Should Liberals Support Trade Restrictions Against Illiberal States? The Problem of Strange Bedfellows in Trade Politics

Liberal democracies sometimes impose economic sanctions or conditions on trade liberalization against foreign states that violate ethical standards in their institutions and policies. Several arguments provide reasons in support of these trade restrictions, even if reforms will not be induced in the near term. As I interpret and develop these arguments, a liberal society is an agent that should act from cosmopolitan, statist, and liberal principles. By trading with states that violate universal principles, a liberal society fails to act on its impartial reasons of concern about the violations and its statist reasons of partiality for concern about its own liberal principles. However, I argue that a liberal society also can fail to act from appropriate principles, when its own citizens disagree about the basis for its trade restrictions. Some citizens support trade restrictions because the inferior moral status of foreigners makes it acceptable to impose costs upon them. Another reason for some citizens to support trade restrictions is that the policy can be a symbolic populist expression of the people’s unity and right to rule. For citizens who endorse cosmopolitan, statist, and liberal principles, they face a dilemma about whether to join these other citizens in supporting restrictions against strongly illiberal states. They can join and contribute their principles, in which case their society’s trade restrictions will have their basis in a set of mutually inconsistent principles. But if they do not contribute successfully, their society will restrict trade on the basis of inappropriate principles from the other citizens.