Public choice and the Cuban embargo

One of the most visible long-term policies that is entirely foolish from an objective economic standpoint is the US government’s embargo against free trade with Cuba. Its stated purpose is to force the Cuban government to liberalize, but the overwhelming consensus outside of the US government is that the embargo has helped to maintain Fidel and then Raúl Castro in power rather than weaken them. This sure seems confusing, if one takes the US government at its word.

Stigler in The Citizen and the State:

The announced goals of a policy are sometimes unrelated or perversely related to its actual effects, and the truly intended effects should be deduced from the actual effects. … Policies may of course be adopted in error, and error is an inherent trait of the behavior of men. But errors are not what men live by or on. If an economic policy has been adopted by many communities, or if it is persistently pursued by a society over a long span of time, it is fruitful to assume that the real effects were known and desired. (1975, p. 140)

There have been ample opportunities to review the failure of the embargo to remove the Castro regime, and each time the embargo has been approved by the US government. An observer could chalk this up to politicians not wanting to appear foolish or beaten, but this doesn’t excuse everything. Newcomers to Congress or the presidency could easily look smart and decisive by changing the foolish policies of the past. The more likely explanation is that the interests whose preferences are catered to know the effects of the embargo and want to maintain it. I don’t think this is born from a desire to harm ordinary Cubans, but rather from some other desires less publicly known. Frankly, I haven’t quite had the time to study the situation enough to say confidently what these other desires are. It’s absurd to think that the US government doesn’t know what everybody else knows, that the Cuban embargo helps the regime rather than hurting it, so we can rule out persistent error. The romantic view of politics, then, is at a loss to explain why the embargo persists. It appears that only public choice, “politics without romance”, can clarify.

The basic logic exercise modus tollens looks like this:

1. P→Q
2. ¬Q
3. ¬P

(1. If P, then Q. 2. Q is not true. 3. P is not true.)

Apply as you like.


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