Citizenism: how do we deal with it?

Regular readers of the blog are quite familiar with citizenism, but for those who’re new here, citizenism is basically the view the government policies should discriminate in favor of current citizens and their descendants, relative to prospective migrants and any descendants those migrants might have. Citizenism is one of the more common philosophical bases for anti-immigration arguments. The term is due to Steve Sailer, and more discussion can be found at our backgrounder page on citizenism and our blog posts tagged citizenism.

In a previous blog post, I argued that citizenism is an important under-current in the way people think about issues related to migration, even if very few people explicitly subscribe to it. However personally distasteful it might seem to people who support open borders, they (or shall I say, we) need to deal with it. But, how should we deal with it? In this blog post, I discuss some possibilities.

Approach #1: Avoid explicitly addressing citizenism (either favorably or unfavorably), while keeping citizenistic tendencies of the people you’re addressing in mind

Citizenism is only one of many under-currents in people’s thinking. Different choices of framing can put emphasis on different under-currents. One option for open borders advocates is to concentrate on a framing in terms of equality, human rights, opportunity, freedom, justice, or what not (see our moral case for starters) that does not either condone or challenge citizenism.

The logic behind such a strategy is that most people behave citizenistically only if citizenship and national identity are brought to the fore in the framing presented to them. If we explicitly mention the concepts, whether favorably or unfavorably, or even discuss them neutrally, it primes people in a certain way that will not redound to the benefit of open borders advocates. This is not to deny the possibility of a citizenist case for open borders. However, any such case typically depends on other factors (for instance, economic literacy, willingness to challenge taboos against putting a price on things) that may be even harder to sidestep or remedy than citizenism.

Obviously, this strategy will not work with hardcore citizenist restrictionists such as Steve Sailer. But such people form only a small minority and one might argue that, in public messaging, it’s worth sacrificing the need to address or steelman these individuals if that allows for easier outreach to people who don’t have strong priors on migration.

Note that one danger of this strategy is the sip taste test problem: even if ignoring citizenism might yield significant short term positive results in terms of how easily one seems to convince people, it might lead to worse long term results once the hardcore restrictionists issue responses (whether in comments on the website, letters to the editor, or separate responses in articles or talk shows). Thus, even people who choose to strategically ignore citizenism when making the “first round” of their case need to be prepared to address it if somebody brings up citizenistically laced arguments in response — and need to address it in a way that does not make them look bad for having ignored citizenism in the first place.

Approach #2: Make arguments within a citizenistic framework, without personally endorsing citizenism

The idea here is to point to the many benefits that migration may confer to receiving countries, and in general, point to the citizenist case for open borders. Perhaps even endorse keyhole solutions such as immigration tariffs or migration taxes that are designed to meet explicitly citizenist goals. All this, without holding citizenism as a moral standard or personally endorsing it.

Such arguments may be combined with other arguments in favor of migration that describe the benefits to migrants, their home countries, and the world at large. The difference is that the benefits to immigrant-receiving countries are treated more saliently and given particular importance as a guiding principle in the design of keyhole solutions.

Approach #3: Challenge citizenism, or at any rate, challenge some aspects of citizenism

The blog posts on citizenism on our site have largely followed this approach: challenging citizenism in part or whole. This does not mean that we argue that citizenism is completely wrong. Rather, various bloggers on the site have argued that there should be limits on citizenism and that arbitrary denial of the right to migrate falls outside those limits. Bryan Caplan’s post on Himmler and Nathan Smith’s follow up post stressed this point: citizenists need to specify more clearly the moral side-constraints they are operating within, and explain why they think that arbitrary denial of the right to migrate does not violate those moral side-constraints.

Where I stand

In the first year and a half of Open Borders, Approach #3 got a lot of prominence, with Approaches #1 and #2 getting some prominence, but less so. Over time, I’ve gravitated in favor of Approach #1.

The problem with focusing on Approach #3 is that, after laying out the basic arguments, there’s not a lot to say. It’s also very combative, and tends to degenerate into a game of signaling moral superiority without making substantive progress. So with Approach #3, I’d say it’s good to make the point clearly a few times, but not to make that too much of a focus of argumentation.

The problem with focusing on Approach #2 is that it doesn’t distinctively make a case for open borders, and it plays too closely to the mainstream moderate pro-immigration arguments, as opposed to the radical brand we offer here. The moderate arguments are useful, but there are already a lot of people making them. The value of adding to them at the margin is unclear.

Approach #1, by ignoring citizenism as an explicit view to address, most closely reflects the natural universalistic thinking of many open borders advocates. In that sense, it’s more honest, even if it seems evasive. It’s honest in the same way as an atheist would be more honest not to provide biblical arguments for a position every time he argues for it — the absence of explicit coverage of citizenism correctly reflects the low importance of citizenistic reasoning in the minds of open borders advocates. Of course, it’s good to have thought through and written stuff along the lines of Approach #3 to handle pushback, and even to have stuff along the lines of Approach #2 to occasionally add to the arguments.

PS: The very fact that this blog post is the first after several months that explicitly mentions citizenism is some evidence that we’ve increasingly moved to Approach #1 on the blog.

2 thoughts on “Citizenism: how do we deal with it?”

  1. Another problem with Approach #3 is that citizenists view their position as the status quo, and thus have little incentive to provide justifications for their beliefs. They seem to view the entire burden of proof as belonging to immigration advocates. My most recent OB blog post could be seen as an attempt to call this stance into question, and we all saw how well that went over.

    There may be value in Approach #2, but in my opinion we should view it as a long-term effort. Current citizenists are unlikely to be moved by citizenist cases for open borders. On the other hand, newcomers to the immigration issue who encounter citizenship first or early could stand to benefit a great deal from #2.

    That said, like you, I gravitate toward #1.

  2. One question is how an individual should focus a particular blog post. Another question is how the editors of the blog should try to guide the overall composition of posts on the blog.

    My preferred approach for the overall composition of the blog would be to have a lot of different arguments made from many different perspectives. I don’t really think the blog as a whole needs to appeal to moderates. I see it being a tool for a “radical brand” to toss around ideas and stretch ourselves.

    In any case, this post prompted me to try and classify my own view re: citizenism, which is probably different from most others who contribute. I think I probably lean a bit toward “neighborism.” That is, I think we have special moral obligations toward those who live near us.

    I also think of the concept of being “near” someone as being related to but not purely dependent on physical distance. I think of it more as a measure of connectedness.

    So, for example, I think I might have a slightly greater moral obligation to someone in China who works at Foxcon than someone who works in agriculture because I directly consume products made by them.

    In any case, strangers who are located near me physically are much more likely to become connected to me in some way than strangers who live very far away. They could, for example, decide to give me a ride if my car breaks down on the way to work. Alternatively, they could decide to mug me.

    In any case, for society to function it is important that we trust those we are connected to, and maybe not so important that we trust those are not connected to.

    I generally think being connected to more people is a good thing. For example, I think there are a lot of benefits in living in a big city. However, I think there are some people that end up being a net cost on their neighbors because they can’t be trusted. Thus, if it were possible to only have trustworthy neighbors I think that would be a worthwhile endeavor.

    I suppose I think it is a fundamental right for people to make reasonable efforts to become less connected to people they don’t trust.

    My problem with borders as they exist today is that they are far too crude. They don’t really correspond very well to those who I am presently connected or to whom I would like to be more or less connected. For example, there are a lot of very industrious and trustworthy people in China and I wish there were fewer barriers between us. Also, as a general rule I think we tend to go too far in relation to people in the US we think are untrustworthy. That is, I think we imprison too many people and exclude many immigrants from our institutions that could be contributors.

    Anyway, I think “neighborism” is an alternative to “citizensim” that might appeal to some who consider themselves “citizenist”. Some flavors of neighborism are isolationist, but there is also a brand of neighborism that welcomes more neighbors.

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