The Case Against Nationalism

Alex Nowrasteh & Ilya Somin

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Nationalism has become a dominant ideology on the American political right and has gained ground in many European countries over the last decade. This has happened without sufficient attention to the dangers inherent in nationalism — dangers evident in theory and in practice in this latest iteration of nationalism as well as prior ones.

Nationalism is particularly dangerous in a diverse nation like the United States, where it is likely to exacerbate conflict. The ideology is virtually impossible to separate from harmful ethnic and racial discrimination of a kind conservatives would readily condemn in other contexts. Like socialism, with which it has important similarities, nationalism encourages harmful government control over the economy. Nationalism also poses a threat to democratic institutions. Finally, nationalist ideology is at odds with America's foundational principles, which are based on universal natural rights, not ethnic particularism.

In crucial ways, nationalism is just socialism with different flags and more ethnic chauvinism. All Americans, but especially traditional conservatives, classical liberals, and libertarians, should recognize nationalism's dangers and recommit instead to the core principles of our founding.

WHAT IS NATIONALISM?

American conservatism is a dynamic movement that has shifted its ideological emphases over the last several decades. In the aftermath of the September 11th attacks on the United States, neoconservatism was briefly ascendant. After the financial crisis of 2008-2009, a quasi-libertarian Tea Party that emphasized free markets and government restraint came to the fore. The rise of Donald Trump marked another ideological shift, this time toward nationalism — a fuzzy concept that includes national greatness, toughness, support for entitlement programs, and greater skepticism of interactions with foreigners through trade and immigration. President Trump used the term in 2018 to summarize his own ideology: "[Y]ou know, they have a word, it sort of became old-fashioned. It's called a nationalist....You know what I am? I'm a nationalist. OK? I'm a nationalist....Use that word. Use that word."

Trump's policy positions and rhetorical style differed from those of others on the political right, prompting some conservative intellectuals to attempt to construct a coherent ideology around their new figurehead's pronouncements. Intellectuals may be much less important to the conservative movement than they have been in years past, but they crave an ideologically consistent model of the world in which to place Trump — the apparent leader of modern American conservatism.

Previous strains of conservatism were bounded to a degree by their three-legged ideological stool of traditional religious morality, American interventionist leadership in world affairs, and free-market economics. Trump broke that stool and replaced it with nationalism — or, at least, that's what conservative intellectuals like Yoram Hazony, Rich Lowry, and a coterie of national conservatives (NatCons) have tried to fill the gap with.

Trump, Hazony, and Lowry insist on using the word "nationalism" to describe their ideology, with the latter two spilling much ink trying to distinguish it from patriotism. But what does "nationalism" mean?

The meaning of nationalism has been the topic of much debate on the right in recent years, but it is necessary to discuss again here because American defenders of nationalism, as well as others from the Anglosphere, have done a poor job of defining their core ideology for an American audience.

Hazony writes that a nation is "a number of tribes with a common language or religion, and a past history of acting as a body for the common defense and other large-scale enterprises." "[T]he world [is] governed best," he adds, "when nations are able to chart their own independent course, cultivating their own traditions and pursuing their own interests without interference." Curiously, he also argues that nations that conquer others are not real nationalist entities. Yet virtually every major power that exists today has an extensive history of conquest. Indeed, under Hazony's definition, most states in the West — including most European countries that developed rapidly during the 19th and 20th centuries — are not "real" nation-states.

Lowry, meanwhile, defines nationalism as love of one's culture, language, history, institutions, holidays, and everything good in a nation. Under this definition, nationalism does not imply dislike of foreigners, but is instead an ideological love for one's fellow citizens based on shared cultural characteristics. Yet Lowry's definition renders nationalism indistinguishable from patriotism — a word that's supposed to mean something else, according to nationalists themselves.

One of the great failures of these and other definitions of nationalism is that they are purely theoretical, and bear almost no relationship to how nationalism actually exists. Nationalists in the real world know what they've signed up for; intellectuals who argue otherwise are fooling themselves. Real-world nationalism is a primitive, statist, protectionist, anti-capitalist, xenophobic, and often ethnocentric proto-ideology of "my tribe best, your tribe bad," with the tribe lying at the core. Indeed, the Latin root of the word "nationalism" — natio — means "a race of people," or "tribe." This is how nationalism is understood in Europe and the rest of the world, and why most Americans recoil from it, preferring instead to think of nationalism as a form of "super patriotism" or assume that the terms "nation" and "country" are synonyms.

At root, nationalism is an ideology of group rights that denigrates individualism in favor of an abstraction called "the nation." Its foundational principle is that government exists primarily to protect the culture and interests of the nation, or its dominant group. This implies that government can use its authority to protect the national culture against potential dangers — including other domestic groups and the potential spread of their cultures. To promote the dominant group, government must have the power to act assertively on its behalf, which necessarily means constraining others.

Hazony recognizes as much, noting that his theory of nationalism requires that within each state, there be "a majority nation whose dominance is plain and unquestioned, and against which resistance appears to be futile." He does not seem to be averse to the use of coercion to maintain cultural dominance within a nation.

Lowry is less explicit on this point. But his definition, too, logically entails coercive enforcement of a common culture. If civil society or markets begin to erode or transform the common culture he claims lies at the heart of the nation, the government would have to either preserve that culture's dominance by force or accept the dilution or disappearance of what Lowry views as the nation's essence.

Nationalists often define a nation in terms of what it's not. That frame naturally applies to immigrants, who hail from foreign countries and are therefore not part of the nation. But it also readily applies to nationalists' fellow citizens. Nationalists in the United States routinely single out groups that are not "real" Americans: Claremont Institute senior fellow Glenn Ellmers, to take just one example, has written that the 81 million Americans who voted for Joe Biden in 2020 are "not Americans in any meaningful sense of the term."

But who are the real Americans in a country as diverse as the United States?

The obvious starting point is those who support nationalism. Policy disagreements hinging on such support often devolve into battles between authentic and "inauthentic" Americans who are seeking to undermine the nation. When confronted with a nationalist-endorsed political loyalty test, those of us who fail are disloyal not just to a political program, but to the nation itself.

As a practical matter, it's difficult to enforce cultural nationalism without extensive ethnic discrimination, or disparate enforcement that will justifiably be perceived as ethnically motivated (at least in a society with a substantial degree of ethnic or racial diversity). In theory, government could discriminate based on culture rather than race or ethnicity. But doing so would require it to develop standards to determine what qualifies as "authentic" American culture — an undertaking that cannot be done accurately or objectively. No federal bureaucracy is likely to be up to the task.

History bears out the connection between nationalism and identity-based discrimination. Governments that have sought to preserve a single dominant culture have routinely discriminated against ethnic minority groups. In its worst — and far from uncommon — manifestations, nationalism has led to massive oppression, and even genocide. The historical examples are legion and well known. Today, nationalist governments in Russia, China, and elsewhere are continuing that gruesome tradition by oppressing minority groups (as with the Uyghurs in China) and waging wars of conquest justified by the theory that their group is the true owner of the land in question (as with Russia's brutal invasion of Ukraine).

Similar, though fortunately less extreme, oppression has occurred in the United States when Americans have attempted to adopt European nationalist ideas. During the 19th century, American nationalism led to such measures as the racially motivated Chinese Exclusion Act, which barred most Chinese migration to the United States in large part out of nativist fears that the Chinese posed a threat to American culture. The same concerns led many state and local governments to discriminate against Asian immigrants in a variety of ways. Later, the 1924 Immigration Act barred most immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, largely due to fears that they would undermine American values and somehow harm white, native-born citizens.

Nationalism's implication of identity-based discrimination has reemerged among some conservative nationalists today. The popularity of the "great replacement" theory (the notion that nefarious elites are using non-white immigrants to "replace" native-born Americans) on much of the right is the most blatant example. But even more intellectually respectable and academically credentialed conservatives, such as University of Pennsylvania law professor Amy Wax, openly advocate racial discrimination in immigration policy, for fear that immigrants (Asians are the particular object of Wax's concerns) will detract from American values and vote for the wrong political party.

One of the lessons of history is that it is difficult to constrain nationalist passions once they have been kindled. Conservatives rightly point out the danger of stoking group antagonisms when it comes to left-wing identity politics. But their own embrace of nationalism carries similar risks. In fact, stoking the nationalist passions of the majority group in a democratic society creates a more potent threat than minority-group identity politics. The majority generally has more political power than minorities, and therefore it can cause greater harm by abusing that power. If the conservative movement continues to embrace nationalism, we may well see far worse consequences than those that have already occurred.

NATIONALIST ECONOMICS

Nationalists in the United States and elsewhere advocate wide-ranging government control of the economy, most notably in the form of industrial policy, protectionism, and immigration restrictionism. In this respect, the nationalism of the right has much in common with the socialism of the left. It's no accident that the more extreme early 20th-century nationalists, such as the Nazis and Italian fascists, explicitly sought to appropriate socialist economic policies for purposes of helping their preferred ethnic groups, as opposed to the more expressly universalist objectives of left-wing socialists. It should not, therefore, be surprising that nationalist economic policies have many of the same flaws as their socialist counterparts.

To preserve their dominance and promote their interests, nationalists here and elsewhere advocate government control not only of the culture, but of the economy as well. In the United States, NatCon economic policy channels early 20th-century progressivism by embracing industrial policy, immigration restrictions, and trade protectionism — three policies that almost always produce harmful outcomes, suffer from problems similar to those that bedevil socialist central planners, and can lead to disaster.

Industrial policy consists of government efforts to promote industries supposedly critical for the nation's economy or security. Ethanol subsidies offer an illustrative example of industrial policy in the United States — as well as its deleterious effects.

Following the energy crisis of the 1970s, American economic planners decided that subsidizing the production of ethanol — a corn-based fuel — would ensure U.S. energy independence and reduce carbon emissions by supplementing the supply of gasoline and providing a partial substitute. Tragically, ethanol worsened automobile mileage through the blended fuel sold to consumers. It also put limited downward price pressure on gasoline but increased the price of corn, which made ethanol economically unsustainable without increased subsidies.

Many environmentalists today oppose ethanol subsidies, and higher domestic oil production in more recent years has convinced many to be less concerned with the likely unattainable goal of energy independence. Still, some ethanol subsidies persist because their benefits are concentrated in a few politically well-connected locations while their costs, which are borne by all taxpayers and consumers of food and gasoline, are widely dispersed.

Opposition to most immigration, even the legal kind, is another common nationalist policy. Nationalists typically oppose immigration in part for cultural reasons, as noted above, but also for economic ones. They blame immigrants for everything from receiving excessive welfare benefits (even though immigrants consume less of such benefits than native-born Americans) to blowing up budget deficits (in fact, barring all or most immigrants would increase deficits) and reducing wages of native-born, blue-collar American workers (some studies suggest that immigration increases wages for this population over time). In other words, nationalists simultaneously blame immigrants for being lazy freeloaders living off the hardworking American taxpayer and also for working too hard and taking jobs from native-born Americans who can't find employment. Over the long term, immigration restrictions reduce economic growth, population growth, and scientific progress — thereby guaranteeing that there will be fewer Americans in the future and that they will be poorer than they otherwise might be.

Trade protectionism is the third major economic policy nationalists tend to embrace — and American NatCons are no exception. They often justify protectionist policies using a zero-sum mentality, in which gains for the nation necessarily come at the expense of others and vice versa. As Trump put it, if we have a trade deficit with other nations, it is a sign that we are "losers" (and, by implication, that they are "winners").

The baby-formula crisis of 2022 offers an example of trade protectionism that, when combined with nationalist industrial policy, increased scarcity of the only food that many infants can consume. An average effective tariff rate of 25.1% on imported formula between 2012 and 2021, non-tariff regulatory barriers on the same, and domestic policies that incentivized concentration among American formula manufacturers created an onshore production and supply chain where 98% of the baby formula that Americans consumed was produced in the United States.

This economic nationalism crashed onto the shores of economic reality when a single formula factory shut down in early 2022, sending the price of formula skyrocketing. To ensure American infants had access to food, the Biden administration resorted to airlifting formula from other countries into the United States. Finally, Congress suspended the tariffs on imported and finished formula until the end of the year. So much for onshore production leading to more security.

Given the overlap between nationalism and socialism, it should not be surprising that their economic policies have many of the same pitfalls. The most significant are knowledge problems and perverse incentives arising from dangerous concentrations of power.

During the mid-20th century, Nobel Prize-winning economist Friedrich Hayek famously argued that socialism cannot work because central planners lack the knowledge needed to determine which goods to produce and in what quantities — a concept commonly referred to as the "knowledge problem." Market prices, he argued, enable producers to know the relative value of different goods and services, and to determine how much consumers value their products.

Nationalist economic planners, like their socialist counterparts, have no way of knowing this information. They also have no good way of determining which industries government should promote and how much it should promote them. Nor have they any basis for concluding that foreign products or immigrant workers are somehow worse than domestic ones.

For these reasons, nationalist economic planning has produced poverty and stagnation — much like its socialist counterpart. Such were the results in nations like Argentina (where nationalism wrecked one of Latin America's most successful economies), Spain, and Portugal under their nationalist regimes.

As for the incentive problem, nationalist economic policy — like socialism — requires concentrated government power. Only thus can politicians and bureaucrats promote their favored industries, exclude foreign goods and workers, and so on. Yet government actors are not disciplined by market prices, nor are they incentivized to seek profit by satisfying consumers like firms in the private sector. They are instead guided by the demands of political leaders and direct their energies toward pleasing state authorities, who increasingly control the purse strings. Thus, they tend to pursue inefficient economic projects that squander vast resources on political goals while making less of an effort to satisfy consumer preferences.

Nationalism does not resolve the knowledge or incentive problems that undermine socialism; government-dominated economies have the same deficiencies regardless of whether the state swears allegiance to a mythical international proletariat, an ethno-cultural group, or a leader who supposedly embodies its culture and virtues (more on this below). Depending on the degree of state control of the economy, the results may include mismanagement, cronyism, and economic ossification. Nationalism is no substitute for market prices and incentives.

THE NATIONALIST THREAT TO DEMOCRACY

As mentioned above, nationalism's imperative of promoting the cultural and economic dominance of the favored group requires concentrating power in a centralized state. This feature is not unique to nationalism. But nationalism makes a virtue of that power and tends to concentrate it in a single individual — the leader. This is because nations are large groups of strangers connected by cultural or ethnic ties; they are not communities of people who actually know each other. Thus, as with every large group, totems are required to represent the collective, and the dominant totem in most governments is the head of state.

Yet nationalism often goes further than other ideologies by idolizing the head of state as the embodiment of all the manly virtues — strength, charisma, and the will to succeed — that the nation supposedly holds. The strong nationalist leader is said to stand above the petty individual disagreements and distinctions between citizens, and instead represents the nation as a whole. He supposedly wipes away the problems of public choice and political economy that bedevil normal governance. The cult of personality builds from there, whereby the leader — frequently a strongman and sometimes a dictator or king — becomes the nation. Again, this tendency isn't entirely unique to nationalism. But it is a distinguishing feature of nationalism when compared to most other political ideologies — especially classical liberalism, which views political leaders with suspicion.

Donald Trump's efforts to remain in power after losing the 2020 election exemplify the danger that nationalism poses to democracy. Some of what occurred then was a result of Trump's distinctive personality and behavior, and of idiosyncratic characteristics of the American political system, such as the Electoral College. But much of it arose from common characteristics of ethno-nationalist and nativist movements around the world.

Over the last century, nationalist movements have routinely subverted democratic institutions, often installing brutal dictatorships in their stead. The Nazis are, of course, the most notorious and extreme example. But the same was true of other early 20th-century fascist movements in Italy and Spain. More recently, nationalist movements have undermined or even destroyed democracy in Russia, Hungary, India, and elsewhere. In each of these cases, nationalist authoritarians claimed to represent the true will of the people — with "the people" defined as those of the majority ethnicity, religion, or culture. Such claims naturally lead to the idea that election victories by the non-nationalist opposition must be illegitimate, since only the nationalists represent "real" Americans — or Russians, Hungarians, or Indians.

Nationalist movements also commonly promote conspiracy theories when they lose. If nationalists alone represent the will of the people, any political setbacks must be due to the machinations of shadowy, nefarious forces, such as foreigners, "globalist" elites, international bankers, Jews, other ethnic minorities, and so on. Trump's claims that a combination of foreigners, illegal-immigrant voters, and nefarious elites "stole" the 2020 election from him are a typical example of nationalist conspiracy-mongering. If nationalist ideology cements its dominance on the right, we risk similar shenanigans in future elections — even if Trump disappears from the scene and is replaced by more conventional politicians. In a movement where anti-democratic conspiracy-mongering becomes the primary route to power, ambitious "normal" politicians will be happy to follow in Trump's footsteps.

NATIONALISM AND THE FOUNDING

The attempt to graft the arguments, verbiage, and symbolism from foreign nationalisms onto the United States — a country that is almost uniquely unable to accommodate them — is a fool's errand. America was born not as a nation bound by ties of blood and reinforced by a centrally planned culture and economy (like many of the nations of Europe), but as a creedal country with a civic identity.

Unlike many other independence movements, the American Revolution was not based on ethnic or nationalistic justifications. Nowhere does the Declaration of Independence state that Americans have a right to their own nation because they are a distinct racial, ethnic, or cultural group. Indeed, the founders could not assert any such claim because most of the white American population at the time consisted of members of the same groups (English and Scots) as the majority of Britons, and spoke the same language.

Rather, the justification for American independence was the need to escape oppression by the British government — the "repeated injuries and usurpations" enumerated in the Declaration — and to establish a government that would more fully protect the rights to "Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness." Leading founders understood that these rights applied regardless of culture, ethnicity, and race. Nowhere was this clearer than in their openness to immigration, a position that puts them radically at odds with modern nationalists.

In his famous General Orders to the Continental Army, issued at the end of the Revolutionary War in 1783, George Washington stated that one of the reasons the United States had been founded was to create "an Asylum for the poor and oppressed of all nations and religions." He expressed similar views on other occasions, including writing to a group of newly arrived Irish immigrants that "[t]he bosom of America is open to receive not only the opulent & respectable Stranger, but the oppressed & persecuted of all Nations & Religions." Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Wilson expressed similar sentiments.

Indeed, central to the founding was the idea that all people enjoy natural rights that must not be limited by arbitrary circumstances of birth, including race and ethnicity. That is why Enlightenment liberals — including the founders — condemned hereditary aristocracy and feudal systems, where liberty was constrained based on ancestry. Immigration restrictions, too, constrain liberty based on circumstances of birth. In this respect, they are similar to racial segregation, and to the "peculiar institution" of race-based slavery — the founders' greatest deviation from their professed principles.

Many opponents of slavery — most notably Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass — understood this connection. As Lincoln famously wrote:

When [immigrants] look through that old Declaration of Independence they find that those old men say that "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal," and then they feel that that moral sentiment taught in that day evidences their relation to those men...and that they have a right to claim it as though they were blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote that Declaration.

Douglass, in an 1869 speech, drew parallels between the racism underlying slavery and then-prevalent opposition to Chinese immigration, reminding white Americans that "the right of migration...belongs to no particular race, but belongs alike to all and to all alike....It is this great right that I assert for the Chinese and Japanese, and for all other varieties of men equally with yourselves, now and forever."

From the founding onward, the United States has often failed to live up to its liberal-universalist principles. The most glaring of these failures was the persistence of race-based slavery for many decades. But early on, the founders and others knew such injustices were inimical to America's founding principles, even if they themselves often fell short of their requirements. Jefferson, Madison, and Washington were among the slave-owning founders who knew very well that slavery was wrong but allowed narrow self-interest to prevail over principle. America has often fallen short of its values on immigration as well, with the enactment of various xenophobic and discriminatory immigration restrictions dating back to the short-lived Alien Acts of 1798 (which Jefferson and Madison, among others, condemned as unconstitutional) and racial restrictions on naturalization that remained on the books in various forms from 1790 until 1952.

But such advances as the abolition of slavery and the gradual extension of equal rights to racial and ethnic minorities have been achieved by appealing to the universal principles of the founding, even if the founders themselves often failed to live up to them. Nationalists view the tribe as the building block of society, and individuals as serving the collective interests of that tribe. By contrast, the American tradition, as espoused by classical liberals, libertarians, and many traditional conservatives, views individuals and their interactions with each other as society's building blocks, and attempts to construct governing institutions that defend and support individuals in their diverse pursuits of happiness.

The fact that the United States is based on Enlightenment liberal values does not by itself prove we should maintain them. But we should hesitate to give up a foundation that has brought greater freedom and prosperity to more people than any other in human history.

A DIVISIVE IDEOLOGY

Nationalism is a collectivist ideology at odds with America's founding principles and institutions, classical-liberal economics, and the realities of our diverse population. In a country like the United States, nationalism is (ironically) a schismatic ideology that turns normal policy disagreements into a debate over which side of the political spectrum represents the "real" Americans. Trading America's classical-liberal ideology for nationalism would be trading our birthright for a poisoned chalice.

Nationalism's failures in the 20th century, from starting two world wars to genocide to jingoistic economic policies that have immiserated millions, rank it as a horrific failed ideology, second only to communism. Conservatives, classical liberals, and libertarians rightly mock leftists who claim that "real communism hasn't been tried" or that "the Soviet Union wasn't really communist" when confronted with the disastrous effects of their policies. Those who make similar excuses for nationalism are on no firmer ground.

Alex Nowrasteh is the vice president for economic and social policy studies at the Cato Institute, and co-author (with Benjamin Powell) of Wretched Refuse? The Political Economy of Immigration and Institutions.

Ilya Somin is professor of law at George Mason University, B. Kenneth Simon Chair in Constitutional Studies at the Cato Institute, and author of Free to Move: Foot Voting, Migration, and Political Freedom and Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government Is Smarter.


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