Is citizenism a commonly held belief system?

Here at Open Borders: The Case, we have devoted a large number of blog posts to critiquing citizenism. Some others on the open borders side have been critical of this resource allocation decision. One criticism is that by devoting so much attention to citizenism, we’re giving it more serious consideration than it deserves. This sentiment was echoed in a comment by Andy Hallman for instance.

Citizenism would deserve consideration if it were either plausible or popular. As Bryan Caplan writes:

As a rule, I do not respond to positions that are neither plausible nor popular.

So, is citizenism either plausible or popular? If we look at the explicit origins of citizenism, we might be tempted to think otherwise. The term “citizenism” has been coined by Steve Sailer, who, while doubtless considerably more widely read than Open Borders, is quite controversial himself, and hardly mainstream. The use of the term hasn’t caught on much outside a few select circles: Sailer’s ideological fellow travelers on the one hand, and a few other blogs such as Open Borders and EconLog on the other.

Even among Sailer’s ideological fellow travelers, consent to the term is far from unanimous. For instance, the very first commenter on one of Sailer’s posts on citizenism begins with “Citizenism deserves all the scorn it gets, no doubt about that.”

I believe that even though few people explicitly subscribe to the tenets of citizenism as formulated by Sailer, most restrictionist arguments, particularly those that refer to the harms to immigrant-receiving countries, implicitly make their normative claims using citizenist reasoning — they weigh the interests of natives/citizens much higher than that of non-citizens, and view this as a legitimate basis for immigration restrictions. Citizenism is an important undercurrent in the majority of restrictionist thinking and perhaps even in some mainstream pro-immigration circles.

A more general framing it is that a lot of people subscribe to the moral relevance of countries. But, the mere assertion that countries have considerable moral relevance could be interpreted and made more concrete through a number of different normative ethical perspective such as:

  • Citizenism, the idea that national governments and citizens should give primacy to the interests of current citizens (and their descendants). Citizenism may be justified by neocameralism or some variant thereof.
  • Territorialism, the idea that national governments should give primacy to the interests of people within the geographic area of the nation-state, regardless of their citizenship status.
  • Local inequality aversion, the idea that local inequality within national boundaries is an evil in and of itself, independent of global inequality.
  • Nation as family, a variant of citizenism which asserts that the family is a useful metaphor for the nation, and that the head of family is the nation-state’s government.
  • “Maximize the average” type views, where the goal is to maximize the average indicators of the nation as it is constituted in the future, through appropriate migration, deportation, and extermination policies.
  • Love for the physical land or specific cultural capital of the nation-state as a motivator for national government policy, independent of whether people are willing to pay to preserve these.
  • “Proposition nation” theories: Here, the goal is to preserve specific values or institutions associated with the nation, such as slavery, ethnic strife, democracy, free markets, or a large welfare state.

All of these are important and they interact in interesting ways, but I contend that citizenism is one of the more important formalizations of the moral relevance of countries. Later in the post, I will return to the question of why it isn’t more explicitly embraced or discussed in mainstream circles, and why it took a relatively heterodox figure like Steve Sailer to articulate it clearly.

Sophisticated citizenism among policy wonks and social scientists

A passage from a recent op-ed by Tyler Cowen (which has been praised by David Henderson on EconLog and many of my Facebook friends) notes and critiques the citizenistic underpinnings of many policy analyses relating to immigration:

“Imagine that it is your professional duty to report a cost-benefit analysis of liberalizing immigration policy. You wouldn’t dream of producing a study that counted “men only” or “whites only,” at least not without specific, clearly stated reasons for dividing the data. So why report cost-benefit results only for United States citizens or residents, as is sometimes done in analyses of both international trade and migration?”

For some other examples of citizenistic arguments from an unexpected quarter — leftists in the UK — see here and here (HT: co-blogger John Lee for both links). Here’s a relevant quote from the latter (emphasis added, not in original):

I would guess that it remains the common sense assumption of 90 per cent of British citizens that public policy should give preference to the interests of citizens before non-citizens should the two conflict: that does not mean you cannot be an internationalist, or believe that it is a valuable part of our tradition to offer a haven to refugees, or believe that all humans are of equal moral worth and if they are in British space are entitled to certain basic rights. But it does mean that the first call on our resources and sense of obligation begins with our fellow citizens.

And this should be a central principle underlying immigration policy that the authors do not spell out robustly enough: immigration policy must be designed to serve the interests of existing British citizens, especially poorer ones. [see also our master race page] It is true that it is not always easy to work out what those interests are. It is also true that Matt and Sarah do accept discrimination on grounds of nationality (and reject post-national arguments in favour of global social mobility) and understand that immigrants do not necessarily have the same entitlements as the settled population, but this is all rather tentative and overshadowed by a far more robust and often repeated commitment to a human rights ideology that too often overtly seeks to dissolve the precious distinction between citizen and non-citizen.

In a Facebook post, I posited three possible explanations for the implicit citizenism in policy analyses and policy wonk discussions. I list them below, and you can check out the response comments I received if you have access to Facebook.

  1. The policy wonks are themselves citizenists, in the sense of explicitly embracing citizenist normative ethics, in the way that Steve Sailer or David Goodhart do.
  2. The policy wonks are just used to doing citizenistic calculations which work as reasonable proxies for utilitarian universalism for policies (such as crime policy and other local policy) that do not affect non-residents much. The underlying idea is credible: a government is intended to serve its citizens. The problem is when people move beyond a “citizenism” that has to do with the balance of power between citizens and their representatives, and the Sailerite citizenism which is about citizens versus non-citizens. The policy wonks may forget or overlook the fact that when looking at issues like trade, migration, and foreign policy, the “simplifying assumption” of ignoring non-citizens’ interests can lead them astray. Migration restrictions are the canonical example of a situation where one cannot legitimately elide the distinction. While many citizens do benefit from many forms of migration, looking at the benefits and costs to citizens is not a reasonable simplifying assumption or approximation if the goal is to look at the impact on global welfare.
  3. The people they are selling the policies to (politicians and the general public) will only be convinced by citizenistic cost-benefit analyses. To the extent that this is true, it segues into the next topic.

Unsophisticated citizenism among the masses

If critiques of citizenism were useful only in so far as they were targeted at policy wonks and social scientists, we probably wouldn’t be spending so much time critiquing citizenism. Implicit in our decision to spend considerable resources critiquing citizenism is a belief that citizenism offers a good framework for understanding and critiquing the status quo and the intuitions supporting it, even if few people explicitly subscribe to it.

Before proceeding, a caveat. The best theory for how people at large form and evaluate moral views is probably subjective emotivism aka the yay/boo theory, which essentially says that people think of things they like as moral/good and think of things they don’t like as immoral/bad. I’m personally a moral realist, so I don’t view subjective emotivism as a normative theory of morality. But in so far as it is descriptively accurate about what most people think of as morality, we should be weary of trying to overfit overarching moral frameworks onto people’s thinking about morality. That said, there are likely to be some underlying principles and intuitions that people use before deciding whether to say “yay!” or “boo!” and I contend that citizenism is the formalization of one such background framework.

Citizenism is similar to utilitarianism. Very few people call themselves utilitarians, and most people fail to “bite the bullet” on questions where utility-maximizing choices conflict with other commonsensical ethical notions. Nonetheless, people (across the range of intellectual sophistication) often resort to utilitarian logic and cost-benefit analyses in reasoning. Moreover, they find themselves convinced when others offer such reasoning in situations where they have an open mind and where the argument or conclusions do not conflict with other ethical intuitions.

In the same way, few call themselves citizenists, but many of them resort to citizenist logic when asked to offer a justification for immigration restrictions. And this includes people throughout the range of sophistication and knowledge about policy matters. (Admittedly, citizenism is not the only framework that can be used to understand mainstream discourse on migration, as the bullet point list early on in the post shows.)

Here is another piece of evidence in favor of the “many-people-are-citizenists” hypothesis. In two tweets responding to Adam Gurri (who has blogged for our site), Reihan Salam says:

  • First tweet: I’m only thinking about interests of U.S. residents, which I realize is considered despicable in your circles.
  • Second tweet: My sense is that opposite is true: most U.S. voters would happily acknowledge weighing U.S. interests at 100.

Looking at revealed preference: policy choices in areas not directly related to migration

Another reality check for estimating the importance of citizenism might be to look at policy areas not directly related to migration and see whether the choice of policies carried out by governments (as well as the policies that are supported by voters as measured through opinion polls) fit in with the citizenist framework. Note that for each particular policy choice, there could be many alternative explanations. However, each example provides a weak argument in favor of the citizenism hypothesis, and many weak arguments put together may carry more weight than a single relatively strong argument. Here are some examples:

  • Domestic welfare versus foreign aid: This is particularly relevant for developed countries such as the United States: both the governments of these countries and private individuals spend much larger fractions of money (as government welfare and as private charity) helping their relatively poor fellow citizens as opposed to helping poor people abroad. Despite this, polls show that Americans view foreign aid as the most important form of wasteful spending to cut (see here, here and here, for instance).I’m eliding somewhat the question of the extent to which any of the four forms of spending meet the ends they claim to achieve. Perhaps it is the case that the skepticism that people have about foreign aid and/or private charitable donation abroad is that they are (perhaps understandably) less confident that their donation will be properly used, because there is less oversight. Viewed in isolation, therefore, this is a relatively weak argument. (see also a tangentially related earlier blog post of mine).
  • Selective outrage about war casualties: The few thousand US soldiers who lost their lives in Iraq were a bigger source of outrage in the United States than the 100,000 or so Iraqis who died. The US soldiers had (generally) volunteered to fight, whereas of the Iraqis, a significant fraction were innocent bystanders. I’m not claiming here that the US soldiers were causally responsible for the deaths (most of the deaths were carried out by terrorist groups) but rather, that the violence against Iraqis, unleashed partly by the chaos following Saddam’s deposition, was not seen by Americans as a comparable downside of the war relative to the loss of US soldiers’ lives.
  • Selective outrage about wiretapping of US citizens versus foreigners: One of the main ways that the US government sought to comfort American citizens in the wake of the NSA snooping controversy was to say that the intent was not to spy on US citizens, but only on foreigners. Part of the implication was territorialist: it was emphasized that the spying was not focused on people currently on US soil. Part of it was citizenist: it was emphasized that the spying was not targeted at US citizens. Europeans don’t seem to have been so reassured by these promises from the US government.

If citizenism is so common, why don’t people embrace it explicitly?

Why did it take a relatively heterodox figure like Steve Sailer to formulate citizenism? I see a number of reasons:

  1. Conceptually, citizenism has sufficiently close overlap with “nationalism” and “patriotism” for people to not feel the need to identify the concept separately. The terms “nationalism” and “patriotism” have broader and vaguer meanings, encompassing a wider range of views (see the list early on regarding the various forms that the moral relevance of countries may take). These are also more emotive terms, and they play better with the masses. Citizenism sounds relatively clinical and abstract. Not that there’s anything wrong with that as far as I’m concerned, but it might explain its lack of popularity as a conceptually distinct idea.
  2. Progressive and left-of-center individuals who embrace some citizenist ideas often also want to embrace universalist and internationalist ideas. Confronting an explicit formulation of citizenism makes it relatively harder to reconcile the contradictions (albeit still not impossible, but harder). By sweeping citizenist assumptions under the rug and using them tacitly, they can make their life easier.
  3. Moral philosophers often start from morally egalitarian premises (this doesn’t mean they are “egalitarians” in the narrow sense, but rather, that the weight all human beings equally, regardless of whether it’s done in a libertarian or a utilitarian/consequentialist or any other normative ethical framework). Those who have studied moral philosophy may be aware of the challenges of bridging the gap from there to a citizenistic normative ethical framework (though there may be ways). It’s easier to simply ignore the issue.
  4. Generally speaking, people take citizenism for granted as something everybody subscribes to, like the assertion that “the sky is blue” or “the sun is yellow” may be.

Put together, these might explain why citizenism is something explicitly discussed only among Steve Sailer’s ideological fellow travelers on the one hand and radical open borders advocates on the other. To Sailer, even slight deviations from the citizenistic ideal may appear like major betrayals, so he sees citizenism as being far more under threat than mainstream quasi-citizenists might. Hence his desire to explicitly formulate citizenism as an ideology to rally around and protect. On the other hand, radical open borders advocates are keen to understand the underlying logic behind defenses of the status quo in order to successfully challenge them, hence their focus on the citizenistic under-currents in mainstream thinking.

17 thoughts on “Is citizenism a commonly held belief system?”

  1. Isn’t citizenism just nationalism for countries that are too diverse to make traditional nationalism work?

    Traditional nationalism would define a collective via essential features (common ancestry, language, culture, religion, or some combination thereof). Since this does not work for rather diverse countries, you default to a nominalist definition: all current citizens.

    It’s more a makeshift because you don’t have anything better. And it is rather weak on an emotional level compared to the strong tribal impulses of traditional nationalism. But then the latter is not really an option, e. g. in the US. Or even less so in the European Union: (see also:

    In my view, this is only a question of how you define the collective, which is after all arbitrary and historically contingent anyway. And it is also interesting as a tactical question for those who want to balance emotional appeal and political feasibility (cf. the Sailer vs. Taylor exchange).

    However, the main point is always the same if you turn it into a political ideology: those in your collective should have high priority, others a lower priority. And Bryan Caplan is on to something that this lower priority can degenerate into no consideration or active disregard for those outside the collective. But any version of this type of ideology would do as a reference point for critique.

    Or am I missing something that makes citizenism special?

    1. There is an interesting aspect of citizenism as espoused by Sailer that I call the “son-of-a-bitch” clause. From

      “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.”

      In other words, citizenism does not involve asserting that citizens are empirically better individuals than non-citizens, or come from a superior culture or anything like that (though citizenists may additionally believe that). It does not use a meritocratic justification for preferential treatment of citizens. It plainly says that some citizens may well be pretty bad individuals, but they still deserve preferential treatment. To put it another way, citizenism as envisaged by Sailer is about loyalty, not admiration.

      I think this particular tenet is quite important to Sailer, but I don’t really know if most other people who may embrace citizenism-like ideas would agree to this tenet, at least when it’s put this bluntly. I’m planning to do a follow-up blog post on the topic.

      1. But then this would not be different from nationalism based on some other criterion, common ancestry or a shared language and culture. Merit does not enter into this, just that you happen to belong.

        And it is also not necessary that you look down on others and think you are the best. Germans in the first half of the 19th century developed many of the tenets of nationalism, but still at the same time e. g. often admired the Poles. (That changed only later in the century.)

    2. I’ve read Sailer here and there, and though I don’t have a link at the ready, I think he’s said something pretty much to that effect, that citizenism would serve as the modern stand-in for the ancient bloodline tribalism of old-world nationalisms.

      As a cosmopolitan, I’ve always found it a bit odd that, at least in the U.S. context with which I’m most familiar, the propensity to be a loud and insistent superpatriot strongly correlates with shouting about the evils of socialism. My thoughts this were inchoate when I read the following, but it seems exactly right. Patriotism = status socialism.

  2. Or what would be the difference between citizenism and nativism other than that the first has fewer negative connotations because it has almost none. Nativism in a strict sense and under ius solis as in the US should be almost the identical to citizenism.

    It can work because it taps into a gut feeling of “we were here before and that’s why it is our country”. But there are some tricky points. Steve Sailer likes to point to the preamble of the Constitution. However, the Founders do not write about his version of citizenism where inclusion is defined in 2013. Their citizenism should only apply to all descendents of those who were American citizens in 1789, something like Sons and Daughters of the Revolution, probably a tiny minority now.

          1. Seems like it just redirects to the alphabetically earliest page starting with the letter, which was “l”

            Sorry about the wild goose chase.

          2. One more good post of yours. Since I am not a native speaker I may underestimate how evil “nativism” sounds. So I’d give someone like Sailer his favorite term. But I can’t see much of a difference as to the concept.

            And to answer your question in the title: Yes, I think that something like citizenism has great appeal with many people. As far as I can see, it is almost a part of most cultures and resonates with atavistic intuitions. The only good point is that in an American context it has to first accomplish something hard, namely to bring together a large coalition of groups that traditionally have been at loggerheads. Nationalists in Europe don’t have to work this hard. But then it can be done, e. g. take the anti-Chinese hysteria of the Know Nothings.

            I’d think that people like Sailer are on to something. Unfortunately, it would be quite effective compared to parochial movements like white nationalism (and it is eerie how Sailer argues for a gambit that white nationalists should consider). I guess people like Pat Buchanan have a similar vision. Combine it with populism, protectionism, promises of a more stable world, resentment of elites by a “silent majority” of the working & middle class, and maybe throw in some internal enemies that many can align against (the classical choice would be Jews), and it is very potent. Once a society is on such a track (as was German society from the late 19th century on), the movement is almost irresistable and feeds on itself.

            Yet, I still think that the natural diversity of the US is a certain bulwark against this because it makes such a project somewhat unstable. As I tried to argue in the LOTF debate, maybe – contrary to restrictionists’ claims – diversity, not uniformity is conducive to liberty (or at least an obstacle to its reduction).

  3. Open borders is a typically American idea. Libertarianism originates from and is held by people in the anglosphere, with rare exceptions. This is all treated as an accident, but it isn’t.

    Go tell the people of Iceland or Ireland that what their country needs is millions of immigrants from third world countries. They will look at you as if you’ve got three heads. Why?! Why would we need that? There’s a sort of universalism to their nationalism: Iceland is for Icelandic people, Nigeria is for Nigerians etc, Their dream is that one day the people of Senegal will create a rich country maintained by the native population. The open borders folk seem to be saying “those third worlders are too feckless and stupid to ever create wealth like us, best to invite them here”.

    You can’t on the one hand talk about how radical open-borders is, and then be surprised that only a tiny handful of people believe in it. Yes, most people are “citizenists” or something like it. Especially in older, ethnically homogenous countries such as Iceland or Ireland.

    Let’s suppose (random example!) the Chinese government wanted to invade Ireland. Under open borders they need not fire a single bullet. Simply export millions upon millions of Chinese people to Ireland, and if some evil natives object, then they are racists, status-quo lovers, Enemies Of Global Maximum Utility etc,. After decades of pursuing this policy the country formerly known as Ireland will have disappeared and Ireland will now be an overseas Chinese province. So what? Who cares about the ethnicity of the population, the culture etc. All people are exactly the same, right? All people are interchangeable, and they all have the same interests, such as open borders, right? Or would the island of New China erect borders to keep out non-Chinese?

    I guess this is why the immigration restrictionists see open borders advocates as lunatics. The pathologically, telescopically altruistic anglosphere deliberately replacing itself with people who do not believe in libertarianism or open borders.

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