In today's link to samefacts, I find that I absolutely totally disagree with Mark Kleiman, which is rare, and his logic in this post doesn't make sense to me, which hasn't happened before.
It is neither irrational nor morally wrong for me to be more eager to benefit, and more reluctant to harm, those with whom I cooperate more, because they are my relatives, because they are my neighbors or my co-workers or my fellow-members of other groups that embody collective social capital, or because they are my fellow-citizens.
The sovereign state has the capacity to pay for public goods by compulsory taxation, thus avoiding the free-rider problem. Wages or profits earned by people or firms that pay U.S. taxes are more important to me than wages or profits earned by those who pay taxes elsewhere, because I get a share of those wages or profits in the form of greater expenditure on public goods or reduced taxation.
Kleiman seems to mainly argue that patriotism is not irrational, yet he is addressing the question of whether it is moral. In the quote (from which I have deliberately removed relevant context and I admit it) "and morally" appears to be tacked on as a minor aside.
First I will try to understand what Kleiman is saying. I think his point is that, in fact, given human nature, the choice opinion leaders face is not whether to encourage patriotism or universal brotherhood but rather whether to encourage patriotism or a mix of motives in which selfishness is always alarmingly powerful, hence "We are all members of multiple moral communities. And we can't make ourselves better members of the larger ones by making ourselves worse members of the smaller ones." This clearly described the real world trade-off which Kleiman imagines. I can't help adding that it fit's oddly with his concluding sentence "Think globally, act locally."
I am aware that I may have been unfair when I slipped the phrase "opinion leaders" in. I am insinuating that Kleiman's logic is, pardon my use of a dirty word , borderline Straussian. As I attempt to understand it, the logic is based on the idea that the people are not capable of universal brotherhood, so we should tell them that patriotism is morally fine, because it is the best we can do. Avoiding scare words, my problem is that I can not honestly say that favoring one's fellow citizens is morally acceptable. I have no fear that I have unleashed a wave of pure selfishness as I am definitely not an opinion leader. I have, of course, guaranteed that I will never be an opinion leader (as an aside I am grateful to Kleiman for not even hinting at a silly but common argument based on the need to win elections in which neither he, Tabarrok or DeLong is a candidate).
Another way of putting it is that I believe in absolute moral truth and, thus, see a sharp difference between true statements about right and wrong and useful statements about right and wrong.
I also think that it is relevant that we must decide what sort of community we want to be. I wish the USA were a liberal community in which the expression of minority views is appreciated. Tabarrok and DeLong are challenging a principle which is almost universal. I think this is valuable in itself.
As a practical matter, people like DeLong and Kleiman who have some influence on the debate must assume that they can only move it a tiny bit in this or that direction. Thus the question is not whether it would be good if people thought of the USA like the community of left handed people, but rather if US citizens were a little more concerned about foreigners. If we should, the correct rhetorical strategy is to argue as hard as one can for universal brotherhood without appearing to be a total nut case.
I have a sense that I know where Kleiman is coming from. His point is partly that even open minded economists like DeLong and Tabarrok are slightly allergic to sociology, and tend to ignore norms, community, solidarity and social capital when not talking specifically about those issues. There is a tradition in economics of taking motives as given and figuring out how one would optimize. This is often the assumption that people are selfish, but also has a lot to do with benevolent social planners and possibly perfectly altruistic agents.
Kleiman gives examples of cases in which we should be more concerned about some people than others -- our families and his university department. I agree on the examples, but I think the analogy with patriotism is invalid. I think the important factor is the value of continued direct personal interaction with people we trust and the resulting emotional bonds. Citizens of the USA (like citizens of all countries even Sweden) do not interact in such a way. We are connected by laws and the principle of solidarity with one's countrymen (the point at stake here). This is all abstract. The point is that we could feel about all people the way we feel about our fellow citizens as patriotic feelings do not depend on personal contact and repeated interaction. A sense that we should all be citizens of humanity is perfectly possible, a sense of universal brotherhood must always be an ideal towards which we strive but which we do not approach.
update: Robert Frank agrees with Mark Kleiman. I am actually a bit intellectually indimidated.
Also, as Anne clearly shows in comments, I don't really know anything about Alex Tabarrok.