Wednesday, March 15, 2006

No homeland for liberals?

As I have often admitted, liberalism does sound enticing on the surface. The idea that individuals should be free to create who they are according to their own will and reason has an appealing ring to it, and this doubtless explains some of liberalism’s success in the West.

It’s when you read the fine print that alarm bells start ringing. For instance, the logic of the liberal principle I set out above is to undermine traditional nationalism.

The reason is simple. A traditional national identity was important in defining the individual. However, as it was based on ethnicity (a shared ancestry, language, culture, religion and so on) it was something the individual inherited, rather than something he chose for himself.

Liberalism doesn’t want us to be “other” defined in any important way; it insists that we be self-defined. So traditional nationalism eventually came to be thought of as illegitimate within the terms of liberalism.

So what could a principled liberal do? From the start, some liberals replaced a traditional ethnic nationalism with a belief in internationalism. Most, though, have kept to some modified, liberal form of nationalism.

The problem is that such modern forms of nationalism are shallow, shifting and unstable. Usually they are based on the holding of common “values” (invariably liberal ones) to which any person can give their individual consent.

But this means two things. First, anyone can become a member of the nation, which makes membership of a nation less meaningful. Second, the geography of the “nation” you belong to can change radically. There are no limits to potential federations of nations, if all that is required is a shared commitment to liberal values or policy aims.

This is the political background to understanding the “nationalism” of Thomas Barnett, described as “a distinguished scholar” at a policy centre at the University of Tennessee. In a recent article, Mr Barnett had this to say about the war on terror:

We stand for a world connected through trust, transparency and trade, while the jihadists want to hijack Islam and disconnect it from all the corruption they imagine is being foisted upon it by globalization (aka, America’s “plot to rule the world”).

In that war of ideas, I’d still like to see Lady Liberty standing outside the wire instead of hiding behind it, and here’s why: I don’t have a homeland. My people left that place a long time ago.

I don’t have a homeland because I don’t live in a place - I live an ideal. I live in the only country in the world that’s not named for a location or a tribe but a concept. Officially, we’re known as the United States.

And where are those united states? Wherever there are states united. You join and you’re in, and theoretically everyone’s got an open invitation.

This country began as a collection of 13 misfit colonies, united only by their desire not to be ruled by a distant king.

We’re now 50 members and counting, with our most recent additions (Alaska, Hawaii) not even co-located with the rest, instead constituting our most far-flung nodes in a network that‘s destined to grow dramatically again.

Impossible, you say? Try this one on for size: By 2050, one out of every three American voters is slated to be Hispanic. Trust me, with that electorate, it won’t just be Puerto Rico and post-Castro Cuba joining the club. We’ll need either a bigger flag or smaller stars.

Note what Thomas Barnett is saying. He has reconciled himself to the fact that he has no homeland. The fact of homelands is something that, for him, belongs to the past. His modern “nation” is not even a place, but a concept.

As such, membership is open. Barnett expects, and looks forward to, a rapid growth in membership of the United States, with its borders to extend through Latin America.

Barnett has put his understanding of the “nation” more plainly and starkly than most other liberals, but even so it is perfectly in line with accepted policies in Western countries.

Those European leaders who are willing to cede the sovereignty of their own nation to a European Union, and to consider the admission of a non-European country, Turkey, are acting from a similar mindset to Barnett.

So too are the Australian politicians, from all political parties, who recommended the formation of a Pacific Union. These politicians no doubt consider themselves “nationalists” – in the Barnett sense, that is – but are happy to transfer their allegiance to an entirely new, sovereign Pacific state.

The fault lies ultimately in that seductive idea that we should be free to choose who we are according to our own individual will. This has delivered to us a nationalism in which there are no stable ethnic homelands – in which our loyalty is not even to a particular people or place, but to “concepts” which are all too easily transferable, so that nations become peculiarly vulnerable to dissolution within larger federations.

(Hat tip: Steve Edwards for the Barnett quote)


  1. The fault lies ultimately in that seductive idea that we should be free to choose who we are according to our own individual will.

    So whose will should be decisive, if not mine? Someone else should decide who I am? Perhaps the collective decisions of my ancestors defines that, and there's just not a dang thing I can do about it?

    I don't want to be part of a nation full of people who have no choice but be in it. I want to be part of a nation of people who fully and freely choose to be part of the nation.

    The US would not be free of the King of England if your logic had been decisive at the time. The King, I'm sure, felt that these upstarts in the colonies didn't understand that they were making a mistake in thinking they could freely choose who they were. They were subjects of the King of England, that's who they were!

    The answer, in my opinion, is still in free choice - but in making the case clearly and strongly for an ethnic/cultural nation-state for my people, so that a critical mass of my people WANT to be part of that, CHOOSE to be part of that. What the rest of the people do is not my concern and will probably be resolved through war, which is how these things tend to end up I think.

  2. So whose will should be decisive, if not mine? Someone else should decide who I am?

    Mark, if it was up to us to decide who we are, then we wouldn't amount to very much.

    There would exist a kind of closed loop in which a a self would create a self from within a self.

    It's when we are open to the possibility that we are made to be something - that our nature corresponds to something significant outside our own self which we naturally orient ourselves toward - that there can be a real sense of meaning in who we are and what we do.

  3. Mark, one additional point.

    Nations are something we are born into. We don't choose whether we are born French or Japanese or Kenyan.

    To most people this is not a problem, as we generally identify positively with the nation of our birth.

    So it's not really a question of securing support. The support - in normal circumstances - is nearly always there.

    The problem is that liberalism rules out the choice of belonging to a traditional ethnic nation. Liberalism comes to denounce such a choice as racist or parochial or chauvinistic or bigoted or xenophobic.

    It does so for ideological reasons: because we are born into a nationality, it is thought that it is something which lies outside of individual will and which therefore limits the freedom which is believed to make us human.

    Liberalism, therefore, does not let us make the choices we really want to make. Such choices are likely to be grounded within our own nature or within a longstanding tradition - rather than being immediate creations of our own will or reason.

    That's why I called the idea of being free to choose according to our own individual will "seductive" - what sounds appealing stated barely, does not work out as we might expect given the assumptions on which it rests.

    We might even be surprised to find ourselves less able to choose what is most important to us.

  4. Perhaps I can clarify the disagreement I have with what you wrote, Mark R.

    I agree that people do not choose who they are in the sense that we have certain traits and personality characteristics and drives that are genetic or even spiritual. In that sense yes I agree that we can't be happy and society can't be functional unless we live in accordance with those unchosen realities.

    Where I have a problem - and it may just be that I interpreted what you wrote in a way you didn't mean it - is when someone says my will, my choices, should be subordinated to some other individual's choices for me. It's one thing to concede that my will is subordinate to larger forces like heredity or's entirely different to say that my will should bend to that of another human being. That is how I read your statement that it is a fault to think we should be free to choose who we are according to our individual will. It sounded to me like an endorsement of a totalitarian sort of government where the individual is unimportant and the People or Volk or something else is supreme - and some "leader" decides what everyone should do. Hitler said things such as this - that the individual was nothing and the People was all that mattered. Needless to say I disagree with that.

    shane: there may be higher things than individual will, but the problem is who gets decide what the implementation of those things is?

    bobby.n: First, I am not a liberal by any stretch of the imagination. Second, my point was that my first concern is for my people and those among my ethnic/cultural group who don't care about my people as a people are not my concern. In fact they are actively opposed to anything that might be done for my people as a people - white liberals are the biggest problem for conservatives, not other races. My point is that the differences in outlook are so profound that it will probably end up being settled through war, as happened during the Civil War.

  5. I think the main point I would like to make is that conservatives need to be mindful of how they phrase their arguments if they wish to appeal to others. There has to be a better way to express our admiration and respect for tradition and innate differences and so on that doesn't involve denigrating individual free will. Individualism, free will, freedom from the tyranny of those who "know better" - these are the bedrock concepts of the American identity, anyway (I'm not so familiar with Australian political history). It's not going to appeal to moderate people to say "stop thinking about making decisions for yourself and start submitting to tradition." If we'd done that we'd still be living in caves. There has to be room in conservativism for change and improvement and thus for individuals to listen to their consciences regardless of what tradition says.

  6. Mark, I do appreciate the kind of feedback you are giving here.

    I don't think there is any option for traditionalist conservatives like myself but to keep explaining exactly what we mean when we argue against liberal concepts of will and freedom.

    This means that my pieces are going to have to be several paragraphs longer than I'd like - but there seems to be no alternative.

    (BTW, Shane, I thought your last comment was admirably clear and persuasive.)

    Mark, as it happens, I do place much importance on individual will. If we believe there is a good in our own nature and in society, then the extent to which we are able to follow this good depends on the quality of our will.

    In this sense, our will does help to determine what kind of person we become - in terms of how well disciplined we are in following a good, and in living a healthy and productive life.

  7. Actually, society does mostly "magically" work itself out without someone from above telling us what to do. Think about your daily life - think how you interact so smoothly with so many people on a personal, voluntary basis. 99.9% of what we do in our lives involves mutually voluntary interactions with other people. We choose to apply for a job; the boss chooses to hire us. We choose friends, spouses. We choose activities. As long as we are not violating other people's property rights, no problems arise, do they? Problems only arise when someone is violating someone else's property rights, infringing on them. That is when we need social rules for how to resolve these disputes. But all of those everyday, real-life, 99.9%-of-the-time choices are personal choices made based on what people feel like doing. That's called freedom.

    You posit a false choice when you say the choice is between people giving up their "selfishness" and total anarchy. Just like you didn't mean that we should live under a Hitler, I didn't mean we should live with complete anarchy. Of course we have to have some agreed-upon rules. The question is what the nature of those rules should be.

    My personal feeling is that as long as property rights are respected, everything else falls into place - with one very important exception. That exception is that I believe there are actual differences between races of people, and between cultures, that makes it impossible to protect and preserve and nuture my people and my culture unless those who are not of my people and culture are excluded from my nation. But beyond that, within a nation of my people embodying my culture, I think a principle of strictly protecting property rights would address the real life issues of keeping a human society healthy. If people make stupid personal choices (the kinds of things that some conservatives would ban through laws) then in my vision of society they would suffer the natural negative personal consequences of those things and thus those behaviors would be disuaded. They would be shunned by decent people, or become destitute, or get diseases that kill them. The problems in our societies, in general, I think, are caused by (1) letting incompatible peoples and cultures into our nations, and (2) providing a nanny-state/welfare-state framework that shields people from the natural negative consequences of their bad choices.

    I would welcome a discussion of specific rules or issues that others think require some kind of law rather than simply a property rights framework. If you have a specific sort of behavior that you think is negative and would destroy society if people were allowed to "do whatever they want" then let's talk about it in specifics. I think part of the disagreement is we're dealing in generalities.

  8. Mark, you are expressing a kind of libertarianism.

    Much of what you write would also be accepted by traditionalist conservatives. But it's still worth noting the differences.

    You argue that most of what we do is based on mutually voluntary interaction.

    The term "voluntary" though has taken on a specific meaning in modern politics.

    It's understood to mean something that leaves us as autonomous agents, so that our commitments are something we deliberately and rationally consent to, or "contract" with.

    The traditionalist insight is to recognise that our most important commitments are not, and cannot be, voluntary in this sense.

    Few people, for instance, sit down at age 21 and make a "reasoned choice" about which nationality they should bear allegiance to.

    Instead, our love for our own national tradition is something which arises naturally due to an accident of birth.

    Which is why political moderns seek to make nationality more "open", and to tear it away from tradition and ethnicity.

    It's the same with family life. Political moderns hate the idea that once we marry, we then lose our autonomy to decide who we live with, or what role we might play in a family, or what shape our family might take.

    Hence the insistence that family can mean anything we choose it to mean, that male and female roles within the family are interchangeable, that paternal authority within the family is oppressive and unnecessary, and that divorce should be made easily available on a "no fault" basis.

    The same kind of argument applies to the issues of gender, of moral belief, and sexuality.

    In other words, once we accept the liberal view of voluntary commitments, we are then disposing our society toward a particular understanding of how our most important institutions and relationships should operate.

    That's why traditionalists cannot blithely accept the current understanding of voluntary commitments.

  9. Mark, you suggest that if people were left to suffer the consequences of stupid personal decisions that such decisions would be discouraged.

    There is some truth to this. It's certainly true that the welfare state has artificially propped up some undesirable lifestyle choices.

    But I don't agree entirely with you on this one. A healthy society ought to try and protect its members from making signicant life errors.

    Take drugs, for instance. I have read libertarians who argue that drugs should be made legally available and people foolish enough to use them should just suffer the consequences.

    I don't like this view - for a number of reasons.

    First, we often act foolishly in our late teens and early 20s. Society ought to do what it can to get people through these years, even if this means criminalising certain behaviours.

    Second, it's natural for people to want to live in communities in which there is a public standard of morality. If I walk through a park, and see young people sitting with heroin syringes or begging money, it affects my sense of connection to my own community.

    Third, it's natural to feel a protectiveness toward members of our own community.

    If a young woman of my community takes drugs, and then becomes a prostitute, I can't just say: you are paying the consequences for bad decisions.

    I don't want the women of my community to fall to such levels - I care for them too much. So I will try to find ways to prevent this outcome.

    Fourth, the very survival of a community depends on getting things right. At the moment, large numbers of Western women believe, wrongly, that it's OK to leave marriage and motherhood until their 30s.

    Yes, at an individual level many women will suffer for this choice. But it's not only damaging for them as individuals - the well-being of the whole society is put at jeopardy by the subsequent baby drought and by the resentments bred between men and women.

    So I don't think it's adequate to let consequences alone sort out poor choices. There has to be some kind of deliberate effort on the part of a community to avoid such choices.

  10. Mark Richardson,

    I agree with much of what you say. People do make stupid choices when they are teenagers that can cost them for the rest of their lives. And people don't necessarily decide rationally that they should have allegiance to their people.

    My objection would be that the alternative, though, to allowing people to make these decisions themselves is worse. If traditionalist conservatives were to somehow gain enough political power to pass laws designed to compel these desired behaviors, I think the result would not be a more civil society but a more corrupt one.

    Let's take drugs as an example. As I understand what you are saying, traditionalist conservatives would continue to ban the sale and use of drugs like marijuana, heroin, and cocaine. In fact they might pass even stricter laws with even harsher penalities. But the very real consequence of making drugs illegal is that it provides a source of income to organized crime. Without drugs, gambling, and prostitution to make money from, organized crime and the gangs in the ghettos would have no significant source of income and would shrink in influence. The very real consequences of making drugs illegal in the US has been violent crime, corruption of law enforcement, border fights with Mexican military under the pay of drug lords, and so on. And the harsher we make the penalties for selling drugs, the bigger we make the profit margin for doing so and the more we encourage even more ruthless behavior by the criminals engaging in the sales and seeking not to be caught.

    So I don't see the solution to these problems of drug use, adultery, and so on as being something in the realm of stricter government compulsion. I think the enforcement has to come at a non-violent community level.

    My model would be something like the Amish or Mennonite community here in parts of the US. I don't know if you are familiar with them but they are religious people who live a 19th century farming lifestyle. They are hard-working, peaceful, highly moral people surviving as an island of good behavior and industriousness in a sea of Western social problems. How do they do it? Not by threatening their rule-breakers with jail, but with social ostracism. Children are raised with a strict sense of what is right, and anyone who strays from their moral code is shunned.

    So it seems like the solution has to come from an improvement in the character of we Western people. I don't think that improvement in character comes through government coercion. It has to be something people choose. And I think the reason they would choose it is because they have learned the hard way that other choices lead to pain. If you try to dish out that pain via the government and laws, people see the government as the problem rather than their own behavior.

    So I would say that it may take a generation of letting that girl down the street experience drug addiction and prostitution, for example, so that the next generation can learn the hard lessons that build character in a people.

  11. One additional point, if I may: the idea of the old American West was that people were independent, struggled to survive against the elements and the hostile natives, but built a strong and moral society that was the basis of everything Americans have now. The hardship faced by these people moulded them into the strong people they were. There was no welfare state to cushion their bad choices, and there was no significant weight of laws prohibiting "vices". Taking drugs for example was not illegal. Prostitution and gambling were commonplace. And some people ruined their lives with them - just as they do now, even though we have plenty of laws against those things. The crucial difference between them and us, I think, is that they had freedom to succeed or fail but they paid the price for failure themselves. It made them strong. It seems to me then that the way to build character again is to pull away the government welfare supports, and the government coercion regarding vices, and let the natural Darwinian forces of life forge some character in our people again.

  12. Mark, let me say again that I can agree with much of what you are arguing.

    But I think Zach is right that legalising drugs and prostitution isn't likely to overcome the role of organised crime.

    In my state of Victoria we have direct experience of this. Prostitution was legalised here about 20 years ago.

    Since then there has been a tremendous growth in both legal and illegal brothels. We still have crime syndicates who bring in women from Asia to work in the illegal sector.

    (BTW, thanks Zach - your own site, Our Way of Life - looks promising.)

    I think too that Bobby has argued the case well that it's better to try and heed the experience of past generations, rather than to rely, in a laissez-faire way, on people suffering the consequences of poor decisions.

    Just one last point. It's undoubtedly true that it's better to rely on the informal measures of a community, such as ostracism, rather than the force of law, to uphold morality.

    But it is difficult for this to occur under current liberal understandings of choice and freedom.

    If the highest good is the capacity for individual choice, then impediments to choice will be seen to be limiting and oppressive.

    This means that people who break through limitations on choice, including the restrictions imposed by moral taboos, will be seen, in a positive way, as being liberated.

    When the political class thinks this way, then how is it possible to establish and maintain informal moral taboos?

    Even those who break the taboo on adultery will be presented as courageous, heroic figures (even if victimised by society). There have been countless novels and films on this theme ever since the later 1800s.

    For your model to work, something other than liberalism would have to be the ruling principle of society.