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The Volokh Conspiracy

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Why (Most) Citizens Are Not "Responsible for the Actions of their State"

A comment by Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas highlights a longstanding pernicious fallacy.


Are citizens responsible for injustices perpetrated by their nations' governments? In a recent statement defending her policy of denying asylum to Russians fleeing Vladimir Putin's military draft, Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas says the answer is "yes":

Every citizen is responsible for the actions of their state, and citizens of Russia are no exception. Therefore, we do not give asylum to Russian men who flee their country. They should oppose the war.

Notice that this statement isn't limited to those Russians who actively participate in Putin's war on Ukraine, or even to those approve of it. All Russians are "responsible" simply by virtue of being Russian, no matter their individual actions, and therefore are denied asylum, unless perhaps they actively "oppose the war." One obvious response to Kallas is that would-be draftees fleeing Russia are in fact "opposing the war" by denying their services to the government. But there are other, more fundamental, flaws in her logic, as well.

The idea that all citizens responsible for the actions of their government is hardly new, and certainly isn't limited to the present situation in Russia. But it is wrong nonetheless. That is especially clear in the case of authoritarian regimes. But it is largely true for citizens of democratic ones, as well.

In some situations, inflicting harm on innocent citizens of unjust governments may be  justifiable "collateral damage" of policies essential to curbing the evils of those states. But that's a different issue from the theory that citizens are fair game because they are somehow responsible for their government's actions.

At the very least, the citizen-responsibility theory doesn't apply to ordinary citizens of authoritarian states—including Putin's Russia—who have no meaningful influence over their governments' policies. If I had the opportunity, I would like to ask the Prime Minister whether she believes that ordinary Estonians were responsible for the actions of the USSR.

From 1940 to 1991, Estonians were citizens of the Soviet Union. During that time the Soviet regime committed a wide range of atrocities, war crimes, and other human rights violations, including initiating multiple unjust wars. For most of that period, the vast majority of Estonians (like the vast majority of other Soviet citizens) did little or nothing to oppose the regime. Were they therefore responsible for its actions?

The right answer is "no." Most Estonians  (like most other Soviet citizens) did not cause the injustices of the state, had almost no chance of changing them, and would have risked severe punishment had they spoken out. We rightly admire dissidents who risk dire consequences  to oppose unjust governments. But such heroism is not morally obligatory. And those who refrain from it do not thereby become responsible for the regime's injustices.

Perhaps Estonians' situation under Soviet rule is different from that of Russians today, because Estonia was forcibly annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940, against the will of most of the population. But, if we look back in history, the same can be said of most of the other territory controlled by Russia—and most other states, too. The process by which the medieval city state of Moscow came to rule the vast territory we now call Russia and its prince started calling himself "czar," was anything but consensual. It was, in fact, a long history of coercion and conquest. Much the same is true of the origins of almost all other states, especially relatively large ones.

People aren't morally responsible for the actions of entities they did not create, and do not control. If a warlord or organized crime boss takes over a territory by violence and extortion, the people who have the misfortune to live there do not thereby become responsible for all his actions.  The same goes for citizens of authoritarian states. Indeed, most such regimes trace their origins to actual warlords or other similar malefactors who seized power by force.

While most citizens of authoritarian states are not responsible for the evil perpetrated by their governments, there is a minority who are. Obvious examples include the people who order and carry out unjust policies, including dictators like Vladimir Putin and their underlings. Arguably, even low-ranking soldiers and other officials who implement unjust orders are morally culpable for doing so, a precedent rightly established in post-World War II trials of Nazi war criminals, where courts refused to accept the defense of "following orders." But such people are actual perpetrators of  unjust government policies, not merely citizens of the states that pursue them. And they have done more than just fail to actively oppose those policies.

Even if most ordinary citizens of authoritarian states have little or no control over their policies, one can still argue the citizens are morally culpable if they approve of them. While merely being Russian isn't enough to make you responsible for Putin's war against Ukraine,  perhaps Russians do become culpable if they believe the invasion is justified.

It may, in some sense, be morally reprehensible for citizens to hold awful views like  backing Putin's invasion. But it is not sufficient justification for punishing people or restricting their liberty. Freedom of speech and conscience is one of the most basic principles of liberal democracy. Among other things, governments cannot be trusted to separate out the truly awful beliefs that justify repression from those that are merely wrong, but acceptable. For these and other reasons, merely holding awful beliefs should not be a basis for restricting freedom of movement across international boundaries either, or at least there should be a strong presumption against such policies.

In addition, holding awful beliefs is often more excusable in the case of citizens of authoritarian states that impose government control over the media, and censor opposing views. In such situations, finding accurate information becomes more difficult, and even relatively conscientious people might be misled into supporting the official line.

Estonia may be justified in restricting Russian migration on some other basis. In Chapter 6 of my book Free to Move, I actually note this case as one of the rare situations where migration restrictions might be defensible. But neither they nor other states should bar Russians—or anyone else—on the theory that citizens of authoritarian states are somehow responsible for the actions of their governments.

Things are somewhat more complicated when it comes to citizens of democratic states. Democracies are generally superior to authoritarian regimes on various dimensions, including that they allow the public greater leverage over government policy. Even so, most ordinary citizens have little or no chance of changing unjust policies. In all but the smallest electorates, the odds that any one vote can change an electoral outcome are infinitesimally small. That greatly diminishes the responsibility that any individual ordinary citizen has for policy outcomes.

Moreover, even when an individual voter can make a difference, they rarely have control over the range of options put before them in an election, and how those options are structured. These systemic structures virtually never have the genuine consent of the governed. I summarized some of the reasons why here and here.

For these and other reasons, ordinary voters in even the most democratic of polities often have little choice but to vote for the lesser of evils. When that happens, a conscientious citizen can reasonably choose the lesser evil without being morally responsible for that candidate's unjust policies if they win. I explained why here:

Imagine an election where the only options are Queen Cersei from Game of Thrones, and Sauron, the Dark Lord from Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. If Cersei wins, she will kill many innocent people, and oppress others. But she will leave much of the population more or less alone (as long as they don't openly oppose her…). If Sauron wins, he will kill far more innocent people, and make the survivors his slaves….

You can instead cast a protest vote for a vastly better alternative, such as Gandalf…. But, by assumption, these are purely symbolic options, because they have zero chance of prevailing. If the protest voter would otherwise have backed Cersei, the net effect of his decision to protest is to increase the likelihood of the worst possible outcome: the triumph of Sauron….

The most obvious objection to this line of reasoning is that you should not vote for Cersei because doing so makes you morally complicit in her evil actions. If you instead protest vote or stay home, you can remain untainted.

The complicity argument is intuitively plausible. But it is not as strong as it may seem. The voter in question is not responsible for creating the sad situation in which Cersei and Sauron are the only options. The net effect of his or her actions is a positive one: less death and slavery. And his intent is also good. He is not motivated by a desire to help Cersei commit atrocities. To the contrary, he abhors them, and is only voting for Cersei to avoid still greater evil. Sadly, the only way to do so is to ensure that Cersei wins. Whether you judge the voter's decision by effects, intentions, or some combination of both, we must conclude that he did the right thing.

You can still reject this line of reasoning if you think it is never justifiable to back any evil…. That's a logically consistent worldview. But it requires adherents to bite a lot of bullets that few would actually accept. For example, it implies that everyone who backed the Allies during World War II was wrong to do so. After all, the allied governments (even the liberal democratic ones) were far from being paragons of virtue, and their triumph involved many injustices….  If supporting a lesser evil in war is sometimes defensible, surely the same applies to an election.

There is a potential catch here, however, if you believe - as  I do- that voters have some obligation to cast their ballots in a responsible and informed manner. As I see it, while there is no moral duty to vote, you do have a duty to be reasonably informed and unbiased in your evaluation of the opposing candidates, if you choose to participate. Sadly, most voters routinely fall short of even fairly minimal standards of knowledge and objectivity. If I am right about the obligations of voters, many of them routinely act unethically when they cast their ballots. And the collective effect of this ignorance and bias often results in harmful and unjust policies.

But the degree of culpability individual voters deserve for such behavior is likely very small. After all, the big reason why they act that way is that the low probability of affecting electoral outcomes makes it rational to do so. Rational behavior isn't necessarily good behavior. But bad behavior that increases the odds of evil policies being enacted by a tiny amount is only reprehensible to a small degree.  Being a bad voter may be roughly akin to being a slightly over-aggressive driver whose mistakes at the wheel marginally increase the risk of a serious accident. It's nowhere near as bad as, say, murder, rape, assault, or even petty theft. And individual bad voters have only the tiniest degree of responsibility for their government's evil policies - even if they voted for the incumbents who perpetrate them.

Some citizens, admittedly, have the ability to influence policy outcomes in ways that go far beyond their impact as voters. That's true of influential celebrities and political activists, for example. Their responsibility is a more complex issue that I won't try to assess here. But such people are only a small minority of the population.

In democracies, as in dictatorships, there are some people whose responsibility for unjust policies goes far beyond that of ordinary citizens, or even "influencers" whose only possible sin is failure to use their influence to try to prevent an injustice. Examples include political leaders, influential government officials, and others who order and carry out the policies in question. The average American - including the average Trump voter - has little or no culpability for Trump's cruel family separation policy. Trump and other officials who decided on and implemented the policy are a different matter. But such culpability does not arise merely from being a citizen of the United States.

In sum, the vast majority of citizens are not responsible for injustices perpetrated by their governments. This is particularly true of most citizens of dictatorships, including Putin's Russia. For that reason, we should not punish ordinary citizens for the evils their governments perpetrate, nor should we restrict their liberty because of their supposed culpability. It is particularly unjust to deny those citizens refuge from their own governments' oppression (including Putin's policy of conscripting them to fight in an unjust war), on the perverse theory that these victims of an evil state are actually perpetrators.

UPDATE: I should acknowledge that my point about Estonians' supposed responsibility for the evils of the Soviet Union was inspired by a tweet by Chris Kieser, my wife's colleague at the Pacific Legal Foundation.