A Nation Is a Place of Hard Choices

Market-based economies are beset by a paradox, Daniel Bell argued in The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (1976). Capitalism, he said, could not flourish in societies where certain attitudes and habits were rare. Of particular importance are the virtues comprehended by the term “deferred gratification”: industry, thrift, sobriety, punctuality, and self-restraint. The problem is that as capitalism flourishes, the experience of living in unprecedented and increasing prosperity undermines these virtues; they come to seem unnecessary, anachronistic, and even risible.

The contradictions Bell discussed come to mind while reading Steven Hayward’s reflections on nationalism’s place in today’s political controversies. Hayward’s Liberty Forum essay employs familiar terms—liberal, Left, conservative—even as his analysis reveals that the phenomenon of nationalism’s becoming a central political question has rendered uncertain the meaning and boundaries of these categories. The question is whether the ambiguities are, themselves, new phenomena or simply the manifestation of contradictions latent in liberalism and conservatism.

On the Left there is a particularly vigorous argument about nationalism, which Hayward shows by drawing our attention to an exchange between Michael Kazin, coeditor of Dissent, and Atossa Araxia Abrahamian, senior editor of the Nation and author of The Cosmopolites: The Coming of the Global Citizen (2015). In their debate, Kazin is the nationalist and Abrahamian the globalist, but he stipulates that he shares her “vision of a world without borders.” It’s just that to get there, “we need more than an ideology; we need a strategy. And there is no strategy that does not involve persuading a majority of the people in one’s nation that you hold their interests close to your heart.”

But it’s hard to persuade people, especially of things that are untrue. Kazin and Abrahamian’s vision of a world without borders entails repudiating, in her words, “the idea that someone arbitrarily born on the wrong side of a line is less deserving of a good life. It’s true that your instincts might be to save the drowning child at your feet, not the one you can’t see—but the point of a left ethics is to bridge that gap, not widen it.” The point of leftism, in other words, is that you must not hold some people’s interests particularly close to your heart just because they and you happen to inhabit the same patch of ground, defined by some lines arbitrarily drawn on a map. To do so means, necessarily, that you devalue other people’s interests simply because they reside beyond those lines. Any justification for such partiality culminates in nationalism, which Abrahamian calls a “tarnished, destructive, and in many cases racist ideology.”

Welfare Chauvinism

The disagreement between Kazin and Abrahamian, then, is not about principles but about tactics and rhetoric. His fear is that the Left will never gain power in nations now in existence, and likely to exist for many years to come, if it explicitly proclaims their illegitimacy and endorses their dissolution. Her fear is that she “see[s] no reason to trust that appeals to voters’ nationalism won’t eventually go awry, however friendly or progressive this version of nationalism might initially present itself.” In other words, “the more countries appeal to nationalist fervor, the less friendly they are to what we both stand for”—namely, putting nationalism and nationhood in the course of ultimate extinction.

The exchange between Kazin and Abrahamian reminds us of the fundamental tension in the Left project between equality and community. Each is valued. In a perfect world, both would be fully realized. In the real world, however, there are no clear guidelines for synthesizing the two or choosing between them when they clash.

“Wherever this flag’s flown,” Bruce Springsteen sang, “We take care of our own.” Fittingly, the song was sometimes played as an anthem at President Barack Obama’s rallies during his 2012 reelection campaign. It was a clear rebuke to the Tea Party: generous social programs and vigorous redistribution policies were not only compatible with patriotism, but the highest expression of it. “Where are the hearts, that run over with mercy?” Springsteen demands. “Where’s the promise, from sea to shining sea?”

But, of course, to demand that we take care of our own means that we don’t take care of those who are not our own—or at least that, if we choose to take care of them we’ll do so later rather than sooner, less urgently and less comprehensively. That implication doesn’t mean, exactly, that those who are born on the wrong side of a line are less deserving of a good life. But it does mean that they are less deserving of help rendered by those of us born on the right side of that line, where this flag is flown. The Springsteen formulation, then, points us not to a world without borders, but to what the New York Times’ Thomas Edsall describes as “welfare chauvinism”—“exclusionary nationalism combined with generous support for safety-net programs available only to legal residents.”

Welfare chauvinism, in turn, heralds not the advent of global citizenship but the “doom loop of modern liberalism,” in the words of the Atlantic’s Derek Thompson. In his view, low birth rates in prosperous countries generate pressure for more immigration to avert labor shortages and strengthen the tax base. But the sociopolitical result of reduced ethnic, linguistic, and cultural homogeneity, according to Thompson, is weakened support for “a pluralistic social democracy—the dream of a nation that uniquely promotes both diversity and equality.” As Hayward points out, no matter how strenuously leftists demand diversity and inclusion, there is abundant anthropological evidence to suggest that most humans believe they must choose—it’s either diversity or inclusion. And when the question is perceived in this way, one alternative has the inside track. We are strongly disposed to prefer the near, familiar, and similar over the distant, exotic, and dissimilar. Thompson laments that “an unavoidable lesson of the last few years, from both inside and outside the U.S., is that cultural heterogeneity and egalitarianism often cut against each other.”

The Right Has Its Own Dilemma

The challenge that nationalism poses for conservatism is no less fundamental. A central concern on the Right, especially in the United States, has been the defense of capitalism. Markets’ “creative destruction,” however, upends many long-established relationships, including those that bind humans together in identifiable nations.

As an economic and belief system, capitalism emphasizes that we “maximize utility”—that is, pursue happiness—by elaborating the division of labor. The idea is that we’ll produce more, better, and less expensive goods and services if we each concentrate on those productive activities that we do better than we do anything else. The overwhelming task of directing resources, especially humans’ endeavors, to their most productive uses can be solved only by prices, set in markets. Such prices reflect the facts, crucial and constantly changing, about how widely and ardently each good or service is desired (“demand”) and how difficult each is to produce (“supply”). It is through prices that we reconcile demand and supply, making constant adjustments to their constant changes.

The continuing drive for more innovation, efficiency, and prosperity leads logically to international trade. It’s important to approach the seminal work on economics, The Wealth of Nations (1776), by noting that “nations” is plural. Selling and buying goods and services across a national border is advantageous to people on both sides, Adam Smith argued. Conversely, a single nation’s mercantilist policies, seeking gain at other nations’ expense by imposing tariffs on their products, has the perverse effect of leaving the protectionist country less prosperous than it would have been through free trade.

Smith’s case for free trade, then, argues for self-interest well understood. Nations, like individuals, benefit from deferred gratification, prospering in the long run by doing difficult, counterintuitive things today. It is better, for example, to accept that more efficient international competitors will reduce or even eliminate a domestic industry than to defend that industry with tariffs that direct the nation’s resources away from their best and highest uses. A necessary implication of the idea that economic outputs (goods and services) should move unhindered between nations is that economic inputs (capital and labor) should be equally mobile. In 2001, Robert L. Bartley, editor of the Wall Street Journal’s strenuously pro-market editorial page, hailed the prospect that the North American Free Trade Agreement might someday operate like the European Union, with “open borders not only for goods and investment but also people.”

A slippery slope leads from free trade to open borders to global citizenship. An intra-conservative debate, recently undertaken, finds nationalists arguing that trade policies culminating in global capitalism have been embraced by nations that don’t understand their self-interest as well as they should, or as shrewdly as they had complacently believed. The wealth of nations, nationalists argue, is necessary but not sufficient for the well-being of nations, and certainly not equivalent to such civic flourishing.

That is, a nation may prosper economically as the result of policies and processes that weaken it in other ways. It could, in particular, grow wealthier from actions and attitudes that diminish the citizens’ commitment to one another and to their collective enterprise of sustaining and improving their nation. The core of that commitment is the shared sense connecting the nation’s past and future, its heritage and destiny, which elevates citizens into stewards who safeguard an inheritance wrought by their ancestors in order to convey it, intact and enhanced, to their progeny. If the magnitude and duration of such debilitations is too great, a nation may end up wealthier but more worse off than it would have been without that particular form of economic growth.

We can, in light of these considerations, understand the question that Tucker Carlson posed on his Fox News program earlier this year: “What kind of country do you want to live in?” His answer:

A fair country. A decent country. A cohesive country. . . . A clean, orderly, stable country that respects itself. And above all, a country where normal people with an average education who grew up in no place special can get married, and have happy kids, and repeat unto the generations.

To possess and preserve such a country, Carlson continued, means realizing that capitalism is “a tool” not “a religion.” Thus disenthralled, conservatives will, he hopes, disavow any “duty to make the world safe for banking.”

The Protectionist Philosopher King Will Make Mistakes

We may stipulate the validity of such concerns while remaining deeply skeptical that acting on them will circumscribe capitalism beneficially rather than harmfully. It is inherently difficult for the government to achieve policy objectives by intervening in economic life. Sometimes the goals aren’t reached at all; other times the costs of doing so outweigh the benefits.

These realities don’t become less discouraging just because the state intervenes for the sake of nationalism rather than to advance social justice. In either case, the official who prevents people from buying and selling goods and services at the prices and on the terms they would have agreed to, will not be a philosopher-king. Even with the best of intentions, he will make mistakes.

Worse, experience has shown that such mistakes—like rent control, or subsidies for ethanol-based fuels—are self-perpetuating. Why? Because mistaken policies acquire constituencies and, as a rule, the bigger the mistake, the more determined the constituency. (Again, why? Because big mistakes mean certain people get big windfalls, buying something at a much lower price or selling it a much higher one than they could do in a market shaped by voluntary exchanges. Such people will fight harder to preserve a large benefit than they would for the sake of a small one.)

By contrast, private-sector mistakes are self-curtailing. Ford Motor Company abandoned its major investment in the Edsel after three years.

Moreover, officials will not always have the best of intentions. Government programs established to solve a problem have, instead, a long record of colonizing it, as officials’ livelihoods and reputations come to depend on prolonging and expanding efforts to “address the situation.” For similar reasons, regulatory agencies set up as watchdogs routinely turn into lapdogs, enabling rather than policing the industry they superintend.

We are, in short, fortunate that Steven Hayward has reflected on what nationalism, newly prominent and controversial, means for 21st century politics. It will strongly affect debates between the Left and the Right. Even more interesting and important, however, will be its role in debates within the two camps.