Arguing National Loyalty with Roger Scruton

Roger Scruton helpfully distinguishes “national loyalty” from “nationalism” in his 2006 book, A Political Philosophy: Arguments for Conservatism. The distinction is clearly as much of moment today as it was in 2006, if not more so. It’s pertinent both in the U.S. with President Trump’s campaign and election, and more broadly in Europe, with Brexit, and recent electoral results in Germany, France, and other countries. Law and Liberty editor Richard Reinsch gathered a small group of scholars and writers last week in Indianapolis to discuss sections from this and other of Scruton’s books.

The EU and globalization serve as Scruton’s main foils, and internationalism more generally. He articulates reasons to sustain, even to revivify, the modern nation state as it has evolved, as an institution necessary to human happiness today.

I am broadly sympathetic to what Scruton’s advocates. I would want to press his arguments, however, not for being too conservative, but for not being conservative enough. First, I wonder whether his argument treats the concept and definition of “nation” as too stable and unchanging; confounding distinctive institutional forms (and the ground in which those forms grew) under the broad rubric of “nation.” Secondly, I wonder whether, even for the best of reasons, Scruton would have nations engage passions better expressed in non-governmental forms and forums.

Today’s debates over nationalism, or national loyalty, often present a dualism: nationalism (or national loyalty) versus cosmopolitanism (or globalism). But there’s no reason to think that wondering about the effects of increasing national loyalty means one is necessarily a globalist.

Consider the play inherent in the word “nation,” and the change in just one dimension of nationhood over the centuries. The change in sheer scope of nations have increased, with implications for defenses or criticisms of nations. For example, the United States today has a population of 323 million. The nation’s population equals the population of the entire globe in 1100 A.D. The nations of China and India today each have populations over 1 billion, a number the entire world did not reach until around 1800. Along slightly different lines, the U.S. had a population of about 4 million in 1790, and 17 million in 1840. Today over half the states individually have populations greater than the population of the entire U.S. in 1790, and four states have populations greater than the entire national population in 1840. In what sense do nations of that scope become meaningful loci of national identity in distinction to the nascent internationalism (or nationalism) of yesterday?

There are, to be sure, attributes beyond scale that impact national identity. Nonetheless, size can matter, and “nations” have evolved tremendously over the last several thousand years, even over just the last 100 years. Invoking the word “nation” generically invites us too glibly to paper over important changes, as if what might have been true of national experience and loyalty in 1850, or 1650, is necessary true of national experience and loyalty in 2017.

Secondly, there often seems to be the assumption, apparent in Scruton’s works as well, that to motivate deep commitments to modern nations, to make people willing even to give their lives, when necessary, to sustain those nations, they must tap into something deeper in the human soul than the mere utility of the national form. The administrative convenience of the national form, the thought seems to go, is too thin to serve as a solid wellspring of national loyalty.

But I don’t know. James Madison’s lesson from The Federalist 10 seems pertinent here as well:

So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts.

Belonging to one territorial jurisdiction rather than another is neither frivolous nor fanciful. But given the natural propensities of mankind that Madison notes, merely drawing a line between one territorial jurisdiction and another would be sufficient to draw forth whatever passions nations need to call for even the greatest sacrifice from their people.

In contrast, Scruton writes in The West and the Rest: Globalization and the Terrorist Threat, that the “presumption of a common loyalty” derived from citizenship must be “felt as a moral burden, and as a religious, or quasi-religious, need.” So, too, on “questions of sovereignty and defense,” American citizens, he writes, “acknowledge that the Constitution and the rule of law take precedence over all religious loyalties.”

Yet juicing up national loyalty by investing it with religious passion would be to play with fire, ultimately serving neither national interest nor religion. And no American Christian, no matter how timid in faith, can reduce the dual loyalties created by that faith to defer unilaterally to whatever political authorities may say the Constitution or law means. To be sure, being a strong partisan of one’s country is not in the least inconsistent with authentic religious loyalties. Nonetheless, national partisanship can never be unconditional for the Christian. If push comes to shove, as Peter and the Apostles put it in the book of Acts, “We must obey God rather than men.”

Sustaining, even strengthening, the commitment to this duality, however, is what Roger Scruton, and others, ultimately seem to desire. He recognizes that the modern nation state developed largely in the context of western Christendom. The puzzle he works to understand is whether the form of the nation state can be sustained when the intellectual, social and ecclesiastical ground of that form have eroded as much as they have. I am not optimistic about the chances for success of trying to gin up national loyalty outside a revival of the native soil in which it grew initially. Indeed, without that soil, it may be difficult to distinguish national loyalty from straight-forward nationalism.