Why We Should Trade with Cuba

The new science of neuroeconomics offers new insights into old political problems

The 19th-century French economist Frederic Bastiat expressed a principle applicable in the 21st century: "Where goods do not cross frontiers, armies will."

In my new book, The Mind of the Market, I describe in detail how in the modern world of nation states, economic sanctions are among the first steps taken by one nation against another when political diplomacy fails, as when the United States enforced them on Japan after its invasion of China in the 1930s, and these became a prelude (among other factors) to Japan's retaliatory bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941 and our involvement in the greatest war in history. More recently, economic sanctions were imposed by the U.S. and Japan on India following its 1998 nuclear tests, and more recently by the U.S. on Cuba, Iran, and North Korea.

Economic sanctions send this message: if you do not change your behavior we will no longer trade with you. And by Bastiat's Principle, where our goods do not cross your frontiers, our armies will. Not inevitably, of course, but often enough in history that the principle retains its veracity. Economic sanctions are not a necessary or sufficient cause of war, but they are almost always a prelude to war, whether you are a consumer-trader or a hunter-gatherer. Consider the Yanomamö people of the Amazon, sometimes called the "fierce" people. There is good reason for the moniker because warfare has long been a part of Yanomamö life. As the anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon discovered, however, the Yanomamö are also sophisticated traders, and the more they trade the less they fight. The reason is that trade creates alliances. One village cannot go to another village and announce that they are worried about being conquered by a third, more powerful village, since this would reveal weakness. Instead, they mask the real motives for alliance through trade and feasting, and as a result not only gain military protection but insure inter-village peace. Most interestingly, even though each Yanomamö group could produce its own goods for survival, in fact they don't; they set up a division of labor and system of trade. They do this not because they are nascent capitalists, but because they want to form political alliances with other groups, and trade is an effective means of so doing. The end result is that when goods cross Yanomamö frontiers, Yanomamö armies do not.

The cooperation that goes into making trade successful accentuates amity and attenuates enmity between strangers and can even be seen at work in brain scans. Scientists at Emory University had 36 subjects play an exchange game while undergoing a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain scan. They found that the areas of the brains of cooperators that lit up were the same areas activated in response to such stimuli as desserts, money, cocaine, attractive faces, and other basic pleasures. Specifically, there were two broad areas dense in neurons that responded, both rich in dopamine (a neurochemical related to addictive behaviors): the anteroventral striatum in the middle of the brain (the so-called "pleasure center"), and the orbitofrontal cortex just above the eyes, related to impulse control and the processing of rewards. Tellingly, the cooperative subjects reported increased feelings of trust toward and camaraderie with their game partners.

How does trust translate to trade? At the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University, Paul Zak has demonstrated the relationship between trust, trade, and economic prosperity. He shows, for example, how trust is directly related to neurological chemicals such as oxytocin, a hormone synthesized in the hypothalamus and secreted into the blood by the pituitary. In women, oxytocin stimulates birth contractions, lactation, and maternal bonding with a nursing infant. In both women and men, it increases during sex and surges at orgasm, playing a role in pair bonding, an evolutionary adaptation for the long-term care of helpless infants. In exchange games, the more subjects are behaving in trusting ways, the more money they exchange and the higher the levels of oxytocin that are released by the brain. To find out if cooperating and trust lead to the release of oxytocin or if increased levels of oxytocin lead to more cooperation and trust, Zak infused oxytocin into subjects' brains through a nose spray that is quickly absorbed by the body and discovered that it causes them to act more cooperatively.

Although there may be legitimate political reasons for imposing trade embargoes on nations behaving badly, there are economic consequences that lead directly to a breakdown of trust. By contrast, free trade makes people more trusting and trustworthy, which makes them more inclined to trade, which increases trust... creating a self-enforcing cycle of trust, trade, freedom, and prosperity.

Michael Shermer is the Publisher of Skeptic magazine, a monthly columnist for Scientific American, an adjunct professor of economics at Claremont Graduate University, and the author of the just released book, The Mind of the Market: Compassionate Apes, Competitive Humans, and Lessons from Evolutionary Economics (Times Books).