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Rehabilitating Nationalism?

January 2, 2019

I recently finished Yoram Hazony’s *The Virtue of Nationalism,* which makes the case for an international order based on nationalism – or rather, nationalismsplural.

Hazony heads the Herzl Institute – a Zionist organization named for Theodor Herzl, a founding father of the modern state of Israel – and speaks favorably (if guardedly) of nationalist movements backing Trump in the U.S. and Brexit in the U.K. He contrasts the underlying principles behind these trends with those behind the post-war “internationalist” consensus.

Empire, Hazony says, has been resurrected under a neoliberal internationalist banner. While friendly to free enterprise, he does not buy into the full logic of market liberalism, which threatens national sovereignty with porous borders (both open immigration and free trade). He also acknowledges that there may be some countries which will not embrace “markets + democracy” as the final formula for perfect prosperity. And that’s okay, he says – we should embrace different experiments.

I’ve always assumed that a genuine classical liberal would not want to impose an international order on the entire world just to guarantee the existence of a global market. However, the last chapter of Hayek’s Road to Serfdom, titled, “The Prospects for an International Order,” is a call for a kind of world superstate to ensure peace and free trade among the diverse peoples of the world.

The Virtue of Nationalism also contains a quote in which Ludwig von Mises endorses a world government to guarantee free trade and prevent conflicts. [As a side note, this provides further evidence for the hypothesis that most of the Austrian School’s big important ideas were incorporated into the status quo a long time ago – liberal economists are just loath to give them any credit.] This tenet of classical liberalism must, in the last analysis, completely break down any notion of national sovereignty in favor of each individuals right to contract in full liberty with any other individual on the planet.

Much of Hazony’s thesis is familiar Burkean conservative counterpoints to the excessive rationalism of the Enlightenment. He notes that family and tribal bonds matter more to our lives than purely economic considerations, and thus it makes sense that our political institutions reflect the centrality of these mutual loyalties. Nations, like the ancient and modern nation of Israel, are just groups of tribes that unite for their common defense – i.e., to protect a shared culture and religion. Citing Israel as an example, he stresses that nations are not always linked to ethnicity. They rise and fall based on whether or not they can effectively unite around principles (such as the “biblical moral minimum“) that ensure an inner coherence that buttresses outward strength.

Empires, on the other hand, rely on weaker but more universal incentives, i.e., keeping the peace for prosperous trade. This means that the particular values of a tribe or group of tribes become a threat to the stability of the empire if they come into conflict with the values of another tribe or group of tribes. Thus, we may get fewer squabbles in an international order, but the end result is a weaker social fabric throughout and a more fragile society. An order comprising a multitude of nations may have more localized skirmishes, in which neighboring nations compete for their place in the status hierarchy, but will be more robust in the long term.

An international order based on nation states would not result in a zero-sum game between cultures, but there would inevitably be conflicts between countries. There is a parallel here to evolution, where species progress through “as-if experimentation” in competition over resources. There is thus the question of what kind of cultural evolution Hazony’s preferred order would generate. Would it lead to a flourishing of the subtle distinctions that enabled both order and liberty to emerge in Europe and the United States after the Westphalian notion of the state was born? Or would it simply lead to a re-capitulation of might-makes-right and survival of the fittest?

Certainly the experience of the 20th century should make us all nervous about the wrong kinds of nationalist sentiment. Nationalism was the second most murderous ideology killer after communism if you take Nazi Germany’s label of national socialism at face value.  Hazony’s response to this was perhaps the most interesting part of the book. He traces Hitler’s plans to the imperial project dating back to the Holy Roman Empire, which found modern expression in Immanuel Kant’s Perpetual Peace (1795). Germany never had a national identity to speak of, and national socialism in Austria and Germany was merely a pretext to unite Europe under a new imperial regime, he argues.

Hazony’s project is not utopian and he admits that what he is advocating must be developed over the course of centuries. The first step, however, is admitting that much of the “progress” we’ve enjoyed at the hands of enlightened liberals may not be the fulfillment of the promise God made to Abraham, or the arrival to the Promised Land. He saves his theological ammunition for the last chapter when he notes that the patriarchs in Judaism (exemplified by Abraham – the founder of monotheistic faith) were never promised anything more than rule over the single nation of Israel:

And Abram fell on his face: and God talked with him, saying,

As for me, behold, my covenant is with thee, and thou shalt be a father of many nations.

Neither shall thy name any more be called Abram, but thy name shall be Abraham; for a father of many nations have I made thee.

And I will make thee exceeding fruitful, and I will make nations of thee, and kings shall come out of thee.

And I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee.

Neither Abraham nor Moses nor any of the other prophets or Kings of Israel is ever promised a reign over the entire world, yet today there are dozens of independent nations that carry some form of the Hebrew moral law in their “genes.” How this law is to be carried out in the present age is not specified anywhere in scripture (neither Old Testament or New). To take just one axis of government, we can’t know in advance what combination of judgment and mercy ought to be meted out by the ideal justice system, and it requires experimentation through which the “dead branches” can be pruned, making room for fresh growth. Empire precludes this possibility.

Finally, Hazony’s praise for nationalism has to be understood to include the nationalism – distinct from patriotism – that is unique to the United States. F.H. Buckley has called it a “liberal nationalism,” in which constitutional liberties (including the right to burn the flag) form the basis of solidarity among our people.

In short, nationalism must be understood to have nothing to do with ethnic chauvinism, and everything to do with the appropriate boundaries for experimentation with and preservation of customs that prove beneficial for the flourishing of their people. The risk is always that one nation morphs into an empire or hegemonic power, which it uses to oppress its peaceful neighbors.

It could potentially be desirable to conceive of Hazony’s proposed order as a kind of Federalism writ large – wherein some overarching body would guarantee certain fundamental liberties like free exit. Perhaps Hayek envisioned his preferred international “order” as an emergent phenomena, but it’s hard to envision a system of checks and balances being imposed on such an order, so in the end I find Hazony’s critique convincing.

Buy the book here.

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