Traditional nationalism failed the liberal test because it was based on ethnicity and ethnicity is something that is predetermined rather than self-determined.
But inevitably there will be liberals who will go further and ask if civic nationalism also places limits on self-determination. Does it too set up barriers to where we choose to live and what opportunities we might have?
In other words, is a civic nationalism really consistent with liberal aims?
Some liberals believe, and not without reason, that civic nationalism fails the test of consistency. After all, in a civic nationalism you still need citizenship to be a member of a nation. And that then means that you can't simply choose to be a member of whichever nation you think it is in your interests to join.
Furthermore, because a civic nation distributes benefits only to those who have citizenship, it discriminates against those who aren't citizens. So some individuals benefit, and others miss out, on the basis of a citizenship status that most people get simply through an accident of birth.
For these reasons, there are liberals who not only reject a traditional ethnic nationalism, but a civic nationalism as well. They prefer the idea of a global system of open borders, in which there would be no restrictions on where we might choose to settle.
Those who support open borders are not just fringe radicals. A former prime minister of Australia, Paul Keating, once lashed out at civic nationalism, complaining that its “exclusiveness” relies on,
constructing arbitrary and parochial distinctions between the civic and the human community ... if you ask what is the common policy of the Le Pens, the Terreblanches, Hansons and Howards of this world, in a word, it is “citizenship”. Who is in and who is out.
According to Keating, a civic identity is both arbitrary and parochial. There can be no distinct civic communities, only a single human one.
The Swedish Greens, the third largest party in that country, have this policy:
We do not believe in artificial borders. We have a vision of unrestricted immigration and emigration, where people have the right to live and work wherever they please ... We want Sweden to become an international role model by producing a plan to implement unrestricted immigration.
The American academic Jeffrey Friedman believes that a genuinely liberal society would be borderless:
A truly liberal society would encompass all human beings. It would extend any welfare benefits to all humankind, not just to those born within arbitrary borders; and far from prohibiting the importing of "foreign" workers or goods they have produced, or the exporting of jobs to them across national boundaries, it would encourage the free flow of labor...
He is arguing that there should be no distinctions based on any kind of nationality, whether traditional or civic. If there are benefits handed out in the United Kingdom, then I should be able to claim them even if I live in Brazil.
That sounds radical (and it is) but it is consistent with the way liberals generally see things. If what matters is that I get to self-determine, then I won't like the idea that I might be limited in some way or disadvantaged by circumstances that I don't choose, such as where I happen to be born.
Friedman is aware of a flaw in the liberal argument. If nationality is something we are merely born into, and therefore is an "arbitrary" quality that ought not to matter, then the same thing has to be said for family. Why, for instance, should a man direct his earnings to his own children and not to others? Doesn't that mean that some children will receive an advantage that others don't on the "arbitrary" basis of a relationship that they are born into?
Friedman justifies discriminating in favour of our family, but not our conationals, on this basis:
We would be miserable if we could not treat our friends, spouses, and siblings with special consideration; but is this necessarily true of our conationals?
That doesn't seem to me to be a very principled or persuasive response to the liberal dilemma.
In 2004 the American economist Steven Landsburg declared that he wouldn't vote for the Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry. Why? Kerry's running mate, John Edwards, was a supporter of protectionism: he believed that tariffs should be used to protect local jobs from overseas competition.
This angered Landsburg, who argued that by putting his fellow citizens first Edwards was no different from those, like David Duke, who put their coethnics first:
While Duke would discriminate on the arbitrary basis of skin colour, Edwards would discriminate on the arbitrary basis of birthplace. Either way, bigotry is bigotry, and appeals to base instincts should always be repudiated.
An Australian writer, John Humphreys, commented that,
I largely agree with Landsburg in that I see little moral difference between discrimination based on colour of skin or colour of passport.
So liberals have a problem when it comes to nationalism. If it is thought wrong to allow a predetermined, unchosen quality like ethnicity to matter, then it can also be thought wrong to allow a largely predetermined, unchosen quality like citizenship to matter. Both can be thought of as arbitrary and therefore illegitimate forms of discrimination.
Which then leads at least some liberals to renounce any kind of national existence, even a civic national one, in favour of a one world, open borders policy. They arrive at a similar outlook to that of Australian political commentator David Bath who wrote on Australia Day:
On our national day we must realize that...the nation must cease to exist
We have dropped the torch of early ideals, the only advance being the yet imperfect acceptance of the immateriality of accidents of birth of our fellows: the color of skin, any faith of forbears, the borders within which they first drew breath.
Until [we act morally] by subsuming our nationhood into the single world polity...then we are lesser folk than our forebears...
Just as our nation was formed as a collective, it must dissolve into a greater collective, with fairness to all, not within the borders that must and will disappear, but bounded only by the atmosphere we all breathe.
Dave Bath's liberalism leads him to the view that the only morally permissible nation is the planet.