Nationality, Ethnicity, Race, Culture, and the Importance of Citizenship for the Individual

Judging by some of the fruitful dialogues that have gone on here in the distant past and just the other day, I’d say that there is still a lot of work to do regarding a few concepts that seem to have meaning to them but are not really well-defined or well-understood.

I am writing about nationality, ethnicity, race, and culture, of course.

Dr Stocker and myself have taken aim at nationality before, and Michelangelo has taken aim at ethnicity while Jacques has taken a few cracks at race and ethnicity. Mike has some notes on ethnic identity as well. Culture has been discussed here at NOL before, but an effort to systematically define it has not been undertaken. (Update 12/8/14: Matthew has also taken a crack at ethnicity.)

The problem of these concepts can best be illustrated with a hypothetical (with apologies to Matthew!): There is a tribe in the state of Kenya known as the Maasai. In Kenya the Maasai are more than a tribe, though. The Maasai are considered by both the Maasai themselves and their neighbors to be an ethnic group. The Maasai and their neighbors within Kenya also consider themselves to be Kenyans. The Maasai have a distinct culture that sets them apart in some way from other ethnic groups in Kenya. Most Kenyans, including the Maasai, consider themselves to be racially black.

Now suppose that a single Maasai man from Kenya goes to Syria, or Belgium, or Canada, or China for a vacation. The Maasai man is suddenly no longer Maasai, for all intents and purposes. He still has a nationality, and an ethnic, a cultural, and a racial component to him, though. The Maasai man’s ethnicity suddenly becomes Kenyan rather than Maasai abroad. So, too, does his culture become Kenyan or simply African. He is still black racially. Notice, though, that these concepts mean different things in different contexts.

Suppose further that our Maasai man goes to Ghana for a vacation. Ghana is in west Africa, whereas Kenya is on the east coast. Africa is huge, and the gulfs between societies on the west coast and east coast of sub-Saharan Africa are cavernous. Nevertheless, our Maasai man is likely to be able to identify ethnically as a Maasai in Ghana. He is likely to be able to identify as part of the Kenyan nation. Culturally, though, our Maasai man is also going to be identified as Kenyan rather than Maasai.

Confused? Yeah, me too.

Here is another way to confuse you. The Ashanti people of Ghana are considered by others in the region to be a nation, but not an ethnic group. The Ashanti belong, instead, to a pan-regional group of people known as the Akan, and the Akan are considered to be the ethnic group while the smaller Ashanti group is considered to be a nation. This, of course, comes into conflict with what it means to be a Ghanaian. In Europe or Asia or the New World, a member of the Ashanti nation would be considered instead as a member of the Ghanaian nation.

In sub-Saharan Africa everybody who is not black is white. So Persians, Arabs, Eskimos, Armenians, Koreans, Japanese, French, English, Dutch, and Brahmins are all racially white to Africans. Africans base their distinctions between whites on their different behavioral patterns. So a Sudanese man may be working with two groups of white people but he only distinguishes them (suppose one is Chinese and one is English) by how they behave toward each other, toward him and his associates, and in relation to the rules of the game established in Sudan. Race is the most prominent feature of foreigners in Africa, but curiosity about differences between whites abounds.

The combinations for confusion are endless. I have not even broached the topic of what is means to be ‘American’, for example.

This is where the importance of viewing the world as made up of individuals comes into play. This is where the abstract legal notion of individual rights becomes an important component of good governance and internationalism.

I think we could all agree that is does no good to ignore these confusing identities and attempting instead to cram them into a specific framework (“Western individualism”). This is where economists go wrong, but paradoxically it’s also where they are most right.

As I noted a couple of days ago, economics as a discipline tends to be more hierarchical but also more successful than the other social science disciplines. I didn’t have enough space to note there that this hierarchy is limited to a very small segment of society. Is it at all possible to establish a hierarchy of sorts, a unified code of laws that protects the individual but prevent this hierarchy of last resort from becoming the norm in other ways? A hierarchy that leaves plenty of space for independent networks and fragmented communities of choice?

I don’t even know how these question tie in to my title. I simply know that they do. Somehow.

From the Comments: What *are* the institutions that promote rational ignorance?

Rick answers my question:

Let’s go a step further than institutions: Instincts.*

Our ancestors survived a dangerous natural environment by taking on genetic strategies that allow us to use our big-old-dolphin-brains in clever ways, but that falls short of perfect Spock-ness. We are easily excited by certain things and will often answer easier questions than the ones posed to us without realizing it.

So besides the fact that it’s genuinely rational to be ignorant, our psychological makeup creates a situation that exacerbates the problem. Voters ask the question “will I be better off in four years with that asshole in charge or this one?” but answer the question “which of these schmucks would drive me to suicide slowest if I were trapped on a desert island with one of them?”

Let’s get back to the institutional question… Rational ignorance is a thing because we are facing a collective action problem. Through repeated play the problem of rational ignorance has created an electoral institution that rewards showmanship (playing on the psychology of voters). There are two questions: 1) Why did things unfold so that this is the case? 2) How might we change them for the better?

I suspect the answer to 1) is that people genuinely thought voting was going to be about information. Perhaps it even was at some point. And if it was successful it’s only natural that its scope would be expanded. But as its scope expands the informational issues become larger and it becomes more rational to be ignorant. (That’s one possible story but not the only one.)

The status quo isn’t going to change without a major shift in the way people think. One way to get that shift would be to fix high school civics classes (Okay, where do I sign up for sea-steading?!). I think one of the higher marginal benefit things is satire (tangent: my introduction to satire was This Hour has 22 Minutes which I watched before I was a full-blown libertarian). One reason I like Jon Stewart so much is that he fights back against the non-role of information in the political-media nexus. If “the people” acknowledge that politics isn’t about making “the right choice” in some objective sense they will be admitting the problem.

*Now, if I remember my last anthropology class correctly instincts aren’t as real as we think they are… but what from what I’ve gleaned about evolutionary psychology and neurology there is hard-wiring, or something like it, that kinda-sorta stands between instinct and culture. So I’ll (perhaps incorrectly) use the word instinct as short-hand for psychological features of humans that arose from our evolution as a social animal.

From the Comments: Race Consciousness and Stubborn Old Dudes

I like to brag about NOL‘s ‘comments’ threads to people who pretend to be interested in hearing about what I have been up to post-graduation, but lately I’ve been overwhelmed by the bad assery that’s showed up here. For instance, Dr Khawaja’s take on left-wing race consciousness:

One of the absurdities of the whole conversation is the reflexive assumption that the woman in the video IS white. She’s walking at a fast clip, often past the people who are walking in the reverse direction. It wouldn’t necessarily be obvious to anyone what her “race” was. She could be Hispanic. Is that “white”? She could be of mixed race. Is that “white”? Hard to know, hard to tell, and in my case, hard to care. Frankly, if I went by the vicissitudes of left-wing race consciousness, I’d be hard-pressed to figure out what “race” I myself am. Some days I’m an off-white beneficiary of white privilege. Some days I’m a brown victim of Islamophobia. They just seem to make up whatever rubbish suits them at a given moment, and it becomes the race-wisdom du jour. One of the great things about left-wing race consciousness is that it demands consciousness of something while questioning the existence of the very thing we’re supposed to be conscious of–and then reprimands us for not being sufficiently conscious of “it.” Wouldn’t it just be easier to stop obsessing over it?

He’s got more, too, on the video’s implications for libertarian and liberal (‘social democrat’ for all you non-North Americans) dogmas. I’d quote it all but there wouldn’t be enough room for the pep talk Dr Amburgey gave me after I flipped out on Dr Delacroix:

I can understand that it torques you. I just think you should be realistic [dare I say pragmatic?]. Jacques is sometimes intellectually dishonest. He is always lazy. He’s also old; he’s older than me and I’m older than dirt. He’s not going to change. When he says something untrue point it out, make fun of him for a bit and then move on.

Spend your energy on more worthwhile topics. Explain why it is that progressives vehemently object to the surveillance apparatus under George W. Bush but don’t have a problem when it’s run by Barack Obama.

Fair enough Dr A. Fair enough. And thanks.

Speaking of ‘comments’ threads, Dr Khawaja’s consortium, Policy of Truth, has some great ones as well. Check out their latest thread and then hang your heads in shame.

From the Comments: Delacroix’s New Book, Kindle, and the Android App

I don’t do Kindle. I’m an old-fashioned bastard (and Delacroix was kind enough to send me a paperback copy of I Used to Be French…), but here is Dr Amburgey explaining how people without a Kindle can still read the book electronically:

A quick note. The ebook version of Jacques’ book is for Kindles. However there is a free Kindle app available for Android devices. So even if you don’t have a Kindle [like me] you can still purchase it at Amazon for a paltry $7 [like me] and download it for reading on an Android phone or tablet.

The book is awesome.

The book is indeed awesome (although I’ve only read a little less than a quarter so far). Maybe I can entice Dr A to write up a review for NOL. In the mean time, you can still get a paperback copy of Delacroix’s book by emailing You can get the electronic version at Amazon here.

From the Comments: The medieval Dark Ages were indeed dark

Dr Stocker answers my question about non-European canons of liberty:

Hello Brandon, sorry I didn’t have time to check the comments on this earlier. I don’t really want to say there was a 1000 year dark age for thought about liberty, but in terms of big recognised classics, it does look like a ‘Dark Age’.

Sadly I’m not equipped to discuss what was going on outside ‘Christendom’, the Medieval Christian world which largely corresponded with Europe particularly after the Arab (and in the west Berber) Muslim conquests in north Africa and south west Asia, so in what had been the Byzantine Empire outside its Balkan and Anatolian heartland.

I’m very slightly better qualified to discuss the Muslim world of this time than the cultures further east, and as far as I can see despite the riches of Muslim intellectual achievement, and the building of legal traditions, there is no major figure who could be described as pro-liberty though as with Aquinas, William of Ockam and other major political writers in Christendom of the time, there is an interest in law and respect for law from the sovereign power. I personally feel it’s a bit of a stretch to include that in any kind of liberty tradition, though the rule of law ideas to feed into it and to some degree pick up on antique republican thought, but largely in its empire of laws aspect rather than other aspects of political and social liberty.

There is a lot of really important and interesting stuff going on further east, particularly in China and India, going back to at least the time of Aristotle in Greece, in terms of philosophical, ethical, and political thought, and institutional innovation. On the institutional side though, I can’t see anything that looks very ‘republican’ or holding power accountable, or valuing challenges to excessive power. I’m sure there are texts that are important for liberty minded people to read, and some things some absolute rulers did like Buddhists who tried to abolish slavery, worth knowing about, but I’m just not competent right now to deal with this stuff properly. It is becoming better known in the west and that is going to produce results in the liberty community. I’ll see if I’m ever ready to engage, I’ve got some iras about how to get there from particular interests of mine, but it needs time.

In discussing Asian political traditions, one issue which is being discussed a lot is state hill communities in southern Asia, though from a collectivist anarchist position rather than an individualist anarchist position, the discussion has been picked up to some degree from an individualist point of view (Peter Leeson, the George Mason economist for example) and I think we’ll see more of that over time. That issue of hill peoples brings me onto something else.

Knowledge of the political structures of hill peoples comes from anthropologists (particularly the Yale anthropologist and agrarian studies specialist James C. Scott, a collectivist anarchist in inclination) rather than from texts in political theory by those stateless peoples. They were illiterate and maybe deliberately so to protect themselves from the low land state observations. Any political philosophy (or indeed philosophy of any kind) of such people comes from looking at the assumptions and everyday ‘ideologies’ of their lives. A big thing on that issue which has been getting increasing interest is that until the late 18th century European histories of philosophy included that kind of implicit philosophy of illiterate peoples observed in an ‘anthropological’ way by ancient historians like Tacitus and Herodotus. There has been a modern equivalent, roughly speaking, to that Herodotus/Tacitus observation of the supposed beliefs of peoples who seem very foreign, which is African philosophy, as studied by African scholars and outside Africa, largely by African-American scholars in US universities. This has engaged with an anthropological-philosophical study of the belief systems of colonised and pre-colonial African peoples.

There is a scholar known to me by personal acquaintance as well as academic reputation working on that sort of approach to non-literarate or not very literate non-urban societies round the world. That is Justin E.H. Smith a (white) American based at the University of Paris, who has a book due out on this in a few years, I’m certainly looking forward to it. That leads me to your point about ideology.

I agree that there is a valid area of study of philosophy, political throughout etc as it exists outside ‘ideology’ as written texts on those theme. It may have some relation to ‘ideology’ as everyday assumptions, though with less of the control/conformity associations of ‘ideology’. I am not on the whole the right person to say much about this, but over time I might be able to post a few things. I’m thinking of taking a step in that direction for next week’s post, which I’m thinking could be on the Medieval Iceland Eddas (heroic poetry) as it relates to a society, which apparently had very little in the way of a central state. That will mean breaking the timeline I’m working through, but that’s OK as I now realise I meant to cover the Roman historian Tacitus, but forgot, so next couple of posts will probably go back in history. Just working on a post on a 14th century English legal thinker, John Fortescue, for this weekend.

You can all read Dr Stocker’s promised Fortescue post here if you haven’t already (it’s excellent, of course). I have been interested in liberty from a non-European point of view ever since I first became interested in liberty (2008, thanks to Ron Paul’s presidential run, and I have always been interested in non-European cultures). A part of me wants to believe that there is an unwritten code of liberty to be found within all societies, and I think that there is a case to be made for this, if you look closely enough.

However, I was doing a search for liberal political parties throughout the world (liberal means libertarian!) and I was genuinely shocked at how few liberal parties there are outside of continental Europe and the Anglo-Saxon world. Even Latin America, long the West’s red-headed stepchild, has a dearth of liberal political parties.

Most parties in the non-European world are based around ethnicity, nationality, or socialism. The fact that socialism is ambiguous enough that it can allow for a narrative that incorporates ethnicity or nationality into its premise probably accounts for the popularity of these political parties. (So, for example, a political party that serves the interests of an ethnic group in a post-colonial state will often name itself the “National Party of Post-Colony,” or the “People’s Party of Post-Colony.”) This is still a disheartening trend, though. In the US, both major political parties are essentially liberal, and in continental Europe most of the political parties are liberal in fact if not in name.

I note here that factions and not parties are ultimately what drives drives politics, but the lack of liberal political parties can still us something about a society’s cultural mores.

For some reason this superficial political observation, coupled with Barry’s astute thoughts, reminds of this old post by Jacques on knowledge, language, and information.

Some ramblings on intellectual diversity (in universities and in libertarianism)

I’ve been reading through the ‘comments’ threads this weekend and especially my dialogues with Dr Amburgey (he’s at the University of Toronto’s prestigious business school). Amburgey describes himself as a “pragmatist” or a “centrist” but nevertheless has been a fairly stalwart defender of the Obama administration (except on its egregious violations of our civil liberties) and a blistering critic of the GOP’s right-wing. Reading through our dialogues (something I wish more readers would get involved in), I believe I have found the Left’s glaring weakness in today’s world: It’s de facto intellectual monopoly in Western universities today. Aside from wanting to gratefully thank him for his support and encouragement in our project via the ‘comments’ threads, I thought I would elaborate a bit upon this notion of a lack of diversity within academia.

Intellectual diversity is almost entirely absent in the US academy today. A Georgetown University Law Professor, Nick Rosenkrantz, pointed this out as far as law schools go, but is this dearth of diversity a bad thing? I would argue that ‘no’ it’s not if you’re on the Right, and ‘yes’ it is if you’re on the Left.

Universities have long been a bastion of Leftist thought (I note that this is not necessarily a bad thing, especially if diversity is important to you, for reasons I hope to explain below). Universities are also amongst the most conservative organization in societies (think of what it takes to navigate through the labyrinth of requirements in order to become a member of the professoriate). This is not a coincidence. Leftist thought has, since the advent of socialism in the 18th century, been characterized by it’s conservatism (especially its paternalism). It’s rhetoriticians just disguise it as progressive.

At any rate, Rosenkrantz points out that the Supreme Court of the US (SCOTUS) has five conservative judges and four Leftists, which is extremely unreflective of the law school professoriate. The point made by Rosenkrantz is that law students may not be getting an education that accurately reflects how the real world works.

In essence, law students are getting straw man arguments when it comes to conservatives and libertarians instead of actual conservative and libertarian arguments. This is true, and it’s reflective of the social sciences and of business schools as well. Such an arrangement has served the American Right extremely well over the past three decades, too.

Consider this: If your organization is dedicated to teaching students about this or that, and you only give them half the story, who or what is going to explain the other half? What I’ve found is that nonconformist students (conservatives and libertarians) are very good at taking in the lessons that are taught by Leftists (including their straw men) and supplementing them with their own readings on conservative and libertarian thought. Now contrast this with the conforming student. The one who eats up everything the professor teaches and takes it as more or less the Truth.

Outside of academia, where the battlefield of ideas is much less focused, and has much more money at stake, which student do you think is likely to have an edge intellectually-speaking? The student who read all he was supposed to and then some extra to account for different perspectives, or the student who read all he was supposed to and took it as more or less the Truth?

Many universities have been slow to catch up with other organizations that have recognized the benefits of not only cultural diversity but of intellectual diversity as well.  If the Left wants to mount any sort of counter-attack in the near- or medium-term future, it would do well to open up to the idea of having more actual, intellectual diversity on its faculties.

Leftists often claim that they are losing the battle of ideas because of money (or lack thereof) but this is absurd on its face, and the longer Leftists try to win by this line of reasoning, the deeper will be the hole out of which they will inevitably have to climb.

There is also the argument that Leftists don’t really have an argument. They simply have reactions to new ideas being created and put forth by libertarians (and to a lesser extent, conservatives here in the US, who are heavily influenced by libertarian ideas).

While there is no diversity in academia there is obviously plenty of it outside. I think this shows a healthy “macro” picture, to be honest.

Universities were once independent (from state influence) organizations and that independence helped contribute to a culture that has given the West what it has today. If universities – with their rules and regulations and traditions – lose their place as bastions of Left-wing ideology, what would take their place? Think about it: The university, because of its extremely conservative traditions, actually tempers the thought of socialists, and if they come under assault then hardcore Leftism will simply find another way to manifest itself. Left-wing literature professors are one thing. Left-wing demagogues are quite another.

This ties in quite well with my other observation, in ‘comments’ threads not found here at NOL, that libertarians tend to be anti-education. Many of them justify this reactionary stance because of the de facto monopoly the Left has, but I think this reactionary stance has more to with the broader libertarian movement’s own intolerance of intellectual diversity.

The recently launched community is a good example of this. I think about libertarianism’s recent reactionary nature in this way: Libertarianism got hot after Ron Paul’s 2008 presidential run. It got so hot that a small but very visible movement was sparked. After the initial success, though, the movement inevitably fell back into one of cliques, clichés, and group-think mentality for a great number of people excited by Paul’s message. Most people who became involved in libertarianism read one or two books recommended Paul and his acolytes. This process further entrenched them, but from there on out this large segment of the libertarian quadrant simply stopped exploring ideas and engaging in dialogue with intellectual adversaries. ‘Statist’ became a derisive term.

These new online communities have been created for the libertarian who seeks comfort in the presence of others like him, whereas consortiums like NOL (and those found on our blog roll) are a place for us to continue the pursuit for truth and the battle for hearts and minds in an open and competitive environment. As a libertarian I think these circle-jerks that crop up serve a useful social function, but I have to wonder aloud how much learning actually occurs in those places.

Rational Ignorance, Fairy Dust and Pissing Away the Future: Libertarians are Selfish and Stupid

Brandon Christensen:

I’ve been workin’ on a farm out in Utah for the past couple of weeks, so blogging has been slow. I’m trying to save up some cash so I can head back west again. In the mean time, here is an old post I wrote that critiques some of the more juvenile foreign policy arguments of Republicans and Democrats.

Originally posted on FACTS MATTER:

Hello all,

I thought I’d take up Dr J’s invitation to write something for his blog. This post is largely inspired by the comments thread from his recent post on bombing Syria (for Syrians’ sake, of course) and his latest post on the supposed differences between conservatives and liberals. Ultimately, my goal is to show you how full of shit everybody that participates on this blog really is.

That won’t be hard to do.

Dr J makes the following, factually correct, observation about Leftists (“liberals”):

Conservatives are well informed about liberal programs because they cannot help but be. Few liberals however avoid being pathetically dependent on gross stereotypes of conservatism as a political doctrine. Few even know that it’s a political doctrine based on a well-defined moral stance.

If there is one thing that Leftists are known for, it is being rationally ignorant: the less you know about your opponent…

View original 1,255 more words