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.

Libertarian as Ethnicity

The past few months have been busy, to say the least. The Obama administration announced a series of executive actions regarding immigration and that has taken up most of my time. Meanwhile in my day job as a graduate student I’ve been overwhelmed with midterms and finals; I am sure my fellows in NoL can sympathize with this. The few moments of peace I have enjoyed have gone towards pondering one question: Who is an American? 

The question is not isolated. By asking who an American is, I’m really asking what ethnicity, and other social groups, really are. The best answer to my question was an old Cato blog post appropriately titled, What is an American? In it Edward Hudgins discusses what makes an American. It is not, as some believe, a common language, creed, or ancestry. What makes an American is his love for liberty. It is in his closing remarks that Hudgins hits on something amazing, there is no meaningful thing as ‘American’.

Unfortunately, the American spirit has eroded. Our forebears would look with sadness at the servile and envious character of many of our citizens and policymakers. But the good news is that there are millions of Americans around the world, living in every country. Many of them will never make it here to the United States. But they are Americans, just as my grandpop was an American before he ever left Italy.

There exists those individuals who can prefix themselves as Americans, but at best this only tells us that they are somehow affiliated with the American continent. There exists a group of people who yearn for liberty and are willing to fight for it, but many of them were neither born or live in the United States. Likewise there are those who were born and live in the United States who are no friends of liberty. And so my initial question has lead me to a new one. Why not promote being a libertarian as an ethnicity? Why not introduce ourselves as ‘Libertarios’ instead of Americans, Germans, or Turks?

At first my proposal may sound strange to some. Would it not be silly to define an ethnicity by political views? I don’t think so. Few ethnic groups have a concrete basis in reality and are based more on fiction than anything else. I was born in Mexico, raised in the United States, and am directly descended from Germans, Jews, and Cubans. I feel little fraternity to these latter groups though. Why should I? I didn’t elect to have Jewish or Mexican ancestry, but I did elect to be a libertarian. Anyone who proclaims to be a libertarian automatically has my sympathy and support, even if I know nothing else about them. As this is the case I would prefer to be identified as a Libertario than any other ethnic group.

I am sure that there are those who would prefer not to be identified by any collective label at all. For those of you who fall into this category I would offer a pragmatic case for identify as Libertario.

I hope it can be taken for granted that, as libertarians, we wish there to be more libertarians. In the best scenario more libertarians in the world might lead to better public policy. In the worst scenario we at least have more potential friends. By promoting our existence as an ethnic group we would encourage more people to remain as libertarians. I have often found people who have libertarian political views, but who withdraw from participation if they become discouraged about the hope for change in their lifetimes. If we were an ethnic group though these individuals would continue to promote liberty, if only to signal their membership in the group. An ethnic group therefore not only encourages members to remain active, but produces positive externalities to promote the group’s message.

For comparison consider the Mormon people. Many Mormons spend time advocating on behalf on their religion, with several even going abroad on missionary work. From anecdotal experience I’ve noticed that many of them are ill treated when they perform their advocacy. Why do they bother to do so then? Because, as I’ve noted above, it signals their membership in the Mormon community. The average Mormon may not particularly enjoy being harassed for their beliefs, but they do it anyway to tell other Mormons a simple message, “I’m one of you.”

It goes without saying that there must be a benefit to belonging to a given group for this to work.

Additionally the existence of an ethnic libertario community would make raising children to be libertarians much easier. I side with Bryan Caplan in the belief that a relatively easy way to grow the movement is by simply having more children than the general population. It doesn’t matter if you believe children’s political beliefs, and by extension their ethics and other characteristics, are shaped by genetics or their nurturing, a libertario community would help with producing children. If you believe in the genetic argument, then an ethnic community reduces the cost of finding a spouse who shares your political beliefs. If you believe in the nurture argument, then surely a child raised among libertarians is more likely to end up being one himself.

Thoughts? Am I just crazy? Or do you have a counter proposal to ‘Libertario’ as our ethnic label? Comment below.

Thoughts on Life in the Diaspora

I am currently writing in Mcleodganj, the upper part of the hill station in Himachal Pradesh, India known as Dharamshala. This place is often called “Little Lhasa,” for it is the seat of the Tibetan Government in Exile, and the home of thousands of Tibetan refugees. Their influence is unmistakable. Although Mcleodganj is nominally a part of India, the only vestige of Indian culture left here is the inability to obey traffic laws. Otherwise, the dominant culture is Tibetan: most restaurants and cafes are run by Tibetans and serve Tibetan food, all tax free as a result of their refugee status. Because refugees are not taxed, they pass on the savings to the consumer, making dining at one of their establishments cheaper than at similar places run by Indian nationals.

Tibetan influence here is pervasive, but it is indicative less of a strong Tibetan civilization than of the desperation foisted on it by circumstance. When you look on the city, it is awash in the multicolored prayer flags favored by Tibetan buddhists, the snow lion flag (the banned national flag of historical Tibet), and images of the Dalai Lama. Every hour one can hear monks pound large drums to signal the progress of time. The dominant sound of Hindi loses ground here to the less melodious, harsher tones of Tibetan. The feeling this produces is strange, and I will quote from my personal travel blog here:

“Surveying it all, though, it is hard to avoid the realization of how much they have lost. Tibet has a geographical area of 970,000 square miles, or about five times the size of France. For the history of the institution, the Dalai Lama has ruled over this area, acting as political and spiritual head of state for those under his jurisdiction. Now the king has become the courtier, as his and his people’s existence in exile depends on the continued benevolence of the Indian government. Meanwhile, China continues a concerted campaign of ethnic cleansing in historical Tibet. Pumping in thousands of Han Chinese into the major cities, the Chinese government is slowly diluting the ethnic composition of the land, and eventually there will be no Tibet, though Tibetans will remain. The result is easy to see whenever a Tibetan speaks frankly about his lived experience. Sangye, who teaches cooking classes here, told us his story. He left Tibet in 1997, and for seven years had no contact with his family. When he finally obtained their phone number, he said that his mother could not speak, because her voice was too choked with tears. Though he speaks to them frequently, he has not been able to see them, as he cannot return for fear of arrest. Even when they talk, all political or news topics are strictly forbidden; only small talk is permissible. The saddest part did not come when he talked about his past, however. When we asked him, “What do you think the future holds?” he grew quiet. “I don’t think I will ever go back,” he said. “Though I hope to.” I could feel the sense of pride mixed with fear, desperation, and resignation in his voice as he told us his story, one representative of many Tibetans. Dharamshala is a place of refuge for them, but the warmest embrace will always grow cold with the thought of home.”

Dharamshala is a cautionary tale about the limits of nonviolent resistance without broad political support. For 55 years, since the ouster of the Dalai Lama and his residency in Dharamshala, the Tibetan diaspora has been waging a war of words in the international media to raise support for Tibet. Despite widespread sympathy with them, there has been little concrete action on their behalf since the failed CIA effort to train Tibetan fighters in the mid 1950s. Indeed, the current has been moving in the opposite direction, such as when the United Kingdom changed its designation of China’s role in Tibet from suzerain to sovereign in an attempt to curry favor with the PRC. Even India has ceased to care about Tibet.

Tibetan independence is not only flagging externally, but also internally. The effect of frequent Tibetan protests has been muted with the increasing influx of Han Chinese into metropolitan areas. These imports in some cases now outnumber the indigenous Tibetans, such as in Lhasa, where most Tibetans live in the small old city, which is surrounded by a larger settlement of Han Chinese. Furthermore, the Roof of the World can only support a limited number of people, and many of them flee to India each year. Tibet hemorrhages Tibetans, and Chinese fill the gap.

Most people enjoy a triumphal narrative. They like the “good guys” to succeed and the “bad guys” to fail. But history is not a narrative except in the minds of historians. It is a chaotic, jumbled mess in reality, and in this case, the triumph will likely never materialize. Like Sangye, Tibetans will always want to return home, and just like him, they likely never will. Perhaps they will fade into just another minority group in northern India, separated from their historical land and keeping it alive only in memory. Perhaps, like the Jews, they will one day return to that land after many years. It is truly impossible to say.

The Almost Turk and the Jew

Note to my overseas readers: Recently a bright woman who has her own show on a television network reputed to be conservative stated in a sarcastic manner that Santa Claus is white and so is Jesus. “Live with it,” she added meanly. The liberal media have been in a rage ever since. They don’t quite know how to accuse others of racism toward a person (Santa ) who may not exist. Below is my own poisonous contribution.

I see no reason to compromise in the current culture war (“Kulturkampf“): Santa Claus is obviously white because he comes from pre-Turkish Asia Minor where everyone was white. Santa was almost a Turk, just a little too early, that’s all. Along the way, he got redesigned in Bavaria, white too. Jesus was also white although he looked suspiciously Jewish. I mean by “white” that both would have easily sat in the front of the bus in Alabama in 1950. Now, to be fair, one of the magi (so-called “wise men”) visiting the baby Jesus from Persia may have been black, as in “African.” Go figure!

And no, he was not depicted as a servant as a way to demean people with sub-Saharan African ancestry. Don’t even go there! He was one of the “rois-mages” in French; that means “king.” That’s all there is to it. In fact, I am pretty sure he brought baby Jesus gold as a gift. Not bad!

In my view, if other racial groups want to claim either a Santa or a Jesus, they will have to invent their own. I look forward to an Asian fat man who brings presents, for example. (But what will he ride?) And we could easily use another Savior, perhaps a girl with African features. They are all welcome to borrow both Santa and Jesus in the meantime but they may not (NOT) change their identity by force. (When your neighbor lends you his plate, you are not supposed to paint it over.)

From the Comments: Secession and Nationalism in the Middle East

My dear, brave friend Siamak took the time to craft a very insightful rebuttal to my argument on supporting decentralization in the Middle East. He writes:


First of all thanks a lot for your attention to my comment…

You know that I have problems in English and maybe that’s the cause of some mis-understandings…

Look my friend. I did understand what you mean but the problem is sth else… As a libertarian I’m not completely against decentralization in the method you mentioned (I mean dealing with new nations)… USSR was a great example for this… My problem is that you can’t compare today’s med-east with USSR. Soviet Union was a country formed by some “nations”. Nation has a unique meaning. I think the best meaning for that is a set of people with close culture and common history which “want” to stay together as a nation. A country like Iran is formed of many ethnics including: Fars, Azeri (I’m Azeri), Kurd, Mazani, Gilani, Turkemen, Balooch, Sistani, Arab, etc. If you come and visit the whole part of this country you can see that all of them believe that they are Iranian. I don’t know that much about Arabian countries but I think that’s the same. Even all of them are Arabs and speak the same language but there are big cultural differences between for example Egypt and Saudi Arabia!

My reaction to your post has got a reason. 8 years of Ahmadinejad presidency, not only killed the economy, culture and any kind of freedom, But made us a weak country in mid-east. What I see today is that some little groups created and supported by Azerbaijan, Turkey, Qatar and Emirates are working so hard to make Arabian and Azeri groups to separate from Iran. They even do terrors for their aims. What I see is decentralization in mid-east not only doesn’t solve any problem but makes new problems! Makes new never-ending ethical wars.

You mentioned about US Imperialism. (I hate this word, Because when the leader speaks from three words he speaks two is “Enemy” and one is “Imperialism”! :D ) One of the biggest problems in mid-east is Al-Qaida, which everybody knows that without the support of the united states they couldn’t be this big. You in your post didn’t say that you think US should start the decentralization of mid-east, But you believe decentralization and Schism is good for the peace of mid-east. My objection is to this belief. Arabs are very nationalist. Iranians and Afghans are nationalists too. Changing the current map of mid-east will bring new problems. A big problem of mid-eastern countries is their governments. But Governments are not the only problem… The problem is not “just democracy”, It’s not even “Just modernism”! In some parts the problem is “Savagery”! The people are a big problem. If anybody wants peace for mid-east they should economic relationships more and more… We libertarians know the power of free business. Don’t be afraid of central powerful governments. Even sometimes their power is useful. We are in a Transient status between “Savagery & Civilization”, “Tradition & Modernism” and “Dictatorship (Even Totalitarianism) & Democracy”.

If the western countries want to help Democracy, Modernism, Civilization and peace they should make economical relations. Sanctions just gives the right to Islamic Radical groups and makes them stronger… As you mentioned Imperialism just gives them credit. Any decentralization makes new problems. The Communist Soviet Union was a block of different nations that their only common point was Communism. New Nations that are formed on the basis of ethnics just makes new dictator governments and new enemies. Mid-east is different from Soviet Union. I hope that this time I have less grammar mistakes! :)

Siamak, by the way, is a citizen of Iran and ethnically an Azeri. I always prize the views and arguments of foreigners in matters of philosophy, culture and policy. All individuals bring diversity to my world, but when the voice speaks with an accent and carries experience that I know nothing about, it – well – it makes my world and my life that much richer.

With that being said, I don’t buy Siamak’s argument. largely because I don’t see much of a difference between the Soviet Union and Iran ethnically-speaking. That is to say, I think Siamak’s argument falls flat because both the Soviet Union and Iran have numerous nations within their borders, so the distinction between the two states doesn’t quite add up.

I think the rest of Siamak’s argument stands up pretty well.

Bad News Bears: Ukraine, Russia and the West

No, I’m not talking about the Bruins choking in Pasadena earlier tonight. I’m talking about the Ukrainian government’s decision to balk at the latest Western offer for integration.

Well, at least I think it’s bad. The New York Times has all the relevant information on what happened between Kiev and the West. According to the Grey Lady, Kiev either balked at an IMF offer or had its arm twisted by Moscow. Both scenarios seem plausible, but I’d like to dig a bit deeper.

Ukrainians have been hit hard by this global recession, and last year they elected a government that is much more pro-Russia than it is pro-West. Unfortunately, I think the economy is only a small fragment of what ails the people in the post-colonial, post-socialist state of Ukraine (some people have started labeling “post-” states as “developmentalist” states; I like it but I’m not sure readers would). First of all, here are some relevant maps:

Ethno-linguistic map of Ukraine
2012 presidential election results in Ukraine
Map of per capita income in Ukraine

Notice a pattern? Yeah, me too. Basically, Ukraine is split along ethnic lines between Russians and Ukrainians and instead of recognizing this fact and focusing on property rights reforms first and foremost, the Ukrainians have decided to try their hand at democracy (on the inability of democracy to solve political problems in multi-ethnic states, see Ludwig von Mises’s Nation, State and Economy 72-84).

The conflation of democracy with property rights as freedom has been the single biggest mistake of all societies in the post-war world. From Ghana to Indonesia to Iraq to India to Ukraine, elites have focused their efforts on implementing democracy rather than property rights, and the inevitable, unfortunate results (“dictatorship and poverty”) continue to frustrate me. I’m sure the people who actually have to live under these conditions don’t like it much either.

Wouldn’t it be better if the current Ukrainian state  split into (at least) two independent states? I ask because it seems to me that having (at least) two different states will cut the number of losers in half (losers of elections in “post-” societies truly are losers; it’s nothing like having to “live under” Obama or Bush) and make the new, smaller governments more accountable and more accessible to the people.

The other aspect of Kiev’s rejection of Western integration that troubles my mind is that of the attitudes towards liberalization of Ukrainian society that many people obviously harbor.

For example:

  • Ukrainian-speaking Ukrainians overwhelmingly support more integration with the West. There are demonstrations (and I use this term loosely; riots may soon start) against the government’s decision to balk at the West going on right now.
  • And Russian-speaking Ukrainians (being Ukrainian can be either an ethnic thing or political thing [“citizenship”], which just goes to show you how stupid anything other than individualism is, but I digress) overwhelmingly support Moscow.

Yet it seems to me that both sides take the “pro-” and “anti-” stances that they do more out of spite for the other side than out of an understanding of what liberalization actually entails (I base this hunch on my watching of the recent elections here in the US). It’s also not clear to me that a pro-Western tilt would actually lead to more liberalization.

It may be easy for the Ukrainian-speaking Ukrainians to integrate and work with the West, but I think the Russian-speaking Ukrainians have good cause to look upon pro-Western deals with suspicion. After all, the Russian speakers are the richest faction in Ukraine, and freer trade with the West  would seriously undermine their political power (why do you think Russian-speaking Ukrainians have all the good jobs?).

Perhaps Evgeniy can enlighten us on the Russian perspective.

If Evgeniy doesn’t have the time you could just read Daniel Larison’s thoughts on the matter (Dr Larison is a historian with a PhD from the University of Chicago who specializes in the Slavic world).

Around the Web

  1. When governments go after witches
  2. Borders, Ethnicity and Trade [pdf]
  3. A Lonely Passion. Libertarians in China
  4. Halloween in Germany: read this with globalization and its critics in mind
  5. Should Japan take the lead in mediating US-Iranian talks? Props to Obama, by the way
  6. Another excellent Free Speech blurb from Ken White
  7. Culture in a Cage