The philosophy of citizenism refutes the libertarian arguments about obligations to strangers and instead asserts that individuals, both at the individual level and in the actions they request of their elected representatives, should put the welfare of other citizens first and foremost, above the rights of those outside their national borders (or even of those illegally within their borders). Citizenism can be thought of as “patriotism without romance” — putting the nation’s interests first, but not feeling compelled to lie about the greatness of the nation. Citizenism is related to what some have called “analytical nationalism” (see here, for instance).
The term “citizenism” was coined by the California-based writer Steve Sailer and has been embraced and referenced by many writers including John Derbyshire and Sonic Charmer, and critiqued by Open Borders bloggers.
It is worth noting that citizenism, even if correct, refutes only the pure libertarian case for open borders. If the utilitarian case for open borders is strong enough (particularly the part of the benefits that accrue to the immigrant-receiving countries) then it is not in contradiction with open borders.
Key features of citizenism
- Citizenism places substantially greater weight on the rights and interests of citizens than non-citizens, though it operates within moral side-constraints.
- Citizenism is about current citizens, not about the people who may become citizens as a result of immigration or deportation policy. Thus, unlike other forms of “analytical nationalism,” it is relatively immune to compositional effects paradoxes. For instance, if a new person were to join the country and earn a below-average income, but were to boost the incomes of all natives, a citizenist would have no problem with this at least from the income angle, but a “maximize-the-average” analytical nationalist would have a problem. On the other hand, a citizenist would object to the deportation of a current citizen with below-average income, despite the effect this may have on raising the national average. Thus, citizenists can calmly refute point (3) in Bryan Caplan’s list of questions in his Vronsky syndrome blog post.
- Citizenism, as conceived by its original proponent Sailer, is both about the individual ethics of voters and about the responsibilities of elected representatives. Sailer is not merely arguing that governments should concern themselves only with the welfare of citizens. He is arguing that citizens, qua citizens, should be concerned primarily about the welfare of their fellow citizens.
- Citizenism is about loyalty, not admiration, toward one’s fellow citizens. A citizenist does not claim that his/her fellow citizens are the world’s best, but simply defends their interests. I think of it as nationalism without romance. A citizenist looks at his less-than-ideal fellow citizen and says, “he’s a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.”
Writings explaining and advocating citizenism
- Citizenism: Americans First by Steve Sailer for The American Conservative, February 13, 2006.
- Sailer vs Taylor Round II: Citizenism versus White Nationalism by Steve Sailer for VDARE.
- Sailer-ism by John Derbyshire for Taki Magazine, March 10, 2009, where he quotes from Steve Sailer’s book The American Half-Blood Prince.
- I, Citizenist by Sonic Charmer on his/her own blog, October 23, 2012, where he/she endorses a variant of citizenism.
- Newt’s ‘Humane’ Immigration Policy by Thomas Sowell, which does not explicitly reference citizenism but argues from citizenist premises.
Here’s a relevant excerpt from Sailer’s “Citizenism: Americans First” piece.
If you want to win at American politics, you need a moral theory. Fortunately, there is a concept that is both more practical and more attractive to American idealism than either liberal “multiculturalism” or neoconservative “propositionism.” I call it “citizenism” because it affirms that true patriots and idealists are willing to make sacrifices for the overall good of their fellow American citizens rather than for the advantage of either six billion foreigners or of the special interests within our own country. The notion is sensible, its appeal broad. Yet it has seldom been explicitly articulated.
Here’s a relevant excerpt from Sailer’s “Citizenism versus White Nationalism” piece.
By “citizenism,” I mean that I believe Americans should be biased in favor of the welfare of our current fellow citizens over that of the six billion foreigners.
Let me describe citizenism using a business analogy. When I was getting an MBA many years ago, I was the favorite of an acerbic old Corporate Finance professor because I could be counted on to blurt out in class all the stupid misconceptions to which students are prone.
One day he asked: “If you were running a publicly traded company, would it be acceptable for you to create new stock and sell it for less than it was worth?”
“Sure,” I confidently announced. “Our duty is to maximize our stockholders’ wealth, and while selling the stock for less than its worth would harm our current shareholders, it would benefit our new shareholders who buy the underpriced stock, so it all comes out in the wash. Right?”
“Wrong!” He thundered. “Your obligation is to your current stockholders, not to somebody who might buy the stock in the future.”
That same logic applies to the valuable right of being an American citizen and living in America.
Just as the managers of a public company have a fiduciary duty to the current stockholders not to diminish the value of their shares by selling new ones too cheaply to outsiders, our leaders have a duty to the current citizens and their descendents.
That implies the opposite of what Taylor claims. In reality, citizenism entails focusing on the central issue for the future of our country: limiting immigration.
Here’s an excerpt from Steve Sailer’s book The American Half-Blood Prince quoted in Derbyshire’s article:
I advocate what I call ‘citizenism’ as a functional, yet idealistic, alternative to the special-interest abuses of multiculturalism. Citizenism calls upon Americans to favor the well-being, even at some cost to ourselves, of our current fellow citizens over that of foreigners and internal factions. Among American citizens, it calls for individuals to be treated equally by the state, no matter what their race.
The citizenist sees little need for politically correct racial browbeating. Today’s omnipresent demand to lie about social realities in the name of ‘celebrating diversity’ becomes ethically irrelevant under citizenism, where the duty toward patriotic solidarity means that the old saying ‘he’s a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch’ turns into a moral precept.
Blogger Sonic Charmer has a blog post titled I, Citizenist endorsing a variant of Sailer’s citizenism:
The idea [behind citizenism] being, I think, that my opposition to open borders comes from a belief the US government should be primarily concerned with the well-being of (per Sailer) US citizens – ‘nationalism without romance’.
Fair enough. Guilty as charged. But this strikes me as a two-dimensional characterization of my views. I think what’s being missed in labeling my view ‘citizenism’ is the ‘social-contract’ component for my thinking on this (like many other) subjects.
See, it’s not just that the US government should be primarily concerned with US citizens because that’s what my ‘intuition’ tells me, in a way that I have never examined. It’s because that’s what the founding document of the US government – which set it up, described its purpose, and provides the (only!) raison d’etre for its existence and the power that it wields – actually says it should concern itself with. If (due to whatever philosophical sophistry) the US government has gotten to a point that it isn’t primarily concerned with the well-being of US citizens, then I not-so-humbly suggest we don’t need or want it anymore, and all those people working for what we call the ‘US government’ need to go home, immediately, stop wielding the power that they wield, stop cashing the paychecks that they cash, and think about what they have done. [...]
P.S. Saying that the government is morally required to have open borders because (according to hand-waving; i.e. no one really proves this because no one can, first-order analyses notwithstanding) it would maximize the World Utility Function – which is what the open borders case usually boils down to – is kind of like saying the Board of Directors of a publicly held company should distribute profits equally to everyone in the world…because that, among their possible actions, would maximize the World Utility Function. In both cases someone is seriously Unclear On The Concept, i.e. an important point is being missed: it is not for that purpose that the institution exists. Indeed it would be dereliction, a breach of their fiduciary responsibility for a Board of Directors to intentionally not act in the best interest of stockholders. Well, same goes for a government and its citizens. This is not an ‘intuition’, rather it is a (naive? childlike?) belief in a legalistic or ‘contractual’ conception of what gives a government legitimacy. But again, to fully grasp this point of view requires the ability to understand that people could sincerely subscribe to it (or believe in the ‘social contract’ mythology, if you prefer). Few seem to. I get that, it comes through loud and clear.
Economist Thomas Sowell seems to subscribe to a similar worldview, as expressed in the syndicated column Newt’s ‘Humane’ Immigration Policy:
Let’s go back to square one. The purpose of American immigration laws and policies is not to be either humane or inhumane to illegal immigrants. The purpose of immigration laws and policies is to serve the national interest of this country.
There is no inherent right to come live in the United States, in disregard of whether the American people want you here. Nor does the passage of time confer any such right retroactively.
- Are Nations Tribes?, a blog post by Robin Hanson, September 2011, for Overcoming Bias.
- National Egoism and Vronsky Syndrome by Bryan Caplan, October 8, 2012, for EconLog.
- Christianity vs. citizenism by Nathan Smith, October 26, 2012, for the Open Borders blog.
- Nativism, the Citizenship Union, and Barriers to Movement by Fergus Hodgson April 3, 2013, on the website of the Future of Freedom Foundation.
Robin Hanson’s post tries to pin down the key difference in underlying assumptions between citizenists and those who reject such conceptions:
Humans clearly evolved quite different mental modes for thinking about how to treat folks with our our local tribe, vs. how to treat distant strangers. Libertarians largely accept the usual ideas about how to treat both groups. Where they disagree is who counts as a stranger.
Libertarians limit “my tribe” to close family and small chosen communities, much as did our forager ancestors, who were free to change bands at any time. Farmer culture taught farmers to think of distant strangers as “my tribe”, as long as “our elites” said so, or if “we” fought wars together. And nation-states have worked hard over the last few centuries to transfer this feeling to nations. Libertarians mostly just don’t accept this. And though I’m not strictly libertarian, on this I agree – it is far from obvious that nations must be our tribes.
Now people usually try to be nicer to their tribe than to distant strangers. From this one might conclude that libertarians, who see more folks as strangers, are not as nice people. But not only are folks who see their tribe as smaller usually nicer to such insiders, libertarians also tend to be more accepting of mutually beneficial interactions with strangers. And economists make a pretty strong case that libertarian policies such as free immigration would greatly improve overall welfare.
As with Ezra’s comments above, most critiques of libertarian policy seem to miss this central point, by invoking standard ways to classify folks into “us” and “them.” To criticize libertarians effectively, you need to make clear why exactly “we” are a nation, rather than the entire world, or close family and friends. Alas, few critics even try to argue this point.
In his blog post on the Vronsky syndrome, Bryan Caplan points out inconsistencies between such ideologies and our deeper moral intuitions, then concludes:
The lesson: National egoists are hardly alone. They’re just one prominent example of what could be called Vronsky Syndrome. The general pattern: They swallow conventional morality whole. They don’t search for inconsistencies. Indeed, if you point out their inconsistencies, they act like you’re the clueless one. As a result, they rarely wonder if they’re in the wrong – and habitually embrace popular evils, guilt-free.
In a blog post titled the citizenist case for open borders, Nathan Smith considers citizenism and says that a case can be made for open borders even under citizenist premises — assuming the right moral side-constraints.
Further, as noted in the page on starving Marvin, Michael Huemer argues that even if people owe some obligations to their fellow citizens, these obligations are not sufficient to restrict the right to migrate:
Consider again the case of starving Marvin. In the last version of the story, I coercively prevented Marvin from reaching the local marketplace, on the grounds that doing so was necessary to prevent my daughter from having to pay a higher than normal price for her bread. This action seems unjustified. Would I succeed in defending my behavior if I pointed out that, as a father, I have special obligations to my daughter, and that these imply that I must give greater weight to my daughter’s interests than to the interests of non-family members? Certainly the premise is true—if anything, parents have even stronger and clearer duties to protect the interests of their offspring than a government has to protect its citizens’ interests. But this does not negate the rights of non-family members not to be subjected to harmful coercion. My special duties to my offspring imply that, if I must choose between giving food to my child and giving food to a non-family member, I should generally give the food to my child. But they do not imply that I may use force to stop non-family members from obtaining food, in order to procure small economic advantages for my children.
The quote is from Page 12 of Huemer’s article Is There a Right To Immigrate? (PDF, 34 pages).