Global Citizenship

The article “The Global Citizen without a Country,” at Public Discourse, seemed worth linking to and quoting, as relevant to my friendly feud with Bryan Caplan, and to his long-running battles with Steve Sailer and Mark Krikorian. The article is about the “global citizen” movement, which I had never heard of, but which seems to be at least as significant a phenomenon as what Dylan Matthews (it takes an outsider to bestow such a label) calls the open borders “movement.” The scale of it is impressive:

Within a few years of the September 11 attacks, anyone on a university campus could observe the steady growth of programs and institutes promoting global citizenship. By 2009, a number of my students on a study-abroad trip to the Middle East preferred to be known as global citizens rather than Americans. President Obama, who had proclaimed himself a “citizen of the world” the previous summer, was inaugurated the night we climbed Mount Sinai, and even the brand of water we purchased at the summit— “Baraka”—seemed to proclaim a new world order.

Of the top fifty U.S. News & World Report national universities, 60 percent have programs that identify or describe themselves in terms of global citizenship. So do over half of the top twenty-five colleges. Nearly all of these programs were founded or re-branded since 2001. This is remarkable, but understandable: who would deny that we have responsibilities to the rest of the world, or that we have loyalties beyond our own country? Who doesn’t want our universities to teach more effectively about the rest of the world?

The promise of global citizenship is as expansive as the rhetoric at the opening of a new session at the UN.

Are these people we should be recruiting to the open borders movement? It seems logical: if there is to be global citizenship, surely it makes sense that there be global freedom of migration as well. Also, what is the relationship between “global citizenship” and Bryan Caplan’s “cosmopolitanism?” Cosmopolitan  roughly means “the world is my city” in Greek, so the ideas ought to be nearly synonymous, but I’m guessing Caplan would prefer to opt out of citizenship altogether. Anyway, the author is somewhat dismissive of “global citizenship”:

To re-phrase H. Richard Niebuhr, this movement often imagines that citizens without countries will bring humans without a nature into society without culture through laws without foundation…

Actual citizenship entails formal membership in a particular political community with legally defined rights and duties. We quarrel over what citizenship means in the US because we have a common vocabulary to describe that membership. By contrast, you can easily lose your path upon entering the thicket of theory that marks the language of the global citizenship movement…

The global citizen who gets the highest praise typically works for a secular nongovernmental organization (NGO) such as Greenpeace, Amnesty International, or Doctors Without Borders. But the definition would also apply to the adherents of any world religion and to many employees of multinational corporations.

Still, none of these people has actual political membership in a global community where he must “rule and be ruled,” as Aristotle described the citizen. Religions and NGOs are not self-sufficient. Their members don’t have to debate policies that radically affect everyone in the community where they live. Above all, members’ participation is voluntary, unlike that of a citizen. Their loyalties may be “dissolved by the fancy of the parties,” to quote Edmund Burke’s critique of the revolutionary notion of citizenship in France. In short, they may contribute to the civil society of one nation, or several, but they are not “citizens” of any global entity—and some of the theorists admit as much.

The problem is not that the movement uses the term “citizenship” loosely. The problem comes from its view that citizenship in an actual country is merely arbitrary or contingent.

I agree that for citizenship to be meaningful and substantive, it must be broadly understood by the people concerned. In other words, it must be embedded in tradition, not in jargon and a “thicket of theory.”

But what are we to make of this sentence: “Above all, members’ participation is voluntary, unlike that of a citizen.” Ritchie seems to assume that voluntariness is inconsistent with citizenship. This isn’t the status quo even today. Many people are citizens because they chose to be, e.g., naturalized citizens of the USA. True, most people get their citizenship by birth and keep it, but why should this be an essential criterion of citizenship? On the contrary, the Declaration of Independence states that “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights… [and] to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” In other words, the Declaration of Independence seems to insist precisely on the voluntariness of citizenship, the consent of the governed. It is an ideal doubtless difficult to implement and perhaps even naïve, but surely, to the extent that membership in an organized community is voluntary, any duties associated with membership are rendered more legitimate thereby. As for “the view that citizenship in an actual country is merely arbitrary or contingent,” this isn’t so much a “view” as a plain fact. I’m a US citizen because, by accident of birth, I was born a US citizen.

I agree with Ritchie is that to build global citizenship on “humans without a nature” is to build on sand, but from there on we part ways, and I sometimes find myself impressed by how well he articulates an obviously false view, as if he’s a volunteer straw man. As Thomas Jefferson understood, there is such a thing as human nature, and human rights are entailed by that nature. States are legitimate in virtue of their services as protectors of human rights.

As for “ruling and being ruled” and “debating policies that radically affect the community in which [one] lives,” non-states often have those features in a much greater degree than even the most democratic states. My family and my church are real communities in a way that the USA isn’t, and I have a real say in how they are run, while I’ve surely never significantly influenced the policies of the USA, and probably never could. Meanwhile, many of this world’s states don’t even pretend to let their peoples “rule” as well as be ruled, or to let them freely debate and have a say in policymaking. Again, Ritchie seems to be a volunteer straw man, making arguments that obviously fail for his side and cannot help being turned to his opponents’ advantage.

I am more sympathetic with Ritchie when he argues that “global citizens”…

place little value on the legal, social, and cultural histories of the countries that have protected the rights and established the social benefits they champion. Instead, their faith is in lists of principles that will be carried out sometime in the future.

Yes, “lists of principles that will be carried out sometime in the future” are no substitute for the “legal, social, and cultural histories of the countries that have protected… rights.” Real progress and prosperity depend on good institutions and traditions. I wrote, I think, quite a good defense of tradition in Chapter 2 of The Verdict of Reason. It’s too long to quote in full (here’s an ungated link), but I make a forceful argument that “tradition is the lifeblood of free societies,” because “tradition has epistemic value as society’s repository of knowledge about what works and does not work,” and “tradition is an indispensable medium for people to understand each other.”

That’s part of the reason why I resist Bryan Caplan’s “cosmopolitanism.” He breezily defines cosmopolitanism as “focusing on people’s common humanity rather than superficial differences.” The reality is that what is most superficial about us is not our differences but our similarities. We all (almost) have two legs and two arms and two eyes and walk and talk and eat and vary in weight by a factor of 3:1 or 4:1 at most, and less in height, but in our souls we are worlds apart. The Hindu and the Christian live on the same earth but in different cosmoses. What one man loves, another hates. The freedom Caplan prizes does have roots in “common sense,” though I’d prefer to say, in human nature. But it is also the specific heritage of the Christian West, and no one could have imagined modern Western freedom from the evidence of common sense alone, without the heritage of a hundred generations’ worth and more of tradition. Indeed, since Caplan sometimes seems to recognize this, perhaps we don’t really disagree.

Still, human rights are a moral reality, even if it takes a lot of tradition to inculcate in us a full appreciation of them. (Indeed, we still have a long way to go.) Ritchie praises the global citizens for their concern for human welfare…

It’s impossible to read the material on global citizenship without respecting its adherents’ commitment to human rights, peace, and global access to education, medicine, clean water, and food.

… but education, medicine, clean water, and food will be effectively secured for humanity only in the context of deep and well-grounded institutions. Now, part of the point of the open borders movement is that since it’s very difficult to build good institutions, people should be allowed to move freely to places where they are already in place. That does pose some risk that the good institutions will be degraded by changes in the underlying population, but we think the risk is manageable.

The article has a good deal about Edmund Burke, whose public career, as a defender of the rights of the Indian people against British imperialism, and of the American revolutionaries to make their own nation, but then as a critic of the French Revolution and a founder of intellectual conservatism, is an interesting case study in how rootedness and cosmopolitanism can be combined. Burke rightly believed in universal values, but understood that it is only through the customs, culture and institutions of particular communities that these can be realized, and it is on the building up of these, that most of our attention and effort should focus. That is citizenship, rightly understood.

That conclusion in no way implies that citizenism is necessary, advisable, or morally permissible. It isn’t. “Americans First” is a wanton denial of our responsibilities to our fellow man; one rarely encounters such a bluntly amoral doctrine, equally intolerable from a Kantian, utilitarian, or Christian perspective. But “global citizenship” is also a misconceived ideal, for at the end of the day, citizenship must be in a polity, and there is no global polity to be a citizen of, and we probably should not wish for one. Individualism is not enough; we need communities; and membership in communities, even when that membership is not wholly voluntary, can involve us in special duties. But real communities are more local than the whole globe.

Responsibilities to the communities one is a member of should never be an excuse for injustice, cruelty or indifference to the rest of our fellow men. In advocating open borders, I am first of all opposing an evil that is done on behalf of one form of community, the nation-state. But as open borders would transform people’s communities and identities, I am obliged to have at least vague answers to large questions about how human needs for community and identity will be met. My response is that the artificial concentration of loyalties that the nation-state has tried to force on us in the 20th century will be reversed, and that is probably a good thing. It is better for justice and imagination when membership is felt in many forms and at multiple levels, when communities overlap and interpenetrate one another, when identity is more complex and interesting than a mere titular nationality. I want, not to abolish the nation-state, but to limit its scope and power, and to reverse the stultification and flattening of identity, the eclipsing of a diverse ecology of communities by banal nationalistic pieties, and the substitution of openly coercive and arbitrary for at least notionally consensual community, that the monopolization of governance by the nation-state brought about.

See also my post “Immigration, Identity, Nationality, Citizenship, and Democracy.”

Nathan Smith

Nathan Smith is an assistant professor of economics at Fresno Pacific University. He did his Ph.D. in economics from George Mason University and has also worked for the World Bank. Smith proposed Don’t Restrict Immigration, Tax It, one of the more comprehensive keyhole solution proposals to address concerns surrounding open borders.

See also:

Page about Nathan Smith on Open Borders
All blog posts by Nathan Smith

2 thoughts on “Global Citizenship”

  1. There is a huge difference between “Americans First” as an overarching moral philosophy, and “Americans First” as the proper stance of the American government. The former is sad. But the latter is practically required in a world where Americans disagree among themselves on how to help foreigners.

    Keep in mind that US citizens have great freedom to spend their *own* time and resources to help foreigners. This is more moral than “forced charity” (which isn’t charity at all), and if Bill Gates is any indication, ultimately more effective as well.

Leave a Reply