Archive for the ‘Patriotism’ Category

Patriotism is artificial

February 5, 2012

One of the arguments I often hear in discussions about immigration and war is that we have special obligations to our countrymen over foreigners. This idea is mysterious to me, since it seems pretty obvious that the distinction between countryman and foreigner is artificial and could not have any moral significance.

To see how it’s artificial, consider the American Civil War. Suppose I live in the state of Georgia. In 1860, I have special obligations to people in the Union. In 1861, the state I live in breaks off from the union and considers itself part of a new country called the Confederate States of America. I assume that my obligations now extend only to those people in the Confederate States, since that is my new country.

Here we see that my obligations to other people depend on choices made by politicians. According to this theory, rights come not from God (as often claimed) but from select men who have the ability to lower the moral status of a person through the stroke of a pen.

On states’ rights and wars of independence

December 2, 2010

I take the standard libertarian view that coercing another person is (almost) always wrong. Many people extend that view of the wrongness of interpersonal violence to world affairs, where they think it wrong for one state to conquer another.

Perhaps where I differ from most people is that I think state on non-state violence is just as wrong as any other kind of violence. I do not believe states have “rights” to the territory that they control. Think about it. Why is it wrong to acquire power through force (i.e. invasion), but not to maintain it through force?

Take Russia’s actions in Chechnya. In an effort to put down a separatist rebellion, Russia shelled market places, shot up buses full of civilian refugees and basically destroyed the city of Grozny.

Does Russia have a right to do this? No!
Does it have any right to rule Chechnya at all? No!
Am I saying governments should let anyone leave who wants to? Maybe!

If the Chechens were to carve out their own state from Russia, I would still say that they don’t have a right to rule it. But neither did the Russians before them. And it may even turn out the Chechens are worse off in some respects after independence.

But ask yourself this key question: under what circumstances is Chechen independence so terrible that the Russians are justified in using large-scale state terrorism to prevent it?

This is my view of wars of independence in general.

A simple request

October 28, 2010

How to convince me to be patriotic:

1) Explain why I should care about 300 million strangers.
2) Using logic consistent with #1, explain why I should not care about 7 billion strangers.

Why I criticize the USA

August 6, 2010

I am occasionally asked why I am so critical of the United States government, particularly its foreign policy, when there are other governments in the world that are much worse. My response is that I think the US government is under-criticized (at least within the US), so my criticism is an effort to balance the scales between criticism and praise. But even if this were not the case, I can think of three very good reasons to scrutinize the US more than foreign countries:

1) It’s the country I live in. Why should you put your own country under an especially strong microscope? The most obvious reason is to correct the self-serving bias most people hold (including you!……and me [gulp]). Each person likes to think he is the truly altruistic person and everyone else is selfish. This bias extends to the groups we belong to. We are more likely to think of our group as good and the other group as bad for no other reason than that it is our group. Thanks to a century of psychology experiments, we now recognize this behavior as a bias and can thus consciously correct it, which is what I’m doing when I write about US atrocities.

2) The US is the most powerful country in the world. Powerful countries have a disproportionate impact on world utility, so naturally our mental energy should center on their actions. It would be silly of me to write post after post detailing all the misdeeds of Belize while ignoring the two American occupations.

3) Lastly, I focus on the US because I believe its policies are susceptible to change through reason (naïve, I know). I don’t mean that I have the power to end the wars by crafting a knock-down argument and then sending it to Obama. I mean that reasoned argument has some effect on public opinion, and that public opinion has some effect on policy.

Steven Landsburg on ugly protectionism

May 12, 2010

In a column he wrote in 2005, the renowned economist Steven Landsburg compared the “Buy American” campaign to racism. In the column, titled “Why protectionism is a lot like racism,” he wrote:

Landsburg: Both major parties (and most of the minor ones) are infested with protectionist fellow travelers who would discriminate on the basis of national origin no less virulently than David Duke or any other overt racist would discriminate on the basis of skin color. But if racism is morally repugnant -and it is – then so is xenophobia, and for exactly the same reasons.

The Fox News Channel’s John Gibson got wind of Landsburg’s offensive comparison and invited him on to his television program “The Big Story” to answer for his horrendous lapse in judgment.

Gibson struggles to understand Landsburg’s argument, as evidenced by the first question he asks him:

Gibson: Professor, today’s big question: So why is buying American racist?

Landsburg: I haven’t said it’s racist. I’ve said that it’s ugly and it’s ugly in the same way that racism is ugly.

The interview goes down hill from there:

Gibson: Well, let me back up. The headline says, “Why protectionism is a lot like racism.”

Landsburg: A lot like racism. Yes, it’s a lot like racism. That’s not exactly the same as being…

Gibson: You can nuance it, but I get your drift. Why is it a lot like racism?

Landsburg: Well, the easiest way to see that it’s a lot like racism is take the rhetoric of politicians who have pushed this issue, look at what they’re saying about how we have to encourage companies to hire more Americans; we have to save American jobs; we have to buy American. Replace the word “American” with “white” throughout that and you will not be able to tell any difference between that rhetoric and the rhetoric that we have from David Duke.

Still unable to grasp that Landsburg is not arguing that protectionism is the same as racism, Gibson continues:

Gibson: Yes, but we’re looking at these pictures right now of a factory in Detroit. It’s not white. They’re black, they’re Hispanic, they’re white, they come from white…

Landsburg: Absolutely. And we are being asked to care more about those people because they happen to have been born in Detroit than other people because they happen to have been born in Juarez or Tokyo or wherever.

Gibson: That’s what nationalism is.

Landsburg: That’s not a whole lot different from being asked to care more about people because they’re white than because they’re black.

Later on, Landsburg asks Gibson why we should care more about auto workers in Detroit than those in Juárez, México. If you’ve read up until this point, you can guess Gibson’s response:

Gibson: Well, professor, they’re my fellow Americans. I care about people in Juarez, they’re nice Mexicans. But, my fellow Americans come first.

Landsburg: In one case they’re people who share your nationality. In the other case, they’re people who share your race. Why is one a legitimate difference to discriminate and the other not?

Gibson: Well because it’s not race! And professor, it’s a bad example. There’s a lot of black people in Detroit and I’m all for those black people in Detroit.

Landsburg: What’s different about race? What’s special about race? What is special about race that makes it bad to discriminate on the basis of race, but not bad to discriminate on the basis of nationality? What’s the difference?

Gibson: “Stealing assets is wrong,” you write, “and so is stealing the right to earn a living.”

Landsburg: You don’t want to answer it.

Gibson: I don’t think it deserves an answer.

After Landsburg’s segment ends, Gibson invites on another economist who is just as confused as he is. Economist Mike Norman, founder of the Economic Contrarian Update, is also against protectionism, but doesn’t care for the comparison to racism.

Gibson: So, I know you are also not in favor of protectionism. Do you subscribe to these arguments [Landsburg’s arguments]?

Norman: No, absolutely not. These are the most extreme and convoluted and, frankly, bizarre arguments that I’ve ever heard. To try to equate, “Let’s protect American jobs with racism,” is absolutely ludicrous. Look, we don’t hear the professor criticizing the Chinese and the Japanese and the Taiwanese and the rest of the Asian countries…

Gibson: OK. But Mike, you’re on his side in terms of…

Norman: Only in terms of — I’m not saying it’s racism! That’s ridiculous!

Gibson: Here’s my problem: since you’re on his side on the issue of protectionism, why do you find his arguments so uncomfortable?

Norman: Because I think he’s going with some kind of a moral argument. This is not an economic argument. And he’s taking it totally out of context. And it’s inflammatory, as you said. I think it’s taking it to an extreme, which is unjustifiable from an economic standpoint. And that’s why I’m uncomfortable with it. I don’t equate it to racism.

Who needs morality when we have all these graphs and equations to tell us what to do!

Ok, you’re probably wondering why I’m bothering to respond to a couple of knuckleheads like John Gibson and Mike Norman when their errors are so obvious. But I’m not responding to them. I’m writing this blog post for Steven Landsburg.

Landsburg tries to get Gibson to answer what the difference is between protectionism (actually “patriotism”) and racism, which Gibson glibly declines. That was a good effort, and it showed that Gibson should not have his own television show, but I think Landsburg could have made his case even better.

Landsburg should have begun the conversation like this:

Favoring Americans over foreigners is wrong because citizenship is not a morally relevant characteristic.

Then he should have asked Gibson, “Why is citizenship a morally relevant characteristic?” Gibson could have easily responded, “I don’t think it deserves an answer” but at least Gibson would not have wasted time with this “It’s not racism!” crap.

What Landsburg tried to express, without ever actually saying it explicitly, is that racial and national discrimination are wrong for the same reason, namely that race and citizenship are both morally irrelevant characteristics.

In retrospect, he should not have made the comparison to racism, because that opened the door for easily confused people like Gibson and Norman to misunderstand him and think that he was calling protectionists racists, which he wasn’t. He was saying that racists and protectionists are committing the same kind of mistake.

Looking back on 2010, in 200 years

April 11, 2010

It’s hard to believe that slavery was once an acceptable idea. A lot of ideas that were common in the past are unfathomable now. It appears to many people, including me, that the society we live in is constantly shredding old prejudices and irrational ways of thinking. I believe this process will continue for many more years, and will probably never end.

An interesting question, then, is what common beliefs from the year 2010 will be held in contempt 200 years from now. In the year 2200, will human beings look back on our civilization with the same kind of shame that we now feel toward the slave traders from the 18th century? What characteristic of our society will elicit shock and horror in future generations?

If society continues to progress in the direction it has been for the last few hundred years, I can venture a guess, and that is:

My prediction: I believe the commonly held view that a person’s moral worth comes from their citizenship is the most pernicious and depraved idea of our age.

It is responsible for cavalier attitudes to waging war on foreigners and an indifference and unwillingness to alleviate their suffering. I hope and pray that in the coming centuries this belief will be seen as just as wicked and perverted as we now view racism.

Here is an example of the depravity I am referring to. It is the Center for Immigration Studies’ Mark Krikorian, writing shortly after the earthquake in Haiti, explaining why the United States should not allow in more Haitian refugees:

Krikorian: The impact on the job prospects of the less-skilled American workers that additional Haitians would be competing with in an environment of widespread unemployment is a matter of indifference to those whose main concern is the well-being of the foreign country rather than of the people whose interests they are supposed to be pursuing. In short, the place to help Haitians is in Haiti, not the United States.

I’m curious to know what my readers think, so I’ve made a poll with what I believe are the leading contenders for “currently common attitude most likely to offend the sensibilities of future generations.”

If I’ve left off an important one, feel free to share your own in the comments section.

The bias for statism

March 23, 2010

If I joined Rotary International, I bet that my friends and family would be proud of me. If I joined the Ku Klux Klan, they probably wouldn’t be. The reason we commend a person for joining Rotary but not the KKK is that the two groups do radically different things. Rotary International is a humanitarian club that has spent millions of dollars on polio eradication. The KKK, on the other hand, is a racist organization that has a long history of murder and violence.

Interestingly, there is one entity that people are always praised for joining, and that is the military. This is not because everyone agrees that the military is a force for good. There are plenty of opponents of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but even most of these people do not discourage young men and women from joining the armed forces.

What explains the difference? I think it is a simple case of statist bias. We think of the government we belong to as representing “us”, so when it acts, “we” act (and it goes without saying that “we” are good). We do not extend this “we” attitude to non-governmental groups. We reserve it for the state.

A case in point is Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who has co-authored a bill with Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) to phase out private contractors from war zones. Pay attention to his use of pronouns in describing the bill:

Bernie Sanders: The American people have always prided themselves on the strength, conduct, and honor of our United States military. I therefore find it very disturbing that now, in the midst of two wars and a global struggle against terrorism, we are relying more and more on private security contractors – rather than our own service members – to provide for our national defense.

For a good column on the travesty of using “we” to mean “government”, see David Henderson’s piece on

Why internationalists should be libertarians

March 6, 2010

There are people who want to reduce the role of government in society (i.e. libertarians). There are other people who want to reduce the role of citizenship in moral calculations (i.e. internationalists). To what extent are these two goals related? If I want more liberty, does that imply that I should be more or less patriotic? If I want people to treat each other equally regardless of nationality, should I favor an interventionist state or a policy of laissez-faire?

The reason I ask these questions is that it seems intuitive to me that the less the government does for its citizens, the less they notice it, and the less they care about who is under the government’s jurisdiction and who isn’t. If the functions of government are limited to naming streets, declaring holidays and doling out medals, then whether or not you’re a member of the government is of no real significance.

If the government is responsible for its citizens’ education, hospital bills, unemployment insurance, and defense, then whether or not you are a member of that government is a big deal. I think this partly explains why there is such strong opposition to the U.S. policy of automatically giving citizenship to children born in the country regardless of the immigration status of their parents. If the government didn’t perform so many functions for its citizens, receiving birthright citizenship would be as meaningful as earning an honorary degree from Moo U.

Returning to the earlier question of whether libertarians should embrace patriotism, I think the answer is no. The reason why was articulated well by George Mason University Law Professor Ilya Somin. Somin noted that nationalism often buttresses arguments for protectionism, discrimination of minority groups and suppression of dissent. More importantly, he argues that such positions are logically required by a nationalist ethic:

Somin: Nor are these abuses simply the result of misinterpretations of nationalism by unscrupulous rulers. To the contrary, if you genuinely believe that we have special obligations to members of your ethnic or national group that sometimes trump universal principles, consistency requires that you be willing to sacrifice the rights of other groups to benefit your own, at least sometimes.

Ok, so there is some reason to think libertarianism should shy away from nationalism. But what about the converse position? Is there any reason to think an internationalist is logically obligated to be a libertarian?

As stated earlier, awarding only the citizens of one nation lucrative benefits hurts the cause of internationalism by making national distinctions more salient in the public’s consciousness and in public policy. There are two ways of remedying this problem for internationalists. One solution is to make the national government irrelevant by turning over its functions to private corporations, or in some cases eliminating its functions altogether (such as drug control). The other solution is to take the functions now done by the national government and give them to a world government.

The biggest problem I see with the world government solution is that all existing international bodies, such as the United Nations, are simply organizations of nations. If decisions at this level are made by the government of each nation casting a vote, as is now the case in the Security Council and the General Assembly, we will not have solved the problem of the citizen – non-citizen distinction that internationalists seek to abolish. The distinction between people of different nationalities will remain and may even grow stronger as decisions that affect the whole world are decided by one group of nations acting against another. This does not figure to promote global goodwill as the internationalists intend.

Corporations, in contrast to governments, have no reason to pay attention to national borders. Corporations will go to where they can make a profit, whether that’s in Denver or Dubai. As consumers, we are no different. We care about what a product can do for us and not about who makes it or where it comes from. In the free market, people consummate mutually beneficial exchanges with strangers on a daily basis without regard to those strangers’ nation of origin. This is the very kind of cooperation internationalists seek to foster, and is much preferable to the conflict and resentment that characterize the political sphere.

P.S. For those who are interested in how a society would function with no government, see David D. Friedman’s book, The Machinery of Freedom.