Friday, October 21, 2005
I was planning to weigh in on Steve Sailer's "citizenism" column, but I didn't get around to it when it came out. Now that Nicholas Antongiavanni of The Claremont Review's blog has chimed in, though, I thought I'd do so as well.
Just to recap briefly: Sailer is having an argument with avowed white nationalist Jared Taylor about why it would be self-defeating for immigration restrictionists to adopt Taylor's preferred ideology. Moreover, although he doesn't really say this explicitly, I think Sailer thinks Taylor's preferred ideology is, well, wrong. Or at least unworthy.
I have no interest in that particular debate. Everyone has their boundaries, debates that they deem not worth getting into; debates about white nationalism are debates that I deem not worth getting into.
But I am interested in Sailer's professed ideology of "citizenism" by which he means: that the government should act to protect and advance the interests of its current citizens. And I think Antongiavanni hits the nail on the head when he describes the problems with this as a governing ideology.
First of all, let me stress that I'm 90% in agreement with Sailer, and for that matter so is Antongiavanni, in that all three of us are basically arguing within the liberal tradition, and that's the tradition from which this notion of "citizenism" springs. None of us believe in the Divine Right of Kings or the Great Chain of Being nor are any of us Romantic Nationalists.
But that we mostly agree should not blind any of us to the problems with this liberal tradition, problems that most assuredly afflict Sailer's professed "citizenism." Here are a few:
What's an interest?
How do you aggregate them?
How do you weigh conflicting interests?
How do you identify the boundaries of the community of interest?
These are the usual problems with the various forms of utilitarianism. Sailer's not articulating a theory of ethics, but his political framework is essentially utilitiarian. I've always thought utilitarianism was ultimately bankrupt, and After Virtue - which I recently read and heartily recommend for its critique of the liberal tradition (its argument for a renewed Aristotelianism, which I was inclined favorably towards, was vastly less convincing) - fortified that conviction. Just so I'm not accused of obscurity, I'll outline some examples of the above problems.
Is an interest purely monetary? A "yes" answer would seem to be extraordinarily narrow, in that lots of people clearly prefer to trade wealth for other goods. A "no" answer raises the problem of aggregation. No one has come up with a good way of aggregating "utiles" the mythical unit of "utility" which has led some people in the direction of "preference utilitiarianism" - except that some people's preferences are much stronger than others, and how to you aggregate them? If you weight by intensity, you will be systematically rewarding whiny and needy people. Is that what you want? Regardless of what you want, the aggregation problem is real. Then there's the conflict question, which is very fundamental. Which better advances the "interests" of the citizenry: increasing economic growth (which makes the pie bigger for everyone) or expanding benefits for the majority of citizens (which slows growth, but spreads the benefits of said growth more widely)? What about trade-offs between regions, or economic sectors, or generations? Is it more important to enable people to rise socially or to protect people from falling socially? How about the trade-offs between liberty and equality? Or between liberty and community? Again, there's no good theory for how to resolve these kinds of conflict. And many of them raise questions of the definition of the community. Sailer is a citizenist. Why isn't he a Californianist? Or a humanist? Why is "the citizenry of the United States" the relevant body within which to do the impossible aggregation of citizens' utiles?
The practical answer to all of these difficulties is: the American political and economic system *is* our answer to how to do the aggregation. We have a Constitution that makes the government accountable to the people, that divides and separates powers between different layers and branches of government respectively, and that preserves a great deal of individual liberty and a largely free economy. These features - democratic accountability, non-unified government power, retained individual liberty - are, collectively, the mechanism for aggregating utiles and resolving conflicts between values.
That's a nice answer . . . except: how can you tell if the system is working well?
This whole debate began with a discussion of immigration. Immigration's economic effects divide citizens; even if immigration is a net economic positive for the nation, it's a negative for those groups who face the most intense competition, which in our system is those at the bottom of the income scale. Assuming, for the sake of argument, that it *is* a net economic positive: does that mean it serves, or does not serve, the "interests" of the citizenry? Many Americans have a romantic attachment to our country as a "nation of immigrants"; others like thinking of the country as "compassionate" and "welcoming" to newcomers; others have real concerns about the cultural and other consequences of mass immigration. Are any of these things "interests" of the citizenry? If so, given the problem of how to aggregate utiles, is it meaningful in response to note that our political system has, for some time, completely ignored immigration as an issue, in spite of the fact that large majorities poll in favor of greater restrictions, and particularly in favor of ending illegal immigration?
All this is by round-about way of saying why I think Antongiavanni is on the right track. America is *about* something; it is an ethical community in the Aristotelian sense. The strongest way to debate immigration is within the context of our community's ethics which, in an American context, means with reference to our nation's founding principles and documents and our nation's history. Citizenship is not just membership in a club; it's allegiance to a flag and the Republic for which it stands. And hence, debating the conditions of citizenship and how they should be extended is not just a debate about the interests of the club members in a bigger or smaller membership, or what class of new members they want to associate with, but about the meaning of the entity to which allegiance is pledged and how that meaning will be shaped either by accepting new allegiants or rejecting them.
Sailer makes a sweeping statement in favor of "citizenism" being more altruistic, and therefore more moral, but also asserts that our own civilization is inherently "citizenist" rather than ethnically or racially-based, and therefore to preserve our civilization by overt resort to racial or ethnic consciousness is fundamentally contradictory. But there most certainly is a strong current of racialism and ethnocentrism in Western civilization. The ancient Greeks and modern Germans are two outstanding examples, but there are numerous others. Of course, on the other side of the ledger are the ancient Romans and the modern French and Americans, who have defined their civilizations in very different terms (much more like Sailer's "citizenism" - though, of course, American race slavery is a massive exception to a concept of citizenship that was neutral at least between European nationalities, and to varying extent non-Europeans as well); and of course there is the religiously-defined civilization of the Middle Ages.
To put it bluntly: it cannot be that white people "inherently" reject tribal or racial consciousness; no one familiar with the history of European nationalism, to say nothing of the color line and race slavery, can seriously maintain such a thing. But it is probably true that America must reject such a consciousness lest it come apart at the seams. Which makes Antongiavanni's point: it is our fidelity to America, our membership in a community with a purpose and a history, that is the only workable ground for debating who and how many should become our fellow citizens.