Liberalism vs. Nationalism

Now that the government appears on the verge of shutdown over the issue of “the Wall,” it’s become impossible to ignore the resurgence of nationalist sentiment both in America and abroad.

What should a libertarian make of trends like Brexit in the UK, and the election of a self-identified nationalist like Donald Trump to the American presidency? Are the philosophies of libertarianism compatible with the principles of an international order made up of a multitude of nationalist countries?

On the one hand, nation states have a centuries-long history of waging war against one another, colonizing and oppressing foreign lands and peoples, and violating the natural rights of their own citizens.

On the other hand, international governing bodies like the European Union and United Nations also pose a threat to the self-determination of the American people and, by extension, our liberty as individuals. Perhaps a realignment is needed.

In his new book The Virtue of Nationalism, Yoram Hazony makes an intellectually rigorous case for nationalism in general and for the specific case of his own country, Israel. Hazony, President of the Zionist Herzl Institute, argues that nationalism is the only stable alternative to a creeping “liberal internationalism,” which he says is merely a modern version of the age-old concept of empire. Sometimes referred to as “globalism” or “transnationalism,” this rules-based order seeks to secure global peace and grow the scope of its power by limiting the ability of nations to chart their own course.

Against the twin extremes of anarchy and internationalist empire, Hazony affirms the nation-state as the ideal political unit for securing individual liberties — supporting them within a context of a particular shared culture, mutual loyalty, and physical borders.

I chafe at some of the ideas in his book, like closed borders, but he makes too many important points not to engage them.

I discussed the Virtue of Nationalism with Yoram for the full hour. It was hardly enough time to dive into the full thesis of his book but we did our best.

The Virtues of Internationalism

At its core, the book is a critique of liberalism — not just progressive liberalism, but also the liberalism of Ludwig von Mises and F.A. Hayek.

It may come as a surprise to libertarians that these giants of classical liberalism thought we needed to move toward a global marketplace, in which borders wouldn’t interfere with free trade, and where peace would be enforced by an over-arching world state or international federation.

In his masterwork, Liberalism in the Classical Tradition, Mises writes:

“The greatest ideological question that mankind has ever faced… is… whether we shall succeed in creating throughout the world a frame of mind… [of] nothing less than the unqualified, unconditional acceptance of liberalism. Liberal thinking must permeate all nations, liberal principles must pervade all political institutions, if the prerequisites of peace are to be created and the causes of war eliminated.”

He elsewhere advocates for “a world super-state really deserving of the name… that would be capable of assuring the nations the peace they require.”

Neither Mises nor Hayek elaborated greatly on how this super-state would operate, or what kinds of checks and balances it would have, leaving the classical liberal in an uncomfortable position of speculating as to what this might look like and how it would prevent the usual problems of big government.

As listeners to my shows (and readers of my new book) know, I believe that federalism — i.e., delegating powers to states and localities — offers a solution to the most bitter political debates within the United States, and could be applied to any other country with a large diverse population. Hayek insisted that individualism was compatible with the mutual loyalties among citizens that Hazony thinks are essential to a body politic. Whether that body is a nation, a state, a county or a neighborhood seems less important than that it is voluntarily chosen by the members through free movement.

However, while an international federation could theoretically guarantee economic and civil liberties to members of nation states while leaving them autonomous in most other areas, Hazony says that such a system will always tend to oppose local, particular interests in favor of the universal interests of the empire. One argument for federalism is the ability of states to experiment with different policies to see what works best. Hazony notes that this same logic can be applied to nation states, and has been used by proponents of the competitive governance movement as a reason to “let 1,000 nations bloom.”

Liberal internationalism clamps down on such experiments, forcing a “one-size-fits-all” solution on countries that may not desire democratic governance or free markets. Can a classical liberal say with certainty that the economic system we support should be foisted on the rest of the world? Hazony says we should question this idea.

The Vices of Nationalism

Of course, the elephant in the room is the reputation nationalism has for inciting ethnic divisions and, in the extremes, racial hatred. Nazi Germany is the most obvious example of national pride and self-determination run amok. Hazony answers this with evidence that Hitler’s plans were in fact rooted in an imperial ambition that can be traced back to Immanuel Kant’s dream of a perpetual peace upheld by a “world state.” Before this, European monarchs joined hands with the Catholic church to extend the universal (temporal and spiritual) authority of a Holy Roman Empire.

Just like the Roman Emperors of an earlier age, Hitler sought to enforce a peace throughout Europe and the rest of the world through an imposed international order buttressed by German hegemony. The “Pax Germana” was prevented by the strong independent nations of the United States and United Kingdom. Since the war, however, mainstream thought among governing elites has tended to view these independent nations as a greater threat to peace than a new international order that limits national independence.

Hazony notes a strange a paradox since World War II, in which the extermination of Jews and Slavs has been used by one side — namely liberal internationalists — as the primary argument against nationalism, while a large faction of Jewish people have seen it as the decisive reason for the existence of an independent state of Israel.

You’ll have to read his entire book to get the full nuance of his perspective, and I encourage you to do so. Whether or not you plan to read the book, you won’t want to miss Hazony’s erudite perspective, combining history, political philosophy, and theology to make the case that liberty is best preserved within distinct and sovereign nations. Listen now: