National Egoism and Vronsky Syndrome
By Bryan Caplan
I was just at a conference where several eminent economists embraced the following principle:
The United States should adopt whatever policies maximize the per-capita GDP of the existing population of the United States, and their descendents.
It was frustrating to listen. On the one hand, any philosophy professor could instantly produce devastating counter-examples to this principle of national egoism. For starters:
1. If conquering and enslaving Canada would increase American per-capita GDP, should we therefore conquer and enslave Canada?
2. If we could forever end world poverty by reducing American per-capita GDP by a penny, should we refuse to end world poverty?
3. If we could costlessly exterminate all Americans who produce a below-average quantity of GDP, should we exterminate them?
At the same time, though, I was virtually certain that if I raised these counter-examples, the promoters of the principle would accuse me of attacking an absurd straw man. “Of course we don’t favor enslaving Canada, maintaining world poverty, or mass murdering Americans of below-average productivity.” How could I be so dense as to criticize what they actually said instead of what they vaguely meant?
After the conference, I spent a lot of time reflecting on the mentality of the avowed national egoists I’d encountered. Before long I remembered one of my favorite passages in Anna Karenina:
Vronsky’s life was particularly happy in that he had a code of
principles, which defined with unfailing certitude what he ought
and what he ought not to do. This code of principles covered only
a very small circle of contingencies, but then the principles
were never doubtful, and Vronsky, as he never went outside that
circle, had never had a moment’s hesitation about doing what he
ought to do. These principles laid down as invariable rules: that
one must pay a cardsharper, but need not pay a tailor; that one
must never tell a lie to a man, but one may to a woman; that one
must never cheat any one, but one may a husband; that one must
never pardon an insult, but one may give one and so on. These
principles were possibly not reasonable and not good, but they
were of unfailing certainty, and so long as he adhered to them,
Vronsky felt that his heart was at peace and he could hold his
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.