a blog about philosophy in public affairs

Should we buy from dictatorships?

This a guest post by Chris Armstrong (Professor of Political Theory at the University of Southampton). He researches matters of global justice. Here he discusses his recent work on dealing with dictators.

Dictators have been responsible for many grievous crimes. They have left behind them a trail of genocides and ill-considered wars. Even when they are not killing innocent people, dictators commit a major wrong by denying a voice to their subjects. They also frequently squander their countries’ wealth on Western luxuries even in the face of grinding poverty at home. There is little doubt, therefore, that a world with fewer dictators would be a far better one in many respects.

This leads naturally to the thought that those of us who are fortunate not to live under tyrants ought to do whatever we can to avoid supporting dictators – and indeed to avoid incentivising the emergence of more of them. But what can we do? One thought is that we should avoid buying goods such as oil from them, because in so doing we provide a stream of income for continued repression, and remove from dictators the need to rely on their own citizens for revenue (a reliance which, many political economists believe, can lead to improvements in governance over time). Another suggestion is that we should deepen our engagement with dictators, trading with them to an even greater extent. While this will strike many readers as deeply controversial, in a recent paper I argue that this is the more persuasive view: we should probably buy more, not less, from dictators.

We can imagine at least two arguments for ceasing purchases from dictatorships (or what I will call Cessation). First of all, some argue that we might cease purchases so as to make things better for the victims of dictatorship. Perhaps by declaring that we will only buy goods from at least minimally accountable rulers, we will shift the incentives so that instead of sustaining dictatorship, our actions instead make reform more likely. Second, some argue that we might cease purchases in deference to our own integrity. If we believe that countries ought to demonstrate at least minimal accountability, say, or if we believe that the citizens of a country own its resource wealth, then continuing to buy what are in essence stolen goods is an exercise in hypocrisy.

I believe that each of these arguments has some moral force. But, as I try to show, it is much less certain that they are capable of justifying a policy of Cessation in practice. Take the first argument: that we should adopt a policy of Cessation because it will make things better for the victims of dictatorship. Refusing to buy goods from a state until it makes a change to its prevailing policies – for instance, by moving away from dictatorship – is a classic example of an economic sanction in practice. But a thorough engagement with the empirical literature on economic sanctions is deeply sobering. It is not only the case that sanctions are ineffective far more often than not. Much more troublingly, they are frequently counter-productive, unleashing still greater repression and starving ordinary subjects of yet more resources. Elites, by contrast, can typically not only weather the storm but will often prosper through their control of (licit or illicit) economic activity.

If we knew that Cessation would pay dividends in the long term, we might be prepared to accept some of this short-term pain. But could we accept our role in stimulating increased repression if we lacked any real-world examples of Cessation bringing about political reform, whereas short-term harms including increased repression and torture appear all but certain? That appears to be more or less the situation we face, and in that light the case for Cessation seems to me to be formidably hard to make.

Our second argument suggests that acting on our moral principles – including, perhaps, our respect for democracy, or the property rights of the victims of dictators – possesses a non-instrumental value which might perhaps justify imposing some further costs on those victims. It does seem plausible that acting on our principles can be the right thing to do even at some cost to those we care about: this is why telling the hurtful truth to loved ones is sometimes the right thing to do. The question at hand, however, is whether holding dear to our own principles is important enough to outweigh an increase in poverty, repression, and death which will affect some of the world’s worst-off people. If I am right, there is a substantial chance that this is what Cessation will bring about. Again, I do not believe that the moral scales tilt in favour of Cessation if these are indeed the likely outcomes. The symbolic rejection of despicable practices can be extremely important. But when this rejection comes at the expense of greater oppression, we must be deeply cautious.

The argument thus far might seem to be a counsel of despair. If Cessation turns out to be a deeply problematic policy option, must we be resigned to the continued existence of dictatorship and oppression? And must we be resigned to sending still more money the way of individual dictators?

A surprising ray of moral light emerges from the empirical literature on trade, human rights, and democracy. For many empirical scholars believe that our best way of pushing dictatorships down the path to reform is not to trade with them less, but instead to trade with them more. Diversifying our trade with dictatorships may help to build a plurality of sources of economic power, which over time can pressure dictators into political reforms, and prevent later backsliding on reform processes. Broadening our trading links with the ordinary subjects of dictatorships – as well as our intellectual, social, and cultural links – might, some scholars believe, help to protect them from repression in future. Promising further trading opportunities to regimes which agree to commit to human rights reforms – as the European Union has done, as part of the so-called Cotonou Agreements – appears to have entrenched genuine improvements to the lives of their citizens. Perhaps the best thing we can do for the victims of dictatorship is not to walk away from trade with their societies, but to multiply and deepen our commercial relationships with them. Surprising as it may seem, when it comes to our dealings with dictators, the right approach appears to be more, not less.


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  1. M.

    Pretty interesting subject

  2. ALH

    I would be interested in a follow-up post from the author in light of the current use of sanctions in an attempt to deter Russia from its ongoing invasion and (atrocious) violence in Ukraine.

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