Nation as family

This is one of the many philosophical bases for anti-immigration arguments. The chief idea is that the nation is analogized to a family, fraternal organization, or small tribe, where all the members look after each others’ interests, combining selfishness with intra-national altruism. The “nation as family” idea is closely related to citizenism, which is a more bare-bones version of the same. For more related arguments and counter-arguments, visit the citizenism page.


In a blog post titled Patria, Parenti, Amici, Bryan Caplan considers the analogy between the nation and a family and notes that this fails in multiple ways as an argument for immigration restrictions:

There is however a less obvious, but far more important difference between nationalism and familial favoritism: Despite its mighty evolutionary basis, almost everyone recognizes moral strictures against familial favoritism.  Almost everyone knows that “It would help my son” is not a good reason to commit murder, break someone’s arm, or steal.  Indeed, almost everyone knows that “It would help my son” is not a good reason for even petty offenses – like judging a Tae Kwon Do tournament unfairly because your son’s a contestant.

Nationalism, in contrast, is widely seen as an acceptable excuse for horrific crimes against outgroups.  Do you plan to murder hundreds of thousands of innocent foreign civilians?  Just say, “It will save American [German/Japanese/Russian/whatever] lives” – and other members of your tribe will nod their heads.  Do you want to deprive millions of foreigners of the basic human rights to sell their labor to willing buyers, rent apartments from willing landlords, and buy groceries from willing merchants?  Just say, “It’s necessary to protect American jobs” in a self-righteous tone, then bask in the admiration of your fellow citizens.

The surprising lesson: familial favoritism isn’t just inevitable; it’s basically benign.  People know that this fundamental emotion is no excuse for ignoring the rights of strangers.  Nationalism, in contrast, is at once phony and dangerous.  Phony, because nationalists’ behavior belies their gradiose claims of loyalty and devotion to their countrymen.  Dangerous, because when people remember their nation, they forget their basic moral obligations to leave strangers alone.

In a blog post titled Are Nations Tribes? Robin Hanson takes on the somewhat related “nation as local tribe” logic:

Humans clearly evolved quite different mental modes for thinking about how to treat folks with our our local tribe, vs. how to treat distant strangers. Libertarians largely accept the usual ideas about how to treat both groups. Where they disagree is who counts as a stranger.

Libertarians limit “my tribe” to close family and small chosen communities, much as did our forager ancestors, who were free to change bands at any time. Farmer culture taught farmers to think of distant strangers as “my tribe”, as long as “our elites” said so, or if “we” fought wars together. And nation-states have worked hard over the last few centuries to transfer this feeling to nations. Libertarians mostly just don’t accept this. And though I’m not strictly libertarian, on this I agree – it is far from obvious that nations must be our tribes.

Now people usually try to be nicer to their tribe than to distant strangers. From this one might conclude that libertarians, who see more folks as strangers, are not as nice people. But not only are folks who see their tribe as smaller usually nicer to such insiders, libertarians also tend to be more accepting of mutually beneficial interactions with strangers. And economists make a pretty strong case that libertarian policies such as free immigration would greatly improve overall welfare.

As with Ezra’s comments above, most critiques of libertarian policy seem to miss this central point, by invoking standard ways to classify folks into “us” and “them.” To criticize libertarians effectively, you need to make clear why exactly “we” are a nation, rather than the entire world, or close family and friends. Alas, few critics even try to argue this point.

In the Starving Marvin hypothetical, Michael Huemer argues that even if people owe some obligations to their fellow citizens, these obligations are not sufficient to restrict the right to migrate:

Consider again the case of starving Marvin. In the last version of the story, I coercively prevented Marvin from reaching the local marketplace, on the grounds that doing so was necessary to prevent my daughter from having to pay a higher than normal price for her bread. This action seems unjustified. Would I succeed in defending my behavior if I pointed out that, as a father, I have special obligations to my daughter, and that these imply that I must give greater weight to my daughter’s interests than to the interests of non-family members? Certainly the premise is true—if anything, parents have even stronger and clearer duties to protect the interests of their offspring than a government has to protect its citizens’ interests. But this does not negate the rights of non-family members not to be subjected to harmful coercion. My special duties to my offspring imply that, if I must choose between giving food to my child and giving food to a non-family member, I should generally give the food to my child. But they do not imply that I may use force to stop non-family members from obtaining food, in order to procure small economic advantages for my children.

The quote is from Page 12 of Huemer’s article Is There a Right To Immigrate? (PDF, 34 pages).