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The Illogic of Collective Guilt

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A while back, I ran the following set of Twitter polls on collective guilt.  Here’s what people think at the most abstract level. How often are people collectively guilty? — Bryan Caplan (@bryan_caplan) August 24, 2020 Overall, I was surprised by how few people said, “Never.”  I expected more like 70-80%, especially when phrased so baldly.  What really puzzled me, though, were people’s views about the sources of collective guilt.  People are about as willing to accept national collective guilt as they are to accept collective guilt itself. How often are people collectively guilty for the actions of their nation? — Bryan Caplan (@bryan_caplan) August 24, 2020 They’re slightly more skeptical of familial guilt, even though people have astronomically more influence

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A while back, I ran the following set of Twitter polls on collective guilt.  Here’s what people think at the most abstract level.

Overall, I was surprised by how few people said, “Never.”  I expected more like 70-80%, especially when phrased so baldly.  What really puzzled me, though, were people’s views about the sources of collective guilt.  People are about as willing to accept national collective guilt as they are to accept collective guilt itself.

They’re slightly more skeptical of familial guilt, even though people have astronomically more influence over their families than over their nations.

They’re moderately more skeptical about religious guilt, even though people can exit their religion of birth far more easily than their countries of birth.

Almost no one accepts ethnic guilt.  But people’s control over their co-ethnics, like their control over their co-nationals, is near-zero.

Gender guilt is the least-accepted of all.

What’s so puzzling?  The two most-accepted forms of collective guilt – national and familial – bear almost no resemblance to each other.  Given immigration restrictions, most people are stuck with their nationality of birth.  Given the size of most countries, most people have negligible influence over what their country does.  Yet this is the form of collective guilt my respondents most endorse.  In contrast, you can deFOO your family; and even if you don’t, families are small enough for individual action to matter a lot.

At the other extreme, almost everyone rejects ethnic and gender guilt.  On the surface, this makes sense: Even today, almost everyone is cisgendered, and aren’t you stuck with your ethnicity?  Indeed, plenty of people do abandon their ethnicity; demographers call this “ethnic attrition.”

I’m tempted to say that people are doing reverse moral engineering.  Conventional foreign policy relies heavily on collective guilt; leaders do evil, so you bomb the civilians they tyrannize.  But that hardly explains why respondents are so soft on familial collective guilt.  So what’s really going on?

Bryan Caplan
Bryan Caplan is Professor of Economics at George Mason University and Senior Scholar at the Mercatus Center. He has published in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the American Economic Review, the Economic Journal, the Journal of Law and Economics, and Intelligence, and has appeared on 20/20, FoxNews, and C-SPAN. Bryan Caplan blogs on EconLog.

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