Is Nationalism the Friend or Foe of Liberty?

Israeli scholar Yoram Hazony is hitting the opinion pages (excerpts from his new book) with a provocative thesis: nationalism is not a threat to liberty but rather a guarantor of it. His argument is about stability under democracy. It requires mutual trust, fellow feeling, cultural cohesion, a sense that the other could be you because you share similar values, he argues. “Nationalism was the engine that established modern political liberty,” he claims, and now we need nationalism to maintain the kind of political stability that undergirds freedom itself.

This is near impossible in what he calls “multinational states,” by which he means a geographic territory too mixed up in terms of language, religious allegiance, and culture. He cites unsustainable states like Iraq, Syria, and Yugoslavia. Such mixing has worked, more or less, in the US because “the original American states shared the English language, Protestant religion and British legal traditions, and they had fought together in wartime.” New additions to the mix (Catholics, Jews, and former slaves) were acculturated only due to preexisting cultural dominance .

He further argues that the national consensus in the US no longer exists, due to high rates of immigration. This has shattered mutual loyalty, so as regards America as an experiment in multinational diversity: “It’s not clear that the U.S. is succeeding at this task.”

Good and Bad Nationalism?

You might be thinking you have heard this line before. You have seen the memes from the far right, read the tweets, bumped into the fanatics at rallies. Such sentiments have been credited with getting the current president elected.

But Hazony is careful to distance himself from such movements.

Every nationalist movement contains haters and bigots (though not necessarily more of them than are found in universalist political and religious movements). But nationalism’s vices are outweighed by its considerable virtues. A world in which independent nations are permitted to compete freely with one another is a world in which diverse ways of life can flourish, each an experiment in how human beings should live. We have good reason to believe that such a world holds out the best prospects for freedom, for innovation and advancement, and for tolerance.

If you had never read an argument for nationalism that is calm, reasoned, and rooted in history, you might find his point persuasive. Many liberals (and pre-libertarians) a century ago certainly did so.

Back then, the pressing issue, on which the fate of civilization rested, was the following: what should be the standard for the drawing of borders after the chaos of Great War? It was a war for democracy, they said but it was the death knell for the old multinational monarchies of Europe.

Political loyalty in the old world was based on dynasty, intermarriage of rulers, deal making, and religious control. In the new world, there is no question that democracy would be the watchword. The nobility would no longer rule; the people would be in charge. A unity global democracy is impossible. There must be states and there must be borders, so what constitutes the basis for nationhood?

Liberalism had a number of answers to the problem and most came down to precisely the terms that Hazony presents here. States should be organized along the lines of fellow feeling, mutual trust, and citizen identity in whatever form.

Liberal Nationalism

Ludwig von Mises, writing in 1919, was highly sympathetic to the nationalist project. What’s a nation? Mises rejected the then-fashionable trope of carving up the human population by race on grounds that the supposed science of the project was “a thicket of error, fantasy, and mysticism.” Instead, he  wanted to define a nation specifically according to one overriding standard: language. Polyglot nations are unsustainable. Experience in educational institutions alone shows this. Attempting to fund and run schools with multiple language groups feeds resentment and hate. It’s true for all public institutions. The only real answer is separation, that is, universal secession by smaller groups against larger groups. If national feeling feeds this, it is a friend of liberty.

What is the liberal attitude toward nationalism, in Mises’s view? The true liberal rejects dynastic control of lands because it “rejects the princes’ greed for lands and chaffering in lands.” Further, it embraces the right of a people to determine their own fate: self-determination, in the phrase of the time. However, Mises clarified that there is nothing inconsistent between love of nation and love of universal well being. Liberal nationalism is always directed against the tyrant. It always seeks peace between peoples: “The desire for national unity, too, is above all thoroughly peaceful.”

Now, keep in mind the year he was writing. It was 1919, before the rise of fascist ideology in Europe. The idea of forming states on the national principle alone was new, and Mises saw it as the only real path to preventing a new world war from being borne out of allied imperialism and postwar German resentment. His vision was to let bygones be bygones, let people alone, permit any group or any part of a group to form its own nation (even down to the individual level, if that were possible), and move toward a world of free trade, free migration, and universal limits on power.

Mises’s Mind Changed

The Misesian path was not the one followed, obviously. Mises’s 1927 book on liberalism drops the endorsement of nationalism but retains the longing for self-determination. After the Second World War, following his migration to the US as a refugee, having spent six years being sheltered in Geneva, he was given the chance to revisit the question of nationalism. His new outlook appeared in 1944, in Omnipotent Government. Mises had completely changed his mind.

This book goes to great lengths to walk back his theory from 1919. In a world of statism, nationalism is a philosophy of aggression. Whether based in religion, racism, or territorial expansionism, nationalism is a threat to liberty itself and the project of human cooperation. It leads to migration barriers, trade protectionism, violence against non-nationals, and finally war. He no longer believed that nationalism could be a friend of liberty. The reverse is true: “nationalism within our world of international division of labor is the inevitable outcome of etatism.”

What had made the difference? Life experience, for one. He watched his beloved Vienna be invaded by German armies. He saw the universities purged of intellectuals, particular those deemed Jewish and liberal. He saw Europe enveloped in despotism, war, and mass death, in the name of territorial expansion and domination by the master race. He watched with horror as the nationalist principle, the one he imagined might be a source of peace, become the basis of the bloodiest nightmare.

What mistake had he made? As he put it, his nationalist idea was rooted in an underlying philosophical presumption of liberalism, that is, models of public administration that do not interfere in people’s lives and property, do not seek war, do not restrict trade and migration, do not attempt to control racial and language demographics, and do not manipulate people’s desire for belongingness to shore up the power and status of a “great” leader. In other words, the real answer is liberty; nationalism not only contributes nothing to the cause but is easily weaponized by any state that expands beyond its proper role.

Renan’s Deconstruction

Mises, having witnessed the horrors of what nationalism wrought in his home and throughout Europe, sought out some theoretical basis for his new realization. He found it in a 1882 writing by the French historian Ernst Renan: What Is a Nation?  Mises was right: if another essay has done as good a job in dealing with the issue, I’m unaware of it. Renan wrote it while the age of monarchy was coming to a close, as the rise of democracy was occurring everywhere, but still before the Great War unleashed such territorial confusion. Ideologies like socialism, imperialism, and “scientific” racism were vying to replace old-world understandings of political community.

Renan observes that people frequently throw around the word nationalism without unpacking what precisely it means. He delineates five conventional theories of nationhood from history and practice.

Dynasty. This view believes that ruling-class lineage forms the foundation of nationhood. It’s about a history of initial conquest by one family or tribe over one people, its struggle to gain and maintain power and legitimacy, its marriages, wars, treaties, and alliances, along with a heroic legend. This is a solid description of European experience in feudal times, but it is not necessary for nationhood.

The dynastic sense of what nationhood is has largely evaporated in the 20th century, and yet nationhood is still with us. Renan saw that the dynastic view of the nation is not a permanent feature of the concept but only incidental to a time and place, and wholly replaceable. “A nation can exist without a dynastic principle,” writes Renan, “and even those nations which have been formed by dynasties can be separated from them without therefore ceasing to exist.”

Religion. The belief that a nation needs to practice a single faith has been the basis of wars and killings since the beginning of recorded history. It seemed like nationhood couldn’t exist without it, which is why the Schism of the 11th century and the Reformation of the 16th century led to such conflict.

Then emerged a beautiful idea: let people believe what they want to believe, so long as they are not hurting anyone. The idea was tried and it worked, and thus was born the idea of religious liberty that finally severed the idea of national belongingness from religious identity. Even as late as the 19th century, American political interests claimed that the US could not be a nation while accepting Catholic, Jewish, and Buddhist immigration. Today we see these claims for what they are, politically illicit longings for conquest over the right of conscience.

In addition, what might appear at first to be a single religion actually has radically different expressions. Pennsylvania Amish and Texas Baptists share the same religious designation but have vastly different praxis, and the same is true of Irish vs. Vietnamese vs. Guatemalan versions of Catholicism. This is also true of every other religious faith, including Judaism, Islam, and Hinduism.

Race. In the second half of the 19th century, there arose the new science of race, which purported to explain the evolution of all human societies through a deterministic reduction to biological characteristics. It was concluded that only race is firm and fixed and the basis of belongingness. Renan grants that in the most primitive societies, race is a large factor. But then comes other more developed aspects of the human experience: language, religion, art, music, and commercial engagement that break down racial divisions and create a new basis for community. Focussing on race alone is a revanchist longing in any civilized society.

There is also a scientific problem too complex for simple resolution: no political community on earth can claim to be defined solely by racial identity because there is no pure race (Mises says exactly the same thing). This is why politics can never be reduced to ethnographic identity as a first principle. Racial ideology also trends toward the politics of violence: “No one has the right to go through the world fingering people's skulls, and taking them by the throat saying: 'You are of our blood; you belong to us!'”

Language. As with the other claims of what constitutes nationality, the claim of language unity has a superficial plausibility. Polyglot communities living under a unity state face constant struggles over schooling, official business, and other issues of speech. They have the feeling of being two or several nations, thus tempting people to believe that language itself is the basis of nationhood. But this actually makes little sense: the US, New Zealand, and the UK are not a single nation because they hold the same language in common. Latin America and Spain, Portugal and Brazil, share the same language but not the same nation.

There is also the issue that not even a single language is actually unified: infinite varieties of expression and dialect can cause ongoing confusion. How much, really, does the language of an urban native of New Jersey have to do with expressions used in rural Mississippi? “Language invites people to unite,” writes Renan, “but it does not force them to do so.” There is nothing mystically unifying about speaking the same language; language facilitates communication but does not forge a nation. Mises too embraces this view, thus reversing his position from 1919.

Geography. Natural boundaries are another case of nation-making in the past which, as with all these other principles, actually has little to do with permanent features of what really makes a nation. Rivers and mountains can be convenient ways to draw borders but they do not permanently shape political communities. Geography can be easily overcome. It is malleable, as American history shows. The existence of geographically non-contiguous nations further refutes the notion.

Americans speak of “sea to shining sea,” but how does that make sense of Alaska and Hawaii? Also in the US, enclaves of past national loyalty are a feature of city life: little Brazil, Chinatown, little Havana, and so on. Even further, to try to force unity based on geography alone is very dangerous. “I know of no doctrine which is more arbitrary or more fatal,” writes Renan, “for it allows one to justify any or every violence.”

All the above have some plausible claim to explaining national attachment, but none hold up under close scrutiny. In Renan’s view, nationhood is a spiritual principle, a reflection of the affections we feel toward some kind of political community – its ideals, its past, its achievements, and its future. Where your heart is, there is your nation, as Albert Jay Nock said. This is why so many of us can feel genuine feelings of joy and even belongingness during July 4th celebrations. We are celebrating something in common: a feeling we have that we share with others, regardless of religion, race, language, geography, and even ideology.

Renan: “Man is a slave neither of his race nor his language, nor of his religion, nor of the course of rivers nor of the direction taken by mountain chains. A large aggregate of men, healthy in mind and warm of heart, creates the kind of moral conscience which we call a nation.”

Mises was clearly taken with this view, and hence his change of heart and mind.

Orwell on Nationalism

Around the same time, the always-remarkable George Orwell presented his own Notes on Nationalism in 1945. It’s not as careful an essay as Renan’s but consider the context: fury and disgust at the rise of Nazism, nationalism communism in Russia, and a ghastly war that wrecked so much of the world. Orwell had it up to here with collectivism of all sorts.

His essay is in three parts. He first defines it: “the habit of assuming that human beings can be classified like insects and that whole blocks of millions or tens of millions of people can be confidently labelled ‘good’ or ‘bad.’” Secondly, “the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognising no other duty than that of advancing its interests.”

Notice that Orwell’s definition is not rooted in the territorial issue. His nationalism is more ideological. It’s the habitual and uncritical celebration of some group-based cause that one believes is specially blessed to solve all the world’s problems. In this sense, the typical Communist is a nationalist, looking the world over for revolutionary movements to cheer on, such as the political pilgrims who look at a place like Cuba and Venezuela and find not tyranny but emancipation. He even finds nationalism in the works of G.K. Chesterton who celebrated a “little England” but found virtue in expanding imperialism so long as it took on the Catholic brand (Orwell was especially disgusted at Chesterton’s defense of Mussolini).

Second, Orwell identified three nationalistic habits of mind.

First, obsession: “No nationalist ever thinks, talks, or writes about anything except the superiority of his own power unit. It is difficult if not impossible for any nationalist to conceal his allegiance. The smallest slur upon his own unit, or any implied praise of a rival organization, fills him with uneasiness which he can relieve only by making some sharp retort.”

Second, instability. “The intensity with which they are held does not prevent nationalist loyalties from being transferable.” It’s a tribalist mindset and it can easily migrate. Thus were so many fascists recruited from the ranks of communists, and so many champions of the Pan-Germanism that bred Nazism came from the upper-class ranks of British society. In his view, nationalism is inherently unprincipled in this way.

Third, indifference to reality. “All nationalists have the power of not seeing resemblances between similar sets of facts…. Actions are held to be good or bad, not on their own merits, but according to who does them, and there is almost no kind of outrage — torture, the use of hostages, forced labour, mass deportations, imprisonment without trial, forgery, assassination, the bombing of civilians — which does not change its moral colour when it is committed by ‘our’ side.”

He elaborates this prescient point that pervades the left and right today.

Although endlessly brooding on power, victory, defeat, revenge, the nationalist is often somewhat uninterested in what happens in the real world. What he wants is to feel that his own unit is getting the better of some other unit, and he can more easily do this by scoring off an adversary than by examining the facts to see whether they support him. All nationalist controversy is at the debating-society level. It is always entirely inconclusive, since each contestant invariably believes himself to have won the victory. Some nationalists are not far from schizophrenia, living quite happily amid dreams of power and conquest which have no connection with the physical world.

Orwell discusses other manifestations of this mentality, such as forms of identity politics. All salvation comes from the white race; all virtue is in the non-white races. All glory or evil resides in the Jewish people. Greatness/evil extends from one country. And we could go on with every list in the identitarianism of our time: misogyny/feminism, disabled/abled, Christian/Islam, rich/poor, and so on.

The nationalist is forever counterposing diverse societies with homogenous ones, as if the latter thing even exists. The word homogeneity should not even apply in any literal sense to any two members of the human family. No two people are the same; even twins have minds of their own. The chase for a homogenous population will always and everywhere result in forcing people into a group not of their choosing.

Orwell writes: “The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality."

What’s most interesting about Orwell’s essay is that he takes a broadened view of the nationality question, to the point that it is no longer about territorial politics alone and instead touches on the psychological impact of political rule itself. (Sigmund Freud has long ago identified this as a pathology in his overlooked Group Psychology book.)

In this case, his analysis of nationalism applies not only to Nazism, not only to Communism, not only to Catholicism or any other religious or identitarian movement you can name. It could, conceivably apply, for example to libertarianism itself. No one, no movement, is immune from the virus. Reflect on that point to perhaps explain a lot that has happened to the “liberty movement” over the last ten years.

Back to Hazony

Our Israeli professor friend Yoram Hazony is not unaware of Orwell’s writings, and addresses them directly. Still, he comes out on the other side, still arguing that nationalism is a friend of liberty. But what does he mean by liberty? He means democracy, stability, and high trust among society’s members such they that have warm affections for the national state and see it as an essential source for social order.

“The national state leverages these bonds of mutual loyalty,” he writes, “to get individuals to obey the laws, serve in the military and pay taxes, even when their own party or tribe is out of power and the government’s policies are not to their liking.”

This might be right – nationalism is certainly useful in manipulating people to intensify loyalties to the state – but is this necessarily the highest goal of society? Liberalism argued that the answer is no. The highest goal of society is realized through freedom that leaves people alone in their person and property to find their own path to happiness.

A century ago, Hazony’s views might have been plausible. No more. Ludwig von Mises learned this lesson between his earliest and later writings. He lived through the experiment in controlled nationalism, and discovered the truth that it cannot be controlled. In fact, it can unleash literal hell as a propaganda device to disguise gross injustice and evil.

A nationalism that presents itself as a friend of liberty is one that must willfully ignore that most bitter lessons of the last century, while eschewing the greatest lesson of all: the only true guarantor of liberty is liberty itself.

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Jeffrey A. Tucker

Jeffrey A. Tucker is Editorial Director for the American Institute for Economic Research. He is the author of many thousands of articles in the scholarly and popular press and eight books in 5 languages. He speaks widely on topics of economics, technology, social philosophy, and culture. He is available for speaking and interviews via his emailTw | FB | LinkedIn