The Jackson-Vanik Amendment and Jewish Emigration from the USSR

I agree with most of what co-blogger Sasha Volokh says in his post on Gal Beckerman’s important new book on the political struggle over Jewish emigration from the USSR.

For example, it is indeed true (and in retrospect, very interesting) that the campaign united many ideologically disparate groups in the US. When I worked for Action for Soviet Jewry in the late 1980s, we had important assistance from political leaders as disparate as Barney Frank and Jesse Helms. It is also true, and and already well-known, that Henry Kissinger was negative about the whole deal, as he was about human rights in general. Recent Nixon tapes revelations about Kissinger’s attitude confirm that.

At the same time, I do have a few disagreements with Sasha and Beckerman’s analysis. Sasha is correct to suggest that much of the more severe repression described in the book “might not have applied to Soviet Jews who kept their heads low and didn’t try to leave.” But of course such people still had to endure the serious ordinary oppression of life in the USSR, including (but far from limited to) widespread official anti-Semitism. I briefly described some of this in the first part of my own immigration memoir. The most important weakness of Beckerman’s book is that he gives very little description of the lives of ordinary Soviet Jews who were not activists or dissidents, and therefore doesn’t clearly explain why so many wanted to leave. The increased repression of the late Brezhnev and Andropov periods had a ripple effect on non-dissidents as well, since they had to be even more careful to avoid offending the authorities than before.

I also have some reservations about Sasha’s and Beckerman’s discussion of the Jackson-Vanik Amendment. It is true that the amendment was never waived until 1990. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that its economic sanctions had no effect. The hope of getting it waived or repealed was likely one of the factors that motivated the Soviets to allow increased Jewish (and also German, Armenian, and evangelical Christian) emigration in the 1970s, and later under Gorbachev. Certainly, Soviet officials repeatedly lobbied for a waiver throughout that time, pointing to the increased emigration numbers as justification. The waiver was never granted because the amendment called for fully free emigration (as opposed to mere increases in numbers within a system in which the government retained discretionary power to reject emigration applications at will), which the Soviets did not concede until the late Gorbachev era. But the Soviets, of course, did not know that in advance. Moreover, as Sasha and Beckerman partly recognize, the ongoing battle over the amendment was one of the factors that focused Western public attention on the issue, and thereby gave the Soviets further incentives to liberalize emigration policy, even aside from the trade restrictions themselves. It is actually very difficult to disentangle the impact of Jackson-Vanik from other factors influencing Soviet calculations, and Beckerman doesn’t really succeed in doing so. The debate over the amendment’s effect is part of the much broader debate about the extent to which economic sanctions can influence human rights policy in oppressive regimes, which is similarly contentious.

Another small but annoying flaw of Beckerman’s book is his tendency to describe any right of center activist or organization as “neoconservative” even in cases where the term is clearly inaccurate (e.g. – in the case of the Heritage Foundation, which, especially during the period covered in the book, was led by more traditional conservatives who were on the right long before there were any neoconservatives, and believed that the neocons were far too liberal and too supportive of the welfare state).

Despite these reservations, Beckerman’s book is by far the most thorough account of the political battle over Soviet Jewish emigration so far. Anyone interested in the issue should certainly read it.

UPDATE: I blogged about the ethics of imposing trade restrictions on socialist states in this 2007 post:

Libertarianism is generally seen as requiring free trade. Certainly, libertarian thinkers from Adam Smith to the present have strongly condemned protectionism. How then can a libertarian endorse trade restrictions such as the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, which denied free trade to totalitarian states that refused to allow their citizens to emigrate freely?….

Libertarianism does indeed imply free trade between private individuals and firms. But trade with socialist governments is very different. When two private individuals trade with each other, it is reasonable to assume that both legitimately own the goods they exchange. Thus, at least as far as libertarians are concerned, the law should not restrict their transactions unless there is specific proof that one or both are trading in stolen or otherwise illicitly acquired goods. By contrast, a socialist state engaging in international trade is usually exchanging goods that it forcibly acquired from its citizens. The socialist state’s goods are either confiscated from former private owners or produced by compelling workers to work for the state (which they generally must do whether they want to or not, because there is no competitive employment market). Socialist states also make extensive use of out and out forced labor…. Just as in the domestic context libertarianism is perfectly consistent with forbidding trade in stolen goods, in the international context it is consistent with forbidding trade with socialist governments…..

Restrictions on trade with socialist states may or may not be good policy. Sometimes trade with such states can serve important strategic interests (as with US trade with the Soviet Union when the two nations were allied during World War II). Critics of trade sanctions claim that they fail to achieve their goals and may even be counterproductive. Be that as it may, restricting trade with socialist states does not violate any libertarian principles.