Nationalism: Good or Bad?

When we talk about nationalism, there are actually two different things that can be discussed. Often, these things can get conflated and this can result in unnecessary confusion.

In one sense, nationalism refers to the idea that the nation, or the will/interests of the nation, take precedence over either a) smaller (less centralized) bodies of governance (“States” in the US sense of the word or localities) or b) the property rights of the individual. This nationalism is historically connected with Italian fascism and Hitlerite Nazism. In this view, the nation-state is preeminent and all “rights” that belong to non-state entities are granted by the state and can therefore be rescinded by the state. For obvious reasons, libertarians are adamantly opposed, in practice and in theory, to this sort of nationalism.

There is, however, a more benign and potentially acceptable form of “nationalism.” Here, the meaning is not ideological or rationalistic; but is rather empirical and pragmatic. One form that this view takes in the current cultural-social setting is a skepticism of global or international socialism. Especially in the United States, there is a strong opposition to takeover attempts by the Power Elite at the international level to intervene and regularize customs and laws within the borders of the nation. In this sense, the argument is that decentralization of power is important for the prospects of a free society. Moreover, there is realization that international efforts to accumulate political power by obfuscating borders can, by leveraging the dangerous system of “democracy,” ruin a general like-mindedness on issues relating to property rights. Thus, proponents of “nationalism” in this sense are aware of efforts to acquire power via internationalization of bureaucratic socialism. They are therefore “nationalists” in the sense that they see that the trend of the institutions of Coercive Power is toward globalism and the nation ought to be, given the context, a bulwark against it. This does not imply, of course, that the nation-state is preeminent or primary above even further decentralization, even down to the individual.

It’s extremely vital to emphasize the empirical nature of the second use of the term. This is because, if it becomes ideological, one gets dangerously close to the first use of the term. What I mean by empirical vs. ideological is similar to how I distinguished between the different categories of conservatism and libertarianism in my defense of being a conservative libertarian. Consider:

Beyond this, Hoppe points out that conservatism (which tends to be “empiricistic, sociological, and descriptive”) focuses on “families, authority, communities, and social ranks” while libertarianism (which is “rationalistic, philosophical, logical, and constructivist”) focuses on the “concepts of property, production, exchange, and contract.”  And therefore the former is the “concretization” of the latter.  Conservatism needs a theory and libertarianism has practical expressions –that is, a natural and physical order.  If conservatism desires to return to a “moral and cultural normalcy,” it needs libertarianism’s consistent and defensible antistatism.

Thus, ideologically and theoretically, there is no “nationalism” in libertarianism. But pragmatically and sociologically, one can prefer a smaller state (the nation) over the larger one (a global order). To be consistent, naturally, one ought to prefer a smaller state (one of the US “States”) over a larger one (the Federal Government), and so on down the line.

Left-libertarians, being rather hysterical, interpret advocacy of the second use of the term as advocacy with the first use of the term. Thus, when Jeff Deist pointed out that people in this country still care about the nation, he was branded a Nazi sympathizer. But the internationalist libertarians, who don’t care about decentralization, can’t conceive of the possibility of the above two meanings being separated.

Finally, a comment stemming from emotion: someone online recently mocked Mises for referring to Austria as his beloved homeland. Consider my comment on an excerpt from Margit von Mises’ biography:

For all his heroism and courage, Mises too felt the deep pain and loss of the beloved culture of his ancestors. It was not just that Hitler was a bad man. It’s that socialism and revolutionary leftism destroyed an entire Old World culture that pulled deeply at Mises’ heart. In fact, his wife Margit reflected on this pain when she wrote:

From the day of our marriage he never talked about our past. If I reminded him now and then of something, he cut me short. It was as if he had put the past in a trunk, stored it in the attic, and thrown away the key. In thirty-five years of marriage he never, never– not with a single word– referred to our life together during the thirteen years before our marriage.

The decade before their marriage was their time in Austria, before they were forced to flee as the Nazis raided his apartment and burned his books and writings. It was too painful, what became of his beloved homeland. Indeed, for Mises, the rise of socialism and the German statism was a reflection of a “world that was fading away.” Margit:

Lu followed the political situation in Germany and Austria with passionate interest. He saw the slippery road the Austrian leaders were forced upon. He knew Hitler’s rise to power would endanger Austria, and he knew exactly what the future would bring. Only the date was a secret to him. Lu was a typical Austrian. He loved his native country, the mountains, the city of Vienna, the beauty of the old palaces, the crooked streets, the fountains-but this, too, was something so deeply imbedded in his soul he rarely would talk about it. But I knew how he felt and how deeply he was hurt.

The someone who mocked Mises expressed disdain for Mises’ sadness– after all, why get emotional about a nation?! Libertarians are against central states! This person does not understand the empirical sense in which the second use of the term nationalism stands as an imperfect, but real, bulwark against the tide of internationalist tendencies by socialist governments. Cultures of smaller geographical areas are upended in the invasion of bigger states. These are real life matters. Being a libertarian does not mean we can’t prefer a smaller state-body over a larger and foreign intervening one– even if the invasion is not militaristic.

One last thing to ensure I am being clear: while libertarianism can be held together with something similar to the second use of the nationalism phrase, I also do not think that libertarianism, strictly speaking, demands that one adhere to it. One doesn’t have to agree with nationalism in the second sense– though I personally am sympathetic to the idea behind it. These are nuanced matters of course and I should go on the record to say that I don’t think libertarians should be in the habit of outright declaring and labeling themselves “nationalists” (as people like Chase Rachels do). Nevertheless, when speaking with people we should identify what they mean when they defend the nation– are they defending it against internationalism of politics or are they defending its right to ignore further decentralization and the right of the individual?

I began to rethink my views on immigration when, as the Soviet Union collapsed, it became clear that ethnic Russians had been encouraged to flood into Estonia and Latvia in order to destroy the cultures and languages of these peoples. Previously, it had been easy to dismiss as unrealistic Jean Raspail’s anti-immigration novel The Camp of the Saints, in which virtually the entire population of India decides to move, in small boats, into France, and the French, infected by liberal ideology, cannot summon the will to prevent economic and cultural national destruction. As cultural and welfare-state problems have intensified, it became impossible to dismiss Raspail’s concerns any longer.

However, on rethinking immigration on the basis of the anarcho- capitalist model, it became clear to me that a totally privatized country would not have “open borders” at all. If every piece of land in a country were owned by some person, group, or corporation, this would mean that no immigrant could enter there unless invited to enter and allowed to rent, or purchase, property. A totally privatized country would be as “closed” as the particular inhabitants and property owners desire. It seems clear, then, that the regime of open borders that exists de facto in the U.S. really amounts to a compulsory opening by the central state, the state in charge of all streets and public land areas, and does not genuinely reflect the wishes of the proprietors.

Under total privatization, many local conflicts and “externality” problems-not merely the immigration problem-would be neatly settled. With every locale and neighborhood owned by private firms, corporations, or contractual communities, true diversity would reign, in accordance with the preferences of each community. Some neighborhoods would be ethnically or economically diverse, while others would be ethnically or economically homogeneous.

–Murray Rothbard, Nations by Consent