Against Nationalism

Conservative columnist Jonah Goldberg recently expressed the common view that “A little mystic nationalism is a good and healthy thing because it provides the emotional sinew that helps us hold onto our patriotism.” Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry expounds on this defense of nationalism in more detail here. My own view of nationalism is far more negative than theirs. Indeed, I believe that nationalism is second only to communism as the greatest evil of modern politics. There are many different meanings of nationalism. Here, I refer to loyalty to one’s own nation-state based on ties of language, culture, or ethnicity, which I think is roughly what Goldberg and Gobry are referring to as well.

I. Nationalism as a Cause of Mass Murder and Repression.

One big problem with nationalism is that it is a leading cause of mass murder. Fascism and Nazism were, of course, extreme forms of nationalism and the mass murders Nazi and fascist regimes committed were justified on the grounds that they were necessary to advance the interests of racially or ethnically defined peoples. Obviously, most nationalist governments do not commit mass murder on that scale. This is one reason why nationalism is not quite as pernicious as socialism Nearly all full-blown socialist regimes that have lasted for any length of time have engaged in mass murder; “only” a substantial minority of nationalist regimes have done the same.

But many non-mass murdering nationalist regimes still use nationalism as a justification for protectionism, discrimination against minority groups, suppression of dissent, and the like. Nor are these abuses simply the result of misinterpretations of nationalism by unscrupulous rulers. To the contrary, if you genuinely believe that we have special obligations to members of your ethnic or national group that sometimes trump universal principles, consistency requires that you be willing to sacrifice the rights of other groups to benefit your own, at least sometimes. This is particularly so, if you believe as many nationalists do, that international politics and economics is often a zero-sum game between different nations and ethnic groups. This kind of zero-sum thinking was, in fact, at the heart of Nazi and Fascist ideology (see here and here); given its nationalistic and zero-sum premises, the Nazi/Fascist program of conquest actually made a certain amount of sense. In theory, one can be nationalistic without also endorsing a zero-sum game view of the world; but, empirically, the two tend to be highly correlated.

II. Some Other Dangers of Nationalism.

Nationalism sometimes makes xenophobes even of generally tolerant liberals. For example, Senator Charles Schumer recently denounced the NBA for buying uniforms manufactured in Thailand. Schumer would rather see poor Thai workers (who are far worse off than even the poorest American workers) lose their jobs than violate the supposed principle that an “American sport” should buy American. Only nationalistic prejudice can explain such reasoning. Certainly, Schumer would never think of denouncing the New York Knicks for buying uniforms manufactured in Texas. If he did, he would become an instant laughingstock. Yet protectionists on both the left and the right make claims similar to Schumer’s all the time.

Finally, nationalism often leads people to reject good ideas merely because of their foreign origin, a flaw effectively denounced by F.A. Hayek:

The growth of ideas is an international process, and only those who fully take part in the discussion will be able to exercise a significant influence. It is no real argument to say that an idea is un-American, or un-German, nor is a mistaken or vicious ideal better for having been conceived by one of our compatriots.

III. Do We Need Nationalism to Promote Good Causes?

Sometimes, of course, nationalistic prejudices can be enlisted in a good cause. For example, Polish nationalists opposed Soviet-imposed communist rule in their country. But this simply shows that people can sometimes support good causes for bad reasons. Communism in Poland was wrong because it created repression, poverty, and mass murder, not because it was established by ethnic Russians rather than ethnic Poles. By contrast, US-imposed governments in Germany, Italy, Japan, Grenada, Panama, and elsewhere turned out to be much better than those previously produced by indigenous nationalists in those countries. Nor is it the case that nationalism is the only force that can motivate people to sacrifice for a just cause. Many of the most prominent Eastern European dissidents – people like Vaclav Havel and Andrei Sakharov – were primarily motivated by universal principles, and were often critical of nationalism. Here in the United States, brave people risked their lives to abolish slavery and Jim Crow, even though neither was a nationalist cause (indeed, both causes were explicitly universalist in their rejection of the supposed moral importance of race and ethnicity).

The same response applies to Gobry’s argument that we need nationalism to prevent our liberties from being taken away by a “globalist glob” of rule by international elites. One can indeed oppose world government on nationalistic grounds. But the much more compelling argument against it is that it would create a dangerous concentration of power. For similar reasons, I can oppose domestic centralization of power in Washington without feeling any “mystical” or nationalistic loyalty to the state of Virginia.

I am not so naive as to think that we can do away with nationalism any time soon. But we should do what we can to diminish its influence. Contrary to conventional wisdom, nationalism is not an inevitable natural human instinct. Very few people were nationalistic until various European governments started indoctrinating their populations in nationalist ideology in the 19th century. Prior to that time, few objected to the existence of multinational polities such as the Holy Roman Empire (at least on nationalistic grounds) or believed that any important moral obligations could be based on common ethnicity.

IV. How Playing with Nationalism is like Playing with Fire.

Much of the above is to some degree unfair to Goldberg, Gobry and others like them. After all, they certainly don’t favor the extreme nationalism of the Nazis and Fascists. They probably don’t even support the much milder nationalistic prejudices underpinning Senator Schumer’s protectionism. Instead, they only advocate “a little mystic nationalism” – just enough to bind us together in a “common identity,” as Gobry puts it. Unfortunately, history shows that it is extremely difficult to limit nationalism in such a fine-grained way. Once established, it readily morphs into chauvinism, protectionism and often much worse. To some extent, this is the result of people’s general “rational irrationality” about politics, which prevents them from objectively examining their political views. But, as discussed above, it is also partly the result of the inner logic of nationalism itself, which insists that we have special moral obligations to based on nationality, ethnicity, or culture. Playing with nationalism is a lot like playing with fire. It’s not inevitable that you will get burned, but the risk is high.

Goldberg argues that one of the things that makes the United States “great” is “that it is ours.” By that standard, any state can be considered “great” from the standpoint of its own nationalists who claim it as “theirs.” In my view, the US – or any nation – is only great in so far as it effectively promotes universal principles such as the protection of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” To the extent that the United States is more admirable than most other nations, it is in part because it was founded on those ideals rather than nationalism.

UPDATE: Lawrence Auster attacks this post by claiming that I am “against every human community other than a single universal mankind consisting of nothing but right-bearing individuals.” I think it pretty obvious that I am only attacking nationalism, which I described in the post as “loyalty to one’s own nation-state based on ties of language, culture, or ethnicity.” There are all sorts of human communities based on other types of connections – religion, ideology, interest, profession, family, neighborhood, friendship, and so on. Auster also misinterprets my argument when he claims that I think that to “see oneself as part of a particular people and to care about that people and to want that people to continue existing is a horribly dangerous attitude that must be scorned and crushed.” I have no objection to seeing oneself as part of a people. That is a purely empirical claim, with no necessary moral implications. I also have no objection to wanting a particular people to “continue existing.” What I do object to is the idea that we have special moral obligations to those who are part of our “people” in the sense of having the same ethnicity, race, language, or culture – obligations that at least sometimes trump the universal human rights of members of “other” peoples. There is a legitimate debate to be had over the value of nationalism. But that debate is not advanced by falsely claiming that opposition to nationalism is the same as opposition to all forms of community or the mere existence of peoples with differing cultures.