2014-02-03

Matt Yglesias On The West Bank

I don't always comment on Matt Yglesias' posts. In fact, I may never have done it before. His recent Slate article arguing for the closure of SodaStream, however,warrants an exception.

Yglesias' point amounts to a comparison of the West Bank to South African apartheid:
Think about South Africa under apartheid. Living conditions for black South Africans were bad. At the same time, black South Africans were still impacted by the larger South African economy. The various sanctions and boycotts to which South Africa was being subjected didn't microtarget white South Africans. Black South Africans shared the pain too. And so black people in South Africa in 1987 had slightly worse lives than they would have had absent boycotts and sanctions. But the point of the boycotts and sanctions wasn't to maximize the welfare of black South Africans under conditions of apartheid, it was to end apartheid. And it worked!
The question of whether economic sanctions succeeded in overturning apartheid is a highly contentious position. We might disagree about whether economic sanctions against South Africa were morally justified, just as we might disagree about whether a boycott of SodaStream is morally justified, but Yglesias doesn't argue that point. Instead, he argues that economic sanctions are the cause and end to apartheid was the effect; thus, boycotting Israeli products will result in better economic welfare for Palestinians in the long run, short-run pain notwithstanding.

Here it is in Yglesias' own words (bold added, italics in the original):
What you have there is a situation where millions of people are governed by Israel's elected government. And a minority of those people are Jewish citizens of Israel who get to vote for the government of Israel. But a majority of the West Bank's population are Palestinian Arabs who don't get to vote for the government of Israel. That is not a context that is promising for the long-term economic welfare of the Palestinian inhabitants of the area. Any time you have a mixed population area where some of the people can vote and the others can't, you have a recipe for the interests of the nonvoters to be systematically degraded in terms of building permits, access to natural resources, law enforcement, transportation infrastructure, and everything else. It's absolutely true that if you take the persistence of the situation in which Israel governs the West Bank and most of its residents can't vote as a given, that it's good for Palestinians to have Israeli factories opening up in the area and creating jobs. 
But why should we take it as a given? [...]
Maybe Yglesias is right that a boycott will translate into long-run benefits to Palestinian residents of the West Bank. Even if so, we'd need a cost-benefit analysis to establish that the short-run costs incurred by Palestinians as a result of the boycott out-weigh the long-run benefits.

Consider the case of a hypothetical Palestinian child who requires expensive, ongoing medical treatment that can only be paid for by her father's SodaStream paycheck. If the boycott results in a loss of income, that child may die. Is it good for that child to endure this kind of hardship for the sake of someone else's long-run welfare?

I concede that this may be a personal value judgement, but it's one that Palestinians ought to make for themselves. There is no moral tenet by which Yglesias can incur hardships on strangers for the sake of what he deems to be their long-run interests. That's a clear overreach - he has no right.

But wait - has Yglesias managed to demonstrate that economic sanctions indeed caused the end of apartheid? No. Are boycotts and economic sanctions the only means by which to affect change in a policy comparable to apartheid? Absolutely not, as evidenced by the many other political activities that contributed to the end of apartheid. Are economic boycotts and sanctions the best means by which to end this sort of policy? If so, the burden of proof is on Yglesias.

In short, Yglesias is making a moral case the boycott, not an economic one. If he were interested in weighing the economic pros and cons, he would do it. If he were interested in arguing that boycotts are the best tool to use to end apartheid, he would argue as such. But he merely assume that Cause X produces Effect Y and makes an emotional appeal with comparisons to apartheid. Color me unconvinced.

None of this means that the Israeli policy is justified or that it is not justified. I leave that question to those with a better familiarity of Israeli politics than I possess. But the fact of the matter is that markets make people better off, and if we're going to deprive people their human right to freely associate, we need a strongly justifiable reason to do it. To that end, Yglesias has not succeeded.