Universalist defenses of citizenism bleg

We here at Open Borders have been putting in quite a bit of effort into addressing citizenism. But I think there are some defenses of citizenism that people have in their minds which haven’t been quite clearly articulated. Specifically, these are defenses of citizenism from a universalist perspective. In other words, these are defenses that go along the lines of: if everybody behaved citizenistically, the world would be a better place from a universalistic perspective. [UPDATE: As BK points out in the comments, such a defense can argue from “realism” by saying that citizenism is the only practical ethics that lies at the intersection of the feasible and the universally good, so pure rational universalist-utilitarianism, even if better in theory, is not a realistic option to consider]

A good analogy is Adam Smith’s invisible hand metaphor, something that economists over the last two centuries have worked on elaborating. The metaphor explains how, when each individual acts in his/her self-interest (subject to moral side constraints) the world is benefited more than if each individual were to act as if the interests of all individuals mattered equally. Here are a couple of Adam Smith’s quotes:

By preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry, he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was not part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good. It is an affectation, indeed, not very common among merchants, and very few words need be employed in dissuading them from it.

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.

To take another example, a utilitarian may argue that if everybody believed in libertarian natural rights, the world would be a better place, so it is okay to preach a normative ethics of respect for natural rights, even though the utilitarian may not believe in natural rights per se. Might the universalist similarly argue that even though citizenism is false in a meta-ethical sense, it still makes sense as a practical ethics for people to follow, if it yields the best universalist fruit?

I can sort of see how to make this argument, but since I’m not a citizenist, I may not actually be able to do justice to this case. Obviously, one possible universalist justification of citizenism is that it helps maintain closed borders, which you may consider good from a universalist perspective. I’m interested in whether there are other justifications that come to your mind.

Please share your thoughts in the comments.

PS: Here’s a relevant quote from Sailer:

Personally, I am a citizenist. That is not a word you see often (here are all twelve uses of the word known to Google) which is not surprising because few pundits seem to think like this.

My starting point in analyzing policies is: “What is in the best overall interests of the current citizens of the United States?”

In contrast, so many others think in terms of: “What is in the best interest of my: identity group / race / ethnicity / religion / bank account / class / ideology / clique / gender / sexual orientation / party / and/or personal feelings of moral superiority?”

Precisely because basing loyalties upon a legal category defined by our elected representatives is so unnatural, it’s the least destructive and most uplifting form of allegiance humanly possible on an effective scale.

Note: I’d really appreciate if you use the comments to address citizenism and its universalistic defenses, rather than general issues you have with open borders. For general issues with open borders, please consider commenting on the open borders open thread for November.

16 thoughts on “Universalist defenses of citizenism bleg”

  1. ” if everybody behaved citizenistically, the world would be a better place from a universalistic perspective”

    Relative to what? Citizenism is much better than narrow clan or sectional loyalties for maintaining the rule of law and good institutions in a state, but some universalist ideologies could be better. Certainly if everybody behaved as rational utilitarian universalists that would be better from utilitarian perspective than nationalism. But assuming away the “everybody behaves this way” element abstracts from the issue of which norms are most easily established and sustained.

    1. Fair point. I was offering only a starting position, and introducing constraints of realism may be crucial to justifying citizenism. If you have a case based on realism, go ahead.

      I also added a quote from Sailer that comes somewhat close.

      1. If citizenist behavior was usually the best way to generate universal good, then if everyone was a rational utilitarian they would mostly mimic citizenist ways save in the exceptional cases where citizenism and utilitarianism diverged, so having everyone be utilitarian would be better.

        1. My interpretation of the possible argument was more that a bunch of enlightened utilitarians get together and decide what practical ethics to propagate to the world at large to bear the best universalistic fruit. It’s a bit like the caricature of cynical closeted-atheist priests preaching religion to keep the masses behaving morally.

          1. To the extent that I support citizenism over “universalism” as it’s currently understood here, it’s because I believe this type of universalism is driven by a few key miscalculations which are prevented by citizenist thinking, and continued propagation of these miscalculations threatens my own interests. My basic philosophy is utilitarian.

            I’ll try to write a full response within the next two days. I like this framing of the issue.

            1. You’re probably right, which is why I called it a caricature. There are, however, various non-believing elites who have explicitly made statements to the effect that religion is what is needed to keep the masses moral, but elites can revel in their atheism, agnosticism, or sets of religious beliefs different from those needed for the masses. As Ron Bailey puts it:

              Kristol and his colleagues may worry that once this one thread is pulled from the fabric of religious belief, perhaps the whole will become unraveled, with grave social consequences. Without the strictures and traditions imposed by a religion that promises to punish sinners, the moral controls that moderate our base desires will lose their validity, leading ultimately to moral chaos. Ironically, today many modern conservatives fervently agree with Karl Marx that religion is “the opium of the people”; they add a heartfelt, “Thank God!”

              Anyway, my point wasn’t to critique religion or atheism here, but simply to point out the parallels with how universalists might defend citizenism as “necessary to keep the masses in check” and avoid a collapse of society, even as they themselves adopt a more universalist perspective.

  2. I find the controversy between citizenists and universalists very interesting.

    My take on the citizenists view is that they see the physical and political world governed by two absolute constraints:

    1. The state as a political system with citizens.

    2. The Westphalian Peace Accord creating physical boundaries of states. Before the Westphalian Peace Accord a physical state was the territory you could military control. The physical borders of the state was in constant fluid motion. There were very few limits on the free movement of people across borders since they were fluid and not heavily guarded.

    If you see these constraints as absolutes the citizenists arguments make complete sense since the state is a fact, it won’t disappear either as a political system nor will the Westphalian Peace Accord be broken.

    The universalist position makes sense if you are a believer in classic liberal/libertarian values such as inalienable rights. You have the right to move your body, your assets, your business cross borders since you do not accept the legitimacy of the state as a political system nor do you accept the Westphalian Peace Accord.

    The problem I have with most universalists is that they are only universalist in very few and restricted areas such as same sex marriage, smoking pot and immigration. They are citizenists when it comes to property rights, taxation, restricting prostitution/gambling/hard drugs/alchohol, gun rights, free speech etc.

    A further problem for most universalists are that most are moral relativists and believe in legal positivism. Legal positivism is that political system can pass laws if they are passed under a democratic order. There are no such thing as inalienable rights, only political rights given by the citizens i.e.to immigrate. Moral relativism holds that each culture must be measured by itself. There are no superior values or beliefs i.e. universalism doesn’t exist.

    So how does a universalist solve the issue that they pick and choose when being a universalist? The only strong universalist position seems to be that of a natural rights libertarian/classic liberal.

    Either way citizenists have a far easier argument to make when the constraints are put in:

    1. The State
    2. Westphalian Peace Accord

  3. Hi Vipul.

    A couple of questions:

    Why are open borders advocates like you and Bryan Caplan writing so much about Steve Sailer? Is he especially influential? Is it because you think he makes the best arguments against immigration?

    I have been reading EconLog for about three years, and have read many of his comments over there about immigration. He usually doesn’t address the moral arguments against his position, so I wonder why we care so much what he has to say.

    With regard to his quote in your post, I wonder how Sailer can really believe citizenism is humane let alone the most humane form of allegiance. Isn’t that the kind of thinking that made soldiers so callous about killing civilians and prisoners of war in WWII? Or is that all attributable to racism of one kind or another?

    1. Hi Andy,

      That’s an interesting question. The main reason we address Sailer is because, in my view, he is very good at articulating what a lot of people think but don’t say, either because they lack his ability to formulate it, or because they think such things aren’t said in polite company.

      Sailer’s main contribution to the history of human intellectual thought will probably be his formulation of citizenism. This is the best formulation I have seen of the moral intuitions shared by a large fraction of the US citizenry, and probably a large fraction of people the world over. Yet, few people have actually formulated citizenism as clinically and logically as Sailer. The majority come up with highly confused formulations of nationalism that are very difficult to rebut because of their lack of clarity. When we engage Sailer, we are not engaging him as an individual (though I have no problems with doing that either) but rather the ideas for which he is a vehicle. Thus, the extent to which he personally reciprocates our advances is not our main consideration.

      Regarding your criticism of citizenism, Sailer acknowledges the existence of moral side-constraints on citizenism, so it’s unclear where he stands on the issue. It does seem to me that Sailer seems to evade the moral questions raised by his theories, and BK presents an intriguing hypothesis to explain this (he continues in a later comment on the same page). Rather than attempt to read Sailer’s mind, however, I will simply return to the reason we engage Sailer’s ideas: it’s because of the popularity of these ideas, not because of their provenance. We consider it our job to engage ideas that are either plausible or popular. Sailer’s ideas meet both criteria.

      It is also true that Sailer is quite widely read (though perhaps not as widely cited), so even in so far as he presents unorthodox ideas, these may be worth engaging in advance, prior to their becoming conventional wisdom. In so far as Sailer is a leading indicator of popular opinion or conventional wisdom, he’s worth engaging.

      Sailer’s other contributions to the marketplace of ideas are too numerous for me to even catalogue in summary form. I will only mention in passing that his discussions of race and IQ are some of the most erudite and literate ones that are quoted by restrictionists when using race, IQ, and other related arguments to make their case. Given his stature in the IQ/race-based restrictionist arena, he might be worth engaging even there. That said, our engagement of Sailer so far has been primarily focused on his citizenism.

  4. I see citizenism is a framework for preserving many types of commons which tend to be neglected by universalist arguments, without the primary danger associated with nationalism (military aggression). The explosion in wealth that has occurred over the last two centuries has been accompanied by an explosion in the value of various commons.

    Also, while all bets are off after transformative technologies like genetic engineering become widespread, for now, citizenism protects valuable cultures and groups of people from the most severe forms of r-selection. I find the results of K-selection to be far more interesting than the results of r-selection, and would like to keep the former around on a large scale; I’m pretty sure most highly-skilled people are with me on this.

    1. Thanks for your reply, Christopher. Do you see citizenism as simply a guiding framework for governments and for those advocating government policy, or do you see virtue in individuals behaving citizenistically in so far as they make their decisions? For instance, is there virtue in individuals using citizenist rather than universalist criteria when deciding whether to donate to charity? Is there virtue in individuals being universalistic if they wish to, but still insisting on citizenism from their governments?

      1. Ideally, the government does a good job of setting and enforcing rules which protect citizen interests. If it does, there’s no harm when individual citizens support foreign causes with their own resources while playing by the rules, so I’d answer “yes” to your last question.

        If the current government is failing at important parts of its job, then there is virtue in citizens picking up the slack.

        1. Hey Christopher,
          I don’t know if you will se this, but I came over from your comment on Bryan caplan’s post.

          Are you saying that the government does the heavy lifting in protecting group interests from other groups thereby freeing up the citizens to act as individuals? Essentially creating a bubble allowing greater expression of individualism and “liberty” by relieving the citizens of having to act defensively while also preventing extreme altruism from giving the country away?

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