Friday, September 26, 2008

Collapsing nationalism

Liberals aren't very good at preserving things, not even their own creations.

Take the case of nationalism. Liberals have gone to a lot of trouble to replace traditional ethnic nationalism with a liberal civic nationalism. The basic idea of this civic nationalism is that it is citizenship which defines national belonging, and that national identity is based on a shared commitment to liberal political practices and values.

This is a version of nationalism which makes liberalism itself the defining point of national existence and which has become the dominant, orthodox, politically correct form of nationalism in all Western countries. Yet many liberals are already discarding it.

Why is civic nationalism so vulnerable to collapse? I suggested one reason in a recent article, A hollow identity?:

Civic nationalism has a further defect. Even though civic nationalism doesn't discriminate on the basis of race, it does discriminate. It draws a line between people who are citizens, and therefore part of the nation, and those who aren't.

This is a problem for liberals, who believe that any kind of discrimination which impedes the individual will is wrong. Therefore, it's not hard to find liberals who find even civic nationalism to be morally indefensible, and who want to collapse all distinctions of national identity.

John Edwards a bigot?

Right on cue, economist Steven Landsburg recently declared himself to be one such liberal who believes that discriminating on the basis of citizenship is just as illegitimate as discriminating on the basis of race.

He announced that he would refuse to vote for John Kerry at the recent US elections, because of the protectionist policies of Kerry's running mate, John Edwards.

Edward's support of tariffs shows a willingness to discriminate in favour of American citizens and against foreigners. This, thinks Landsburg, is the same as someone like David Duke discriminating in favour of whites. In Landsburg's own words:

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.

Notice that Landsburg rejects discrimination on the basis of both race and birthplace because they are "arbitrary". Why are they arbitrary? Because they are things we don't deliberately choose through our own will and reason. And liberals, as a first principle, believe that we are made human by being self-created through individual will and reason.

Of course, our membership of a particular family is "arbitrary" in the same way: it's not something we decide rationally or purposefully. If Landsburg were to take his position one step further he should also declare it to be bigotry and a base instinct to discriminate in favour of our own family members. (As liberal philosopher Peter Singer and various radicals such as the Russian Bolsheviks have already done.)

I doubt he is ready to be quite this logical. For the moment, though, he is part of an "advanced" group of liberals who consider it illegitimate to discriminate in favour of their fellow citizens and who therefore cannot support even a civic nationalism.


Not all liberals are ready to accept Landsburg's position. Jack Strocchi, for instance, was concerned enough by Landsburg's comments to write a rebuttal at the liberal Catallaxy website (October 28th "Why free market economists just don't get it").

Strocchi used to believe that liberal values were so universal, that an "end of history" had been reached in which liberalism would be permanently triumphant. His confidence in this view was shaken by the Iraq war. Many Iraqis did not eagerly embrace the liberal democracy offered by the Americans, but chose instead to remain loyal to their religious leaders.

This has led Strocchi to wonder if liberalism is so universal after all. He has observed that liberalism is mostly a product of the English and French speaking political traditions. Might it not be wise, concludes Strocchi, to discriminate in favour of the English and French speaking peoples, to ensure the continued existence of liberalism itself?

In effect, Strocchi is putting forward a conservative liberal position: we need to discriminate on the grounds of citizenship, perhaps even on the grounds of ethnicity, in order to safeguard liberalism itself.

How was this argument received at Catallaxy? Not so well. One contributor, John Humphreys, aligned himself with Landsburg by commenting,

I largely agree with Landsburg in that I see little moral difference between discrimination based on colour of skin or colour of passport.

Jason Soon chose to defend the status quo of civic nationalism. He explained that even though he was a "committed universalist and internationalist" he was loyal to Australia because it embodied a set of liberal values, namely liberty, rationality, utility and secularism.

(Jason Soon himself considers an obvious response to this: why not have an equal loyalty to other states which embody the same values? He answers that he has a particular affinity to Australia because he has friends and family here. What, though, if most of his friends and family lived overseas, say in Canada? Would his first loyalty then be to Canada?)

A contributor named Fyodor also chose to defend civic nationalism. His argument is that we can rightfully discriminate in favour of a fellow citizen because the fellow citizen pays taxes and fights militarily to support our way of life.

Fyodor rejects the idea of loyalty to an ethnic group as "immoral" but thinks it alright to be loyal to a state, as we have an "implicit social contract" with a state. (Meaning that our connection to a state is something that lies within the sphere of individual will and reason, and therefore acceptable to liberal principles. This is a convenient fiction, though: most of us have never contracted with a state, implicitly or otherwise.)

The overall result, therefore, is that we have two radical liberals who believe that even civic nationalism is morally illegitimate (Landsburg and Humphreys), two who defend civic nationalism, though on shaky grounds (Soon and Fyodor) and one who defends nationalism in general more substantially, but only as a means of preserving liberalism (Strocchi).

Which line of thought is likely to win in the long run? The answer is that the radicals will probably be victorious. Over time, liberalism tends to unfold according to the logic of its first principles. Landsburg is right to suggest that our citizenship is (in most cases) obtained in as arbitrary a way as our race: it's something we're born into. Therefore, it's illegitimate within the terms of liberal first principles.


Of course, the conservative response to this must be to argue against liberal first principles. Conservatives need to make the case that just because something is "arbitrary" (ie not obtained by our own will or reason) doesn't mean that it lacks meaning or significance.

After all, our sex is "arbitrary", and yet our manhood or womanhood is central to our sense of ourselves and helps to create a vital part of our self-identity.

Similarly, our place within a family is "arbitrary" and yet most of us enjoy a strong sense of connectedness to our own parents, children and siblings.

The liberal view is skewered by its own terms of reference. A liberal isn't able to judge existing forms of identity and connectedness on their own terms, but must always dismiss them as not conforming to an abstract principle.

That's why liberals can't even agree to defend a form of nationalism which they themselves have created and which places their own beliefs at the centre of national identity.

(First published at Conservative Central, 06/11/2004)

1 comment:

  1. I am a conservative liberal. Although I think the term "liberal" is woefully inadequate. It covers the notion of "individual autonomy" alright.

    But "liberals" have never been comfortable with the notion of legitimate "institutional authority". All such agencies are perpetually on probation in the permanently adolescent liberal philosophy.

    I suggest the umbrella term of "corporalism" to designate political philosophy that accepts the need for organizations to act as instruments of moral action. This covers the justification of churches, states, unions, clubs, families as legitimate authorities.

    The problem with post-modern liberalism is that it is self-centred. No doubt there are times it is moral to be self-serving. But usually morality requires one to be self-sacrificing.

    And that is where liberalism collapses as a moral philosophy. Its all about rights for the self and nothing about duties to others. But institutional authority acts as a proxy for others and in that way facilitates moral action in a complex society.

    Mark Richardson says:

    This has led Strocchi to wonder if liberalism is so universal after all. He has observed that liberalism is mostly a product of the English and French speaking political traditions. I am a civic, not ethnic, nationalist. I believe we owe conditional allegiance to a nation state ("CW of Australia"), its rules ("the Constitution") and its ruler ("the Monarch and Ministry-in-council").

    Citizenship, understood in the liberal sense of civic nationalism, is a rational and moral choice for all voters. It is fair and reasonable to declare ones basic political loyalty to a team to which one pay ones dues and by which one abides its rules.

    Landsburg's attempt to equate protection with slavery is silly. A huge gamut of national statist policy will tend to help citizens and hurt aliens. For that matter, a huge gamut of capitalist policy will tend to help shareholders and hurt non-shareholders. Does that mean corporate executives are "racist" or some such?

    No doubt this is discrimination. But it is not arbitrary because, as Fyodor correctly points out, the nation state has a prior claim on our loyalties based at least on the social contract. And so long as their is no racial prohibition on citizenship it is not racist to favour ones own state.

    Undoubtedly most citizens are loyal to the nation state for reasons that go beyond the liberal social contract. But liberals of all people should not ignore their own justification for the state.

    Mark Richardson says:

    Might it not be wise, concludes Strocchi, to discriminate in favour of the English and French speaking peoples, to ensure the continued existence of liberalism itself?

    In effect, Strocchi is putting forward a conservative liberal position: we need to discriminate on the grounds of citizenship, perhaps even on the grounds of ethnicity, in order to safeguard liberalism itself.
    The post-modern obsession with identity is understandable but not always helpful. We all have identities that are both biologically conserved and sociologically constructed ie nature and nurture dialectically combine to produce culture.

    But post-modern liberals have air-brushed the role of nature out of Historical evolution. That has led to the dishonesty of political correctness.

    The civic tradition of liberal democracy did not drop down out of thin air. It evolved from the ethnic traditions of the North Meditteranean and North Atlantic peoples.

    In that sense, the political evolution of modern Europe produced a rough identity between ethnic nationalism and civic liberalism. The key word in the French triune is "Fraternity". You cannot have liberal liberty/equality without a pre-existing cultural community.

    Some civic cultures that evolved from ethnic traditions are better than others. So cultural, as opposed to natural, discrimination is fair and reasonable.

    I would not extend the privilege of citizenship to foreign head-hunters, Sharia lawyers, neo-Nazis, voodoo witchdoctors and so on.