The Universal Citizenist
By Bryan Caplan
In the past, I’ve argued that Steve Sailer’s citizenism is a moral travesty. Advancing the interests of your in-group should always play second fiddle to respecting the rights of out-groups. But recently, he presented what sounds like a universal argument for citizenism:
We live in a world of about 200 countries, a world that for all its
flaws, is relatively peaceful and prosperous. And the basis of that
order has been a set of assumptions about what the purpose of government
is that both Caplan and myself call citizenism… The difference between Caplan and me is merely that he wants to take
this order based on citizenism and blow it up, while I don’t.
Charitably interpreted, Sailer’s saying something like: “Citizenism isn’t just great for us; it’s great for mankind. Vigorous pursuit of national self-interest leads to great global outcomes.” An interesting claim, but is there any reason to believe it? Steve’s only argument seems to be that (a) most countries on earth rest on citizenist principles, and (b) the modern world is, by historical standards, awesome.
This argument is painfully weak. Citizenism is hardly a recent ideological development. Appeals to the moral ideal of national self-interest have been around for as long as the nation-state itself. Recall Cicero‘s maxim, “Let the good of the people be the supreme law” (“Salus populi suprema lex esto”). What’s novel about the modern world is precisely that aggressive pursuit of national self-interest is finally widely recognized as a vice, not virtue. Putin’s policies are bad for Russians, but we condemn them primarily because they’re bad for Ukrainians.
You could object, “Due to comparative advantage and blowback, bellicose
nationalism is actually contrary to national self-interest. The best
way for countries to help their own people is the path of trade and
peace.” A fair point, but not one that citizenists have ever
emphasized. Psychologically, the wonders of trade and peace are easier
for tolerant cosmopolitans to internalize. I’ve yet to meet an
open-borders citizenist – or even a citizenist intrigued by the prospect
of using keyhole solutions to redistribute the astronomical benefits of immigration from foreigners to natives.
In any case, the harmony between national self-interest and civilized policies is far from perfect. Bellicose nationalism occasionally pays. In a citizenist world, countries would self-righteously harm foreigners each and every time such callousness genuinely advanced the national interest. Not a pretty picture. It would be like living in a world where everyone steals whenever they know they can get away with it.
If citizenism can’t possibly deserve credit for the awesomeness of the modern world, what does? Distinctively modern ideas – ideas like tolerance and cosmopolitanism. This isn’t rocket science. When people idealize patriotic solidarity, they build repressive, inward-looking societies. When they idealize cosmopolitan tolerance, they build live-and-let-live, outward-looking societies. Sure, no country fully lives up to these ideals. What’s special about the modern world is that the influence of these modern ideals is noticeable.
Contrary to Sailer, I deeply appreciate the modern world – probably more than he does. But the world now enjoys historically unprecedented peace and prosperity despite citizenism, not because of it. The modern world exists because cosmopolitan tolerance finally loosened citizenism’s time-honored cultural stranglehold. But there’s still plenty of room for greater peace and prosperity. The sooner cosmopolitan tolerance fully triumphs, the sooner we’ll get them.