Citizens versus non-citizens and citizens versus rulers

We at Open Borders have devoted lots of posts to critiquing citizenism, so one might suspect that we’d soon hit diminishing returns. But the theory of citizenism, in so far as it is the main normative ethical perspective that most restrictionists use to make their arguments, conceals a lot of assumptions behind a simple framing, and it’s worth picking these apart. In this blog post, I want to concentrate specifically on an argument that Steve Sailer and others have made: the constitutional/social contract origins of citizenism. The idea is that the constitutions and founding documents of the US and other countries explicitly attest that rulers must give primacy to the interests of citizens.

Co-blogger Chris Hendrix already considered some aspects of this in the context of the United States. Being less knowledgeable or curious about the specifics of history, and more interested in the common thread behind arguments across multiple nations, I wish to approach this issue from a different angle. To that end, I’ll quote Steve Sailer from his blog post, where he quotes the Preamble to the US Constitution:

It’s worth noting that the Preamble to the Constitution is rooted much more in my way of thinking than in Bryan’s:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America. [Emphasis mine]

Sailer is a US-centric citizenist, but citizenists around the world could point to comparable statements in appropriate parts of their nation’s founding documents that affirm something to the effect of the following social contract:

  • The people vest authority in the government.
  • In return, the government promises to put the interests of the people above its own, i.e., instead of politicians working for their private benefit, they work to serve the citizenry who have vested trust in them.

The theory behind this kind of social contract is that the citizenry are ceding something — giving the government a monopoly on the use of violence — and in exchange, demanding that the government work for the interests of the citizenry. Give up something, get something in return. Sounds reasonable. (There are many objections to social contract theory, but this is not the place to go into them).

What alternative arrangements have historically competed with this “citizenistic” social contract? The divine right of kings is in some ways the polar opposite theory — it says that rulers basically have carte blanche to do what they want, because they derive their authority from God. My reading of the citizenistic social contract is thus that it is a contract that seeks to move away from a divine rights of kings framework to a framework where the rulers are bound by the citizenry. In other words, it is a claim about the mutual responsibilities of citizens and rulers.

Under this reading, then, non-citizens don’t enter the picture at all. Thus, the citizenistic framing of various founding documents across the globe cannot be construed as directly implying Sailer-style citizenism which is about favoring the interests of (current) citizens (and their descendants) relative to non-citizens. These two forms of “citizenism” are not inconsistent, but they are far from equivalent.

The hardcore natural rights argument for migration would be that if, prior to the social contract, the (prospective) citizenry did not have the moral right to restrict migration, then the social contract — whereby the citizenry cede some rights to a government — cannot confer on this government the moral right to restrict migration. If the citizens didn’t have the moral right to restrict migration of non-citizens, how could their government acquire a right to do so through a contract signed between the citizens and the government? The relative bargaining position of citizens and rulers simply has no bearing on whether citizens and their rulers have the moral authority to restrict migration. If, however, you completely reject a right to migrate, and you think that individuals have a moral authority to use coercion to stop others from living in their vicinity, then you could consistently sign on to government-imposed immigration restrictions by arguing that citizens, through the social contract, delegate their private authority to restrict migration to the government (though whether the government should restrict migration arbitrarily just because it can, and whether it should use citizenistic criteria or directly get the people’s vote, is a different question).

The moderate version of citizenism that I think does follow from a belief in the legitimacy of the social contract is that governments should work for the interests of citizens in so far as either of these conditions are satisfied:

  • The policy options being considered for the issue at hand have quantitatively negligible externalities/effects on non-citizens — this might apply to mostly local matters such as whether to increase the number of police patrols to reduce crime; OR
  • The interests of citizens and non-citizens are broadly aligned and this broad alignment is relatively uncontroversial. For instance, technological innovation is an example of something that generally benefits all. Here, consideration of the interests of non-citizens might lead to more investment in technological innovation (or fewer barriers to it, if you’re libertarian-minded) because a larger “market” for a technological innovation makes it more attractive to invest in. But broadly speaking, the direction of citizenists is aligned with that of universalists, and citizenistic thinking is aligned with universalistic thinking. On the other hand, an issue like free trade is trickier. It’s true that many economists argue that free trade is a win-win proposition, which means that the interests of citizens and non-citizens are aligned, but this position is quite controversial outside of economically literate circles. Thus, in terms of real-world political debate, a citizenistic versus a universalistic choice of normative ethics could lead to different positions, even if economic theory suggests that both positions should be aligned.

Obviously, immigration restrictions satisfy neither of these conditions — they have huge effects on large numbers of people who want to migrate, and they are (arguably) highly destructive of global wealth. And although many on the open borders side do argue that the interests of citizens and non-citizens both point to open borders, this position is quite controversial (and even open borders advocates concede that specific subgroups of natives may be hurt economically by open borders), so the second case does not apply either. Thus, conflating the citizenism of “rulers should defer to the interests of citizens” with Sailerite citizenism of “the interests of citizens should get substantially more weighting than the interests of non-citizens” begs the question.

Coda 1: Countries that achieved independence from colonial rule generally have statements and sentiments in their founding documents that specify that the rulers should be bound to the citizenry, not to a foreign power. Citizenist restrictionists may interpret mass migration as leading to a loss of sovereignty, which violates this founding document spirit. However, the link between peaceful individual migration and control by a foreign power is tenuous at best in most cases (some interesting historical exceptions, such as the case of Jewish migration to Palestine, are worth considering in more detail, but that will be a topic for another day). Also, the relevance of this to economic migration in the modern world, where the flows are mostly between poorer to richer countries, or between countries of comparable wealth, is questionable.

Coda 2: A lot of policy wonks are “citizenists” in the citizens versus rulers sense, and some of them carelessly slide into citizenism in the citizens versus non-citizens sense (eliding moral side-constraints in the process). I therefore consider it very important to bring this conflation to the fore and question it.

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