Bryan Caplan on White Nationalism

This is going to be a response to a recent blog posted by libertarian economist Bryan Caplan entitled How Bad is White Nationalism. Caplan first establishes why nationalism is generally morally wrong and then goes on to argue that white nationalism is an especially immoral form of nationalism.

Before examining Caplan’s attacks against white nationalism it is important to define what exactly white nationalism is. Caplan fails to do this in his blog, so I will offer what I hope is a fairly innocuous and straightforward definition. Nationalism is the belief that a group of people should share a strong sense of identity with each other, act in a unified way for the benefit of that group, and, often, should reside under a single political structure. White nationalism is the belief that white people should unify under some political structure, whether that be a state or a union of states, share a strong sense of identity, and act in such a way so as to benefit white people. This can be contrasted with more narrow forms of nationalism, such as French nationalism, or more broad forms, such as Christian nationalism.

Caplan’s attack on the morality of nationalism starts with the fact that humans naturally treat people that they perceive to be in their group better than those who they consider to be outside of their group. That is, humans naturally have an in-group bias. Because of this, we are naturally inclined to act for the benefit of people within our group even when it unjustly hurts people from outside our group. Therefore, Caplan argues, we ought to be mindful of our in-group biases and take a special effort to treat outsiders fairly. Caplan believes that nationalism does the opposite. It embraces people’s natural in-group bias and is therefore inherently unjust.

Caplan does not show that the in-group bias that nationalism is founded on causes nationalists to treat people unjustly. He just says it. It is true that it causes people to treat their in-group differently from their out-group, but does that necessitate that they treat their out-group unjustly?

Many commenters have pointed out that Caplan’s argument could also be applied to other in-groups that people have such as their family. We treat family differently that we treat non family and yet Caplan refuses to call this immoral. Caplan argues that this is because, though we treat family members better than non family members, this bias does not cause us to treat non family members unjustly. What this means is that Caplan believes that an in-group bias can lead to favored treatment of an in-group without leading to unjust treatment of an out-group. Why could the same not be true for nationalism? Caplan doesn’t even entertain this obvious possibility.

Given that an in-group bias does not necessitate unjust treatment, and that Caplan has only argued that nationalism is founded on an in-group bias, it can be safely said that he fails to demonstrate that nationalism leads to the unjust treatment of people.

But what of white nationalism? Caplan begins his evaluation of white nationalism by looking at its historical track record. In particular, Caplan looks at European colonialism and German Nazism, notes that they both have high body counts, and so concludes that the moral track records of white nationalism is poor. This reasoning is poor for at least 4 reasons.

First, the killing of one person by another can be moral, immoral, or morally neutral. For example, the accidental spread of disease can hardly be called immoral. And the defensive action of Europeans against local tribes that aggressed against their colonies are moral acts of self defense. Thus, a body count is not a good measure of an ideologies moral track record.

Second, neither Naziism or European colonialism are examples of white nationalism. Nazism was a particular brand of German or Aryan nationalism. All most all of the countries that the Nazis invaded where white countries. And they intended to kill huge numbers of Slavs. They did not want to unify white people. They wanted to unify German people. Similarly, the European nations that engaged in colonialism, the Dutch, the British, the French, the Spanish, etc., did not attempt to unify white people but rather they attempted to unify their ethnic group. They were French, British, and Spanish nationalists. They commonly went to war with each other and frequently killed huge numbers of white people. These actions only make sense if they were engaging in their actions for a purpose other than the interest of white people. Specifically the interest of their native empire. In short, Caplan has made the mistake of thinking that all nationalists who are white are white nationalists.

Third, by looking only at body counts Caplan’s analysis ignores the benefits of these two non white nationalist movements. For example, it is not obviously wrong to believe that the Indians were better off under British rule than under Mongol rule, that South Africa was better off under European control than under apartheid or under the current ANC government or that Syria was better off under French control, etc. Caplan does not address any of the benefits that colonialism provided the native people. Not the least of which is huge gains in population. In fact, even given the body count of the dead, it isn’t obvious that European colonialism had a net negative impact on the population size of colonized people. It may have lead to the creation of more life than it did death, not to mention rises in standard of living and life expectancy.

Fourth, Caplan fails to demonstrate that these body counts were the result of these groups supposed white nationalist beliefs. And if they were not then one cannot use them to judge the moral worth of white nationalism. Though such a question is largely superfluous given that neither of these groups were actually white nationalists and a body count is a poor measure of moral worth.

The next charge that Caplan levels against white nationalism is that it would lead to the death of many third-worlders if it ever became popular again. After all, white nations are much more powerful than third world nations and so would have no trouble invading them. This analysis is extremely poor for one simple reason: Caplan never explains why a white nationalist state would want to invade the third world. Hitler, the supposed poster boy for white nationalism, didn’t invade the third world. He invaded Europe. And more generally, there is no reason to assume that a group of people who identify as white and share a common bond and political structure because of that would hate third-worlders and want to invade them. It’s a completely unfounded leap of logic.


Next, Caplan argues that the poor moral character of white nationalists indicates that white nationalism is of poor moral character. He writes:

“Being unpopular doesn’t make a moral theory more or less evil. But as I’ve argued before, we should expect people who support evil views despite unpopularity to be especially morally vicious. This prediction seem to fit the facts well. The average white nationalist really is angry and hateful. Indeed, it is very hard to locate white nationalists who are even civil to people who disagree with them.”

How does he know these “facts” about white nationalists? His own personal anecdotes. As most responsible and educated people know, forming beliefs about groups of people based solely on anecdotes is a highly flawed method. If that’s all you have then it is what you must use. But calling your anecdotes “the facts” is ridiculous. In reality, Caplan has no idea what the average white nationalist is like. He just knows how he has perceived the ones he has met. We have no reason to expect that his perceptions are reliable or that he has encountered a representative sample of white nationalists.

Caplan next accuses white nationalists of having a high violence per capita rate. He does this by linking to the wikipedia pages on the KKK, the Aryan Brotherhood, and the American Nazi party. This is about as bad as social science can get. Firstly, these are extremist groups that many white nationalists disapprove of. Secondly, without a reliable estimate of the population of white nationalists, which no one has, one cannot calculate a violence level per capita. Thirdly, Caplan has no way of knowing that all, or even most, of the member of these groups are actually white nationalists. A prison gang like the Aryan Brotherhood will attract people just for the sake of protection rather than because of an ideological reason.

To sum up: Bryan Caplan’s attack on nationalism is poor because he fails to establish that nationalism will lead to the unfair treatment of others. His analysis of white nationalism is poor because it relies on a poorly thought out historical analysis of people who were not white nationalists, speculations founded on the bizarre assumption that white nationalists want to invade the third world, and his own anecdotes. In short, it contains no actual evidence about white nationalism.