It is one thing to impose economic sanctions on Russian rulers and plutocrats, that is, to impose targeted sanctions on Americans and companies that do business with them; as I suggested before, this is preferable to war for virtually everybody. It is another thing, if only a matter of degree, to forbid Americans and their companies from importing energy products or some other broad category of goods or services from any Russian exporter: this is what the Biden administration (see his Executive Order of March 8) and Congress seems to be doing more and more openly (“Biden Bans Imports of Russian Oil, Natural Gas,” Wall Street Journal, March 8, 2022):

The U.S. ban takes effect immediately and applies to new Russian crude-oil imports, certain petroleum products, liquefied natural gas and coal, according to an executive order Mr. Biden signed on Tuesday. … The order also bars new U.S. investment in Russia’s energy industry and blocks Americans from financing foreign companies that invest in the sector.

The governments of other Western countries are doing the same. These moves will directly affect consumers: gasoline and gas prices will likely continue to increase (if the expected bans were not already all priced in), pushing up the price of other forms of energy such as electricity. Ordinary Americans will be hit hard, even discounting a possible recession.

But the sanctions will also affect ordinary Russians, who are not individually worth less than ordinary Americans. At least, this is the moral postulate underlying classical liberalism, Enlightenment ideas, and the implicit values in standard political economy. Ordinary Russians, not only Putin’s plutocrats, produce Russian oil. Ordinary Russian workers are, and will be, victims of our own government after having been victimized by their autocratic one.

The idea that the Russian victims of this double hit just have to rise up against their tyrant looks morally wrong and strategically short-sighted. Sure, any liberal hopes they will rise up, to the extent possible. But would it be acceptable to starve slaves to motivate them to revolt against their master?

There is more. Wide-ranging shotgun sanctions come on top of the liberticidal powers already grabbed from their citizens by American and Western governments, and will contribute to feeding our own Leviathans. President Biden already suggests informal price controls of oil products which, especially if decrees were to follow exhortations, would create actual shortages, that is, waiting lines and eventually political allocation. The Wall Street Journal noted:

Mr. Biden said he wants to do everything he can to insulate Americans from continued oil and gasoline-price increases, but he warned that the crisis in Ukraine could have domestic costs. He urged companies not to impose excessive price increases in response to the ban.

The House speaker will not be outcompeted in the race to the bottom of the interventionist barrel as a remark of her indirectly suggests:

Mrs. Pelosi (D., Calif.) said in a letter to her caucus that the House would … review Russia’s access to the World Trade Organization.

These further sanctions are unwarranted anyway since many Western companies have decided to reduce their business in Russia or with Russian entities, either because they fear violating the first sanctions, or because of their business interests, or because they agree with the general condemnation of Putin’s bullying. Everybody now knows the political risk of engaging in long-term contracts or ventures with businesses subject to the Russian autocrat.

The systemic effect of state interventions that come on top of previous interventions and further shrink the domain of individual liberty is often forgotten; and we cannot count on politicians to remind us. Extraordinary powers assumed during an emergency would be more justifiable, or arguably only justifiable, if the standing powers of our own governments were not already liberticidal. In his book Capitalism and Freedom, whose 60th anniversary we celebrate this year, Milton Friedman wrote (prudently):

We shall always want to enter on the liability side of any proposed government intervention, its neighborhood effect in threatening freedom, and give this effect considerable weight. Just how much weight to give to it, as to other items, depends upon the circumstances. If, for example, existing government intervention is minor, we shall attach a smaller weight to the negative effects of additional government intervention. This is an important reason why many earlier [classical] liberals, like [University of Chicago economist] Henry Simons, writing at a time when government was small by today’s standards, were willing to have government undertake activities that today’s liberals would not accept now that government has become so overgrown.

A politician who believed in individual liberty would heed Friedman’s warning and keep his head cool in emergency situations.