and to participate in free and fair elections” (“A Victory for Oppression,” Marco Rubio, The Wall Street Journal, Dec. 17).

“The opportunity for Cuba to normalize relations with the U.S. has always been there, but the Castro regime has never been interested in changing its ways.

“Now, thanks to President Obama’s concessions, the regime in Cuba won’t have to change.”

I can still hear Che Guevara laughing at my question about the future of free elections there. Of course, there’ll be changes in the economy, but I continue to have regular access to news from inside Cuba of the Castro brothers’ stifling dissent. I am still trying to establish indirect contact and even talk with some of the prisoners I know.

In The Washington Post, Philip Rucker reports on Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul’s and Rubio’s opposing views on U.S.-Cuba relations, “evidence of a growing GOP rift over foreign affairs that could shape the party’s 2016 presidential primaries” (“In Paul-Rubio feud over Cuba, a preview of GOP’s 2016 foreign policy debate,” Philip Rucker, The Washington Post, Dec. 19).

Rucker cites Paul’s Dec. 19 op-ed in Time magazine, where the senator wrote: “Communism can’t survive the captivating allure of capitalism. Let’s overwhelm the Castro regime with iPhones, iPads, American cars and American ingenuity” (“Cuba Isolationists Just Don’t Get It,” Rand Paul, Time magazine, Dec. 19).

Meanwhile, Rucker highlighted Rubio’s criticism of Obama’s welcome to the Castros: “It’s just another concession to a tyranny by the Obama administration, rather than a defense of every universal and inalienable right that our country was founded on and stands for.”

Well, our presidents and members of Congress hardly ever do fully stand for those definitions of who we are, but they are supposed to explain our reason for being.

Speaking of those who defend our “universal and inalienable rights,” Brothers to the Rescue is an organization of pilots based in Miami that provides humanitarian aid to Cubans trying to escape their dictatorial homeland.

Jose Basulto, the group’s founder, expressed his frustration with the president’s new Cuba policy to WSVN, a Miami-Fort Lauderdale news affiliate: “Obama has elected himself as the new king of America, and he feels free to take any type of actions, even if he has to (bypass) the justice system of the Unite States.”

His is a sentiment that I have expressed many times.

Added Sylvia Iriondo, a Cuban-American human rights activist: “President Barack Obama’s concessions, it’s sending the wrong message to the free world and to the world that terrorists can get away with murder.”

Responding to the article in the comments section on WSVN’s website, Alberto Robles asked a question that I also ask of the president: “How about the thousands of political prisoners in cuban (sic) jails?”

And Miriam De La Pena, the mother of Mario De La Pena, one of four men whose planes were shot down by the Cuban government during a mission for Brothers to the Rescue, exclaimed: “I’d like to say that not only do I feel that I’ve been slapped in the face by a president, I feel that the justice system of the United States of America today has suffered a big blow.”

According to WSVN, she said that “as she fought back tears.”

In this country, I was surprised and disappointed that libertarians such as Rand Paul were grateful for Obama’s elevation of Cuba. Not only will the Castro brothers remain free of punishment, but now they are globally uplifted.

Nat Hentoff is a nationally renowned authority on the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights. He is a member of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and the Cato Institute, where he is a senior fellow.

Common Folk Live Better Now than Royalty Did in Earlier Times

Richard W. Rahn

As we go into this Christmas week, you should count your blessings that you live in 2014. Would you prefer to live as the French King Louis XIV did (1643-1715), or as you do today? The average low-income American, who makes $25,000 per year, lives in a home that has air conditioning, a color TV and a dishwasher, owns an automobile, and eats more calories than he should from an immense variety of food.

Louis XIV lived in constant fear of dying from smallpox and many other diseases that are now cured quickly by antibiotics. His palace at Versailles had 700 rooms but no bathrooms (hence he rarely bathed), and no central heating or air conditioning. One hundred years ago, John D. Rockefeller was the richest man in the world. He did have bathrooms but still no air conditioning. Like Louis, he and his family were still in constant danger of dying from what would now be quickly treatable aliments or accidents. Rockefeller could travel by train or steamship, or very short distances by the newly invented automobile on largely dirt roads — luxuries not available to Louis XIV.

Louis and Rockefeller had many servants to gather and prepare food for them, but they could not get fresh food out of season and had a tiny choice of food compared with anyone who has access to a modern supermarket, where one is increasingly able to purchase prepared meals of far higher quality and variety than anything Louis or Rockefeller could obtain.

As we go into this Christmas week, you should count your blessings that you live in 2014.”

My Cato colleague Marian Tupy has created a website, HumanProgress.org, which graphically details the enormous progress humans have made on nearly all fronts. People in the world live far better today than they did a mere half-century ago. World per-capita gross domestic product is now a little more than $14,000 per year, a little less than where the United States was in 1960 or where the Japanese and United Kingdom were in the mid-1970s (inflation adjusted). In October, the World Bank reported that those living in extreme poverty fell from 36 percent in 1990 to 15 percent in 2011.

Incomes in the United States, Japan, France and many other developed countries have been rising at slower rates for the past several years, primarily because of the growth of government regulation, taxation and counterproductive spending. Even so, most things are getting better. In countries with smaller and less-destructive government sectors such as Singapore, South Korea and Hong Kong, the rise in real per-capita income continues at respectable rates.


Much of the real increase in the quality of life is not captured by the numbers used by economists and the global statistical organizations, such as GDP and disposable income per person. For instance, if you have an iPad or a smartphone, you now have all of the world’s information in your hand. Before the development of the Internet and the World Wide Web, obtaining most information was time-consuming and costly. Now this information is almost instantaneous and often free or at low cost. The cost of your iPad or iPhone is collected in the GDP data, but the enormous benefit to everyone who uses these devices is not measured. Billions of people on the planet now have these devices, which greatly enhance their lives in countless and immeasurable ways.

When a pharmaceutical firm develops a drug, the cost of the drug is counted in the GDP. Not counted are benefits such as missing less work, enjoying a healthier life or surviving an illness because of the drug. The Wall Street Journal reported recently that one’s chance of dying in a car produced in the past four years is about two-thirds less than in a car produced in the 1990s. The cost of cars is counted in GDP, but many of the design benefits in safety, quality and conveniences are not.

In more than 100 countries, there are more cellphones than people, and many of these are poor countries that had few landlines. We measure the cost of the phones but not the human betterment that comes about as people can now do business and stay connected because of the phones.

The only thing that will stop human progress is bad government.

Cuba is a poster child for bad government. It was once one of the richest places in Latin America, but now many countries that had lower per-capita incomes before the Castro brothers took over — such as Chile, South Korea and Singapore — have made kings of their citizens. The average worker in Singapore makes $2,616 per month and the average Chilean makes $1,021 per month, but Cubans make only $20 to $50 per month. Per hundred people, South Koreans have more than six times the number of cellphones, and those in Singapore have eight times the number of cellphones as Cubans. Compared with Cuba, these countries are free market democracies.

I expect that if Louis XIV were to return, he would prefer the life of the average citizen of most countries today — but not Cuba or North Korea — to the one that he had.

Richard W. Rahn is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and chairman of the Institute for Global Economic Growth.

Yes, of Course We Should Lift The Cuban Embargo

Scott Lincicome

President Obama’s announcement last week that his administration will seek to normalize relations with Cuba elicited strong opposition from many freedom-loving conservatives. Several aspects of the deal — the prisoner swaps, the president’s unilateralism and rhetoric, the timing, and so on — probably warrant scrutiny and, in some cases, even scorn. But one aspect deserves support from those who stand for free markets, limited government, and individual liberty: an end to the Cuban embargo’s trade and travel restrictions.

It’s far from clear that the president’s actions will actually achieve these ends, and it’s certainly clear that the proper way to achieve them is through the legislative process. But there really can be no doubt that, as a general matter, it’s past time for the embargo to go.

Communist-hating lovers of liberty have offered myriad reasons to oppose the current Cuban embargo (see, for example, hereand here), but today I want to focus on the most basic: over the last two decades, the United States government has utterly failed to justify its forcible, legislated ban on Americans’ freedom of travel, contract, and commerce. Because we live in a country of natural rights and limited, constitutional government, the state alone bears a heavy burden of proving that its restrictions on individual liberty are in fact warranted. In the case of free trade, and especially freedom of movement, this means that there is a strong presumption in favor of Americans’ right to freely travel to wherever they want, and transact with whomever they want — one that may only be overcome where the state establishes a compelling interest in prohibiting or limiting those actions.

The U.S. government had two decades to prove its Cuban embargo would work. It failed.”

One such compelling interest is national security, something even a hardcore free trader like Milton Friedman has acknowledged is a perfectly sound justification for trade and investment restrictions. It’s for this reason that even most libertarian free traders do not oppose, for example, multilateral attempts to isolate and impoverish rogue regimes actively seeking and spreading weapons of mass destruction.

The Cuban Embargo Has Not Changed Regimes Nor Deterred Investments

In the case of Cuban embargo, however, the federal government has failed to meet its basic burden of proof. First, legislation codifying the embargo — i.e., the “Helms-Burton” Act of 1996 — has not achieved either of its two primary objectives: regime change and foreign investment deterrence. The first failed objective is manifest: the Castros remain in power and the Cuban government continues to pursue its particularly-thuggish form of authoritarian communism. The second failed objective is almost as obvious: according to a running tally by the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, approximately 4,500 companies from over 100 countries import to, export from, provide services to, or have investments within Cuba.

A quick perusal of this tally makes clear that these companies and countries are not only from fellow Bolivarian revolutionaries like Bolivia and Venezuela or global troublemakers like Russia; they also are respected multinationals from many of America’s closest allies in North America, Europe, and Asia. Indeed, when Helms-Burton was enacted, many of these very same allies immediately refused to participate in the United States’ isolation plans and in fact actively opposed them, passing legislation preventing their companies from complying with the law.

The failure of the Helms-Burton to dislodge the Castros or deter foreign trade and investment really should come as no surprise: the last few decades are littered with examples of similarly-ambitious unilateral sanctions failing to achieve their stated economic and foreign policy objectives. It’s for this reason that the policy tool has mostly fallen out of favor in Washington (among both Republicans and Democrats) and has engendered opposition from even some of the staunchest of American foreign policy hawks. But, hey, don’t take my word for it; take Dick Cheney’s:

I am not automatically, absolutely opposed to all sanctions. I think there are occasions when an appropriate policy response by the United States is to impose sanctions on some foreign government. But those occasions are relatively few. I think in most cases they are appropriate only where we can think in terms of multilateral sanctions, when there is something of an international consensus willing to follow U.S. leadership. Under those circumstances it may make sense to pursue a sanctions policy…. But my concern today is primarily with unilateral economic sanctions imposed by the United States. I would begin by arguing that they almost never work…

When we pursue those courses of action, the United States ends up in a position of adopting and advocating a policy that is almost guaranteed to be ineffective. It makes one wonder why the United States, on purpose, would want to consistently pursue policies that don’t work. But that is what we do every time we fall back on the use of unilateral economic sanctions. They don’t produce the desired result, in part because most of the time such policies are motivated primarily by domestic political considerations, by a desire to respond to pressure from some group or other here at home.

Unilateral Sanctions Just Don’t Work

The United States has pursued unilateral economic sanctions on the Cuban regime for upwards of five decades. During a Cold War, pre-World Trade Organization (WTO) period of immobile capital, these trade and travel restrictions very likely achieved significant U.S. foreign policy and national security gains. It is extremely difficult, however, to continue to make that case given today’s economic realities. The Cuban regime trades with almost everyone (China, Canada, Europe, and Brazil are among its top export partners, to the total of about $20 billion per year); Cuban exports have recovered to pre-Cold War levels; Cuba has access to internationally-traded, fully-convertible currencies like Euros, Canadian Dollars, and Yen; Cuba is a full member of the WTO (unlike Iran, North Korea, and others); and it even conducts hundreds of millions of dollars of annual trade with the United States — yes, the United States — every year. To argue that the embargo somehow isolates the Cuban regime from anyone other than American travelers, exporters, and consumers simply defies reality.

The federal government also has proven unable to justify the Cuban embargo on broader national security grounds. Unlike Iran or North Korea, there are no indications that Cuba is seeking nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction. Given the death of the Soviet Empire, is extremely hard to believe that this little, impoverished island presents an imminent and tangible threat to the United States — especially one that could be thwarted by unilateral (key word: unilateral) economic sanctions. Indeed, according to a study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office during the Bush administration, a strong argument can be made that the Cuban embargo has diverted finite government resources from other, more serious national security threats. But, again, don’t take my word for it; here’s Naval War College professor (and self-avowed commie hater) Tom Nichols:


Even the fact that Cuba remains on the State Department’s list of “State Sponsors of Terrorism” is unpersuasive. According to the most recent State Department report, “There was no indication that the Cuban government provided weapons or paramilitary training to terrorist groups,” and the report’s brief entry on Cuba stands in stark contrast to the laundry list of violations undertaken by the other countries listed: Iran, Sudan, and Syria. (In case you’re wondering, Bush administration reports were equally sparse.) The open diplomatic relations of U.S. allies, such as Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom, with Cuba reinforce these conclusions, as does the fact that the United States’ maintains normalized economic relations with many other countries that have less-than-stellar foreign policy credentials. This certainly isn’t intended to endorse the left-wing fever dreams of a peaceful Cuban paradise, but it should call into serious question the trade and travel treatment that the United States reserves for only the worst of the world’s worst.

The United States Typically Doesn’t Restrict Travel for Human Rights Concerns

Finally, there is the issue of human rights. The United States government arguably could have justified the Cuban embargo on such grounds if not for the obvious fact that the government doesn’t restrict its citizens’ trade with, and travel to, many countries that have similar, if not worse, records on human rights and political freedoms than Cuba. Thus, the U.S. government does not, as a general policy, view basic human rights concerns as a sufficiently compelling reason to prohibit Americans’ free movement and commerce.

Indeed, the government not only has normalized trade relations with the likes of China, Eritrea, Uzbekistan, and Burma, but it is actually actively negotiating a free trade agreement (the Trans-Pacific Partnership) with Brunei and Vietnam, the latter of which was recently found to have about the same level of human rights problems as Cuba. The federal government has provided no compelling reason for this disparate treatment, and certainly hasn’t demonstrate that the embargo somehow improves human rights in Cuba. It therefore once again has failed to justify its forcible restrictions on Americans’ basic freedoms.

The repeated response to these facts is not that they are wrong, but that they fail to justify a change in the status quo — in other words, that the embargo should stay unless I and other Americans can demonstrate that free trade and travel would markedly improve the situation in Cuba or, at the very least, not make things worse. This argument, however, gets things totally backwards (although I’m certainly willing to defend the benefits of trade and engagement in almost all instances).

Americans Have the Presumption of Liberty

As noted above, in our system of natural rights and enumerated government powers, the burden falls not on American citizens to demonstrate the value of their liberty in the face of state intervention but instead squarely on the state to justify that intervention. This basic concept — this “presumption of liberty” — is relatively uncontroversial among most conservatives when it comes to government intrusions like Obamacare mandates, eminent domain, or civil asset forfeiture. It’s even well-accepted for other trade issues like sugar quotas — that government impediments to free commerce should be removed unless the state provides a legitimate and compelling reason to keep them.

When it comes to Cuba, however, a different standard emerges: the presumption inexplicably favors the state’s restriction on free trade and travel, and the citizen must demonstrate, often impossibly, that said restrictions are deleterious to not only himself but also both the United States and Cuba (and that lifting them wouldn’t make things worse). I’d expect such a position from left-wing, illiberal audiences (and even President Obama), but not from freedom-loving, Constitution-citing conservatives and libertarians.

Moreover, the argument that the United States should only lift the embargo in response to Cuban economic and foreign policy changes imposes a nonsensical reciprocal element on what is clearly a unilateral issue. The United States government need not wait for another country to act before it expands the liberty and well-being of its own citizens. In this way, policy changes that enhance individual liberty (like free trade) differ entirely from the reciprocal, zero-sum world of prisoner swaps or territorial shifts. The removal of trade and travel restrictions is valuable regardless of what any other country says or does, especially a tiny, tinpot dictatorship. To argue otherwise is essentially to advocate “Blazing Saddles” policy — i.e., “if you don’t stop hurting your citizens, I won’t stop hurting mine.” No, thanks.

Leaving all other issues — such as the foreign policy and human rights benefits of free trade and international engagement, or whether the embargo has provided the Cuban regime with a ready excuse for its failed socialist experiment — aside, the state’s failure to rebut the basic presumption of liberty demands a change to current policy. The United States government, through Helms-Burton, has had 18 years to prove that its codified ban on Americans’ rights to freely trade and travel have achieved the law’s stated economic and foreign policy objectives. The government has had 18 years to demonstrate that Cuba is a manifest national security threat or that its human rights violations are different from, and somehow worse than, those of countries with whom we have normalized relations. The government has made no such demonstrations, and has thus failed to justify the embargo on any legitimate grounds. As such, it’s clearly time for a (legislatively enacted, constitutionally-proper) change.

Scott Lincicome is an international trade attorney, adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and Visiting Lecturer at Duke University.