Nationalism has been making a resurgence in the US, Europe and around the world in recent years. Even President Donald Trump, the most powerful leader in the world, declared himself a nationalist.
But what is nationalism? Is it a good thing, a bad thing, or can it be either? In this essay I’ll explore what nationalism means, what its different forms are, and why it’s bad. I’ll discuss how nationalism is different from individualistic patriotism and from merely being an advocate for the nation-state form of government. Both of the latter can be good.
Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines nationalism as:
loyalty and devotion to a nation…especially: a sense of national consciousness exalting one nation above all others and placing primary emphasis on promotion of its culture and interests as opposed to those of other nations or supranational groups
More precisely, nationalism is an ideological commitment to one’s nation as an end in itself; that is, a commitment apart from one’s own interests and above any commitments to other groups. It is the idea that one must serve the interests of one’s nation, apart from the effects of this service on one’s own life, or on other groups like humanity as a whole. Thus, nationalism endorses the nation-state as the proper form for government to take, and the “nation as a whole” as the ultimate source of moral-political sovereignty. If you’re committed to a nation for some reason other than the “good of the whole nation” as an end in itself–say if you’re a mercenary being paid by it, or if you think the nation is otherwise good for you personally–you are obviously not a nationalist for it, and no one would call you one. So the question of whether you are a nationalist or not is not just a question of whether you’re devoted to a nation or not. It’s also a question of what you aim to achieve by being devoted to a nation. The nationalist does not aim to achieve anything beyond some vision of the “good” or “glory” or “prestige” of the “nation as a whole.”
Nationalism is often contrasted with localism and globalism. Localism, in this context, is the idea that the population of the local city-state, county, or feudal estate is the proper end in itself. It thus implies that local government should be politically independent, with sovereignty stemming from the local populace as a collective. Globalism is the idea that all of humanity should be served by individuals, and thus implies that all of humanity is collectively sovereign. One worldwide government is the appropriate expression of globalism.
All three of these ideas contrast with individualism, which can be described as the idea that there is no moral sovereignty in the individual’s life above himself. That is, the idea that there are no interests above the individual’s to be served, and thus no source of political sovereignty beyond the individuals who live within a nation. I’ll discuss individualism in more detail shortly.
The basic idea of nationalism was well expressed in a strong form by Adolf Hitler:
“It is thus necessary that the individual should finally come to realize that his own pride is of no importance in comparison with the existence of his nation; that the position of the individual ego is conditioned solely by the interests of the nation as a whole; that pride and conceitedness, the feeling that the individual … is superior, so far from being merely laughable, involve great dangers for the existence of the community that is a nation; that above all the unity of a nation’s spirit and will are worth far more than the freedom of the spirit and the will of an individual; and that the higher interests involved in the life of the whole must here set the limits and lay down the duties of interests of the individual.”
“By [Nazi idealism] we understand only the individual’s capacity to make sacrifices for the community, for his fellow men.”
(For references, see Chapter 1, Footnote 1 of The Ominous Parallels, by Leonard Peikoff.)
Nationalism comes in two major forms: civic nationalism and ethnic nationalism. My thesis here is that both are bad, because both are forms of collectivism, and collectivism is false and destructive. To understand this, we have to know what collectivism is. So to set the stage, let me briefly discuss the distinction between individualism and collectivism.
Individualism vs. Collectivism
The distinction between individualism and collectivism is over the question of what the unit of mankind is that lives and thinks: Is it the individual, or some group? If you say that it’s the individual that is the living unit and the unit capable of making judgments, then you are an individualist. If you say that it is some group that is the fundamental unit of human life, and this group makes judgments for itself, then you are a collectivist.
This distinction is often not made explicitly in terms of life and thinking, but in terms of interests. If you say that the group has interests apart from those of individuals, then you’re a collectivist. This is because only living organisms have interests. Non-living things do not have interests. If you say that “societies” or “races” or “classes” have interests, then you are saying that they are effectively living organisms in their own right, with individuals as mere parts.
But if it is only individuals who are the living organisms, then it is only individuals who fundamentally have interests. Any “interests” one ascribes to any group are only an extension of the interests of the individuals who make up that group, and can never contradict or override the interests of the individuals.
The fact is that individualism is true and collectivism is false and destructive. In mankind, it is the individual who lives, makes judgments and has interests. One individual can die, while another continues to live. One individual can think and take responsibility for his life, while another thoughtlessly drifts and evades responsibility. One individual can be good and virtuous, while another can be evil and vicious.
A group can’t be the ultimate goal of an individual’s actions, if he is to live a full and flourishing life. An individual must judge whether a group is good or bad for him, since other individuals in that group may be good or bad, beneficial or harmful to him. For example, your family may be composed of good people and thus beneficial to your life, or composed of abusive people who are destructive to it, or a mix of the two. The individual must judge who is which. Similarly, your nation may be a good one that protects your ability to live your life, or it may a totalitarian one that cripples and destroys your life and the lives of those around you. No dogmatic commitment to either group–family or nation–is good. The good must be evaluated with your individual life as the ultimate goal. That is individualism, and it is the only way for humans to live and flourish long-term in society.
The extent to which people abandon individualism for collectivism is the extent to which they suffer and fail to live as human beings. Collectivism is the attempt to avoid the need of rational judgment and to live like a beehive or ant colony, where everyone automatically works together in harmony through mindless genetic programming.
But human beings are not bees or ants. They have minds and need to use them to live. By abandoning rational judgment of other individuals, collectivists invite all sorts of abuses of themselves by those others. Someone who wants to live should do what he can to ensure that those he deals with are not murderers, or on the road to becoming murderers. Someone who wants to be secure in his property should do what he can to ensure that those he deals with are not budding thieves. Someone who wants to keep his rights should do what he can to ensure that the leader he votes for is interested in rights and not after sheer power.
Collectivism short-circuits this process of judgment and tells the individual, in effect: “This person is good and worthy because he’s part of your group,” (your family, tribe, nation, race, etc.) That is a recipe for abuse, corruption and destruction.
Now that I’ve made clear what individualism and collectivism are and why collectivism is bad, let’s move on to the two major types of nationalism.
Civic nationalism is the basic idea of nationalism, combined with the idea that the nation consists of those individuals who live in a certain area and have certain “national” values. People become citizens by voluntarily accepting those values, (allegedly). Citizens are to serve the interests of the “great organism” that is the cluster of people in the area who have the appropriate values. The government, as the representative of this organism, has the right to compel recalcitrant individuals to perform their “proper functions,” as it judges fit. Thus, the government may compel taxation, military service, business production and localization, control prices, etc., if it judges it necessary for the nation’s interests.
The national government may also keep immigrants out, if it judges their entry to be contrary to the interests of the nation. This may be because they lack the “national” values, or because they “steal jobs” from the nation that rightfully owns the jobs, or because they allegedly drive wages down for the “working class” part of the nation, or for any number of other reasons.
Hopefully, you can see why civic nationalism is a form of collectivism. It holds that the nation as such has rights and interests apart from the interests of individuals. Individuals have a duty to serve the nation, and there’s no principled reason why the national government can’t compel individuals to fulfill their duties.
As with any form of collectivism, civic nationalism is bad, because it discourages intellectual independence on the part of individuals. It tells them that once they have accepted the “national values,” they form a part of a national super-organism. They now have sheer duties to their nation and it’s no longer appropriate for them to think for themselves about their own values and goals, when those duties press on them. They are thus stultified in their thinking and become intellectually passive in this realm. If they’re presented with evidence that some of their “national values” are wrong or bad, they are no longer in a position to judge for themselves whether this is the case. They become part of the herd, so to speak, and will maintain the veneer of certain values–without active-minded conviction–just to fit in.
And thus, civic nationalism is an unstable intellectual position. It’s a construct that attempts to make a compromise between nationalist collectivism and individualism, by having individuals be able to choose their nationality (their “national super-organism”) through their choice of values. It’s the attempt to forge a compromise between personal goals and duties to the “higher power” that is the nation.
But once people’s “national values” are no longer personal, actively-held values, but passive lip-service they pay to fit in, the actual things that they will see as uniting them with their countrymen will be much less lofty. Abstract values do not come close to encompassing what separates, say, the British from the French. What actually separates them are things like language, customs, the history they learn, commitment to the British Monarchy versus the French Republic, attitudes about class, etc. In short, much of their respective cultures are different. And what typically determines whether someone falls in the British camp or the French camp? Who one’s parents are.
To be a nationalist is to think that the nation as a whole has separate interests that individuals have a duty to serve. So who is one individual to decide to abandon his nation? Who is he to shirk his duty to the nation that gave him life, raised him, nurtured him? To a true nationalist, someone who does that is a traitor. Someone who was born British can’t just suddenly decide that he wants to become French, or vice versa. The individual owes his life to the nation, and so it owns him.
Thus, the logic of nationalism leads away from civic nationalism and toward ethnic nationalism.
Ethnic nationalism is the idea of nationalism, combined with the idea that one’s membership in a national group is determined by who one’s parents were. If one’s parents were part of some ethnic group–defined by various factors like genetics, skin color, language, inherited religion, inherited culture, etc–then one is part of that ethnic group as well, and one belongs in the same nation.
Ethnic nationalism is basically tribalism on a modern, mass scale. It’s the logical endpoint of nationalism, and it makes no pretense at the idea that individuals can “choose their master”–i.e. which national group they are to serve. In this, it is a much more consistent form of nationalism than civic nationalism: If the nation is above the individual and to be served by him as a moral duty, it is not his place to decide whether to serve it or not. By the very fact that service is considered a moral duty, it is not up to the individual’s judgment about whether to perform it. Morally, the individual is a slave to the nation, and ideally should be treated as such.
This is the form of nationalism that drove the Japanese into World War II and inspired its kamikaze pilots to sacrifice themselves. It has driven terrorism and destructive wars around the world, from Northern Ireland, to the Balkans, to the Middle East, to Africa. It formed a core component of the Nazi ideology, as indicated by the quote from Hitler above.
Nationalism vs. Individualistic Patriotism
The nationalist’s attitude amounts to: “My country’s interests are above mine, and I therefore have a duty to be loyal to my country, whatever its government does.” On the other hand, the individualistic patriot‘s attitude is: “My country’s government is a good means of securing my rights to life, liberty and property, and those of the people around me. Therefore, I support my country’s government.”
So long as a nationalist thinks that his nation’s government is basically acting for “the good of the nation as a whole,” he will support the government. But who determines what’s “good for the nation as a whole”? Who determines what its interests are? A consistent nationalist will have to say that no ordinary individual can determine such a thing, since the private judgment of one individual is not binding on something greater than himself. Only the nation as a whole can judge what is best for the nation as a whole. No ordinary individual can say that the nation is wrong about what’s in its best interest.
So as long as a nationalist thinks that his nation’s government basically represents the will of his nation as a whole, he will support the government. Insofar as a person is a nationalist, there is no external standard by which he personally can judge his nation. He cannot say that his nation is bad. What his nation wills must be treated as good, by definition.
And further, by the logic of nationalism, how is an ordinary individual to judge whether his government represents the will of his nation? His nation has “thoughts” that he can’t directly access as one lone individual. About the only way he can have some indication that the government doesn’t represent the nation’s will is if there is already a very clear, obvious and massive wave of protests and opposition to the government’s policies. And if most people in his nation are fairly consistent nationalists, such protests and opposition couldn’t arise in the first place. The lack of such protests would have to be taken as strong evidence that the policies of the government do in fact represent the will of the nation.
So, in typical practice, the nationalist will blindly “follow the leader.” The nationalist mentality is to say, “I dutifully support my government and obey its laws, because it’s my nation’s chosen government.”
This is not what the individualistic patriot says. The patriot says, “I support my government because it’s effective at protecting my rights as an individual, and the rights of those around me.” If the patriot’s government and country become essentially destructive of rights and human life, the patriot will cease being a patriot for that government and country.
The nationalist’s support of his government is conditional only on the lack of massive unrest in his country. The patriot’s support of his government is conditional on its being a good government from an individualistic perspective–i.e. good at protecting individual rights.
The patriotic attitude is exemplified by the American Declaration of Independence. In it, Thomas Jefferson wrote:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
We can see here that Jefferson and the other Founding Fathers who signed the Declaration regarded government as a means to the protection of human rights and thus the safety and happiness of those governed.
The individual nature of these rights was made explicit by James Madison when he wrote:
“Government is instituted to protect property of every sort; as well that which lies in the various rights of individuals, as that which the term particularly expresses. This being the end of government, that alone is a just government which impartially secures to every man whatever is his own.”
And finally, Ayn Rand expressed the individualist patriotic attitude in no uncertain terms:
“I can say—not as a patriotic bromide, but with full knowledge of the necessary metaphysical, epistemological, ethical, political and esthetic roots—that the United States of America is the greatest, the noblest and, in its original founding principles, the only moral country in the history of the world.”
“The United States was the first moral society in history. All previous systems had regarded man as a sacrificial means to the ends of others, and society as an end in itself. The United States regarded man as an end in himself, and society as a means to the peaceful, orderly, voluntary co-existence of individuals. All previous systems had held that man’s life belongs to society, that society can dispose of him in any way it pleases, and that any freedom he enjoys is his only by favor, by the permission of society, which may be revoked at any time. The United States held that man’s life is his by right (which means: by moral principle and by his nature), that a right is the property of an individual, that society as such has no rights, and that the only moral purpose of a government is the protection of individual rights.” 
The nationalist generally differs from the individualist in various policy positions. Especially notable among these are immigration, trade, and military conscription.
The nationalist thinks that immigration should only be allowed so long as the immigrants “benefit the nation as a whole.” Any immigrants that the national leadership judges undesirable for any reason may be prohibited from entry. If the immigrants are poor, unskilled, likely to “take the nation’s jobs,” or culturally or genetically “inferior,” the nationalist thinks that it is the right of the government to prohibit them from immigrating.
The individualist patriot thinks that the government only has a right to restrict immigration in the cases where the immigrant is a clear and demonstrable threat to the rights of others in the nation. So criminals and agents of enemy governments or organizations can be denied entry, as well as those with highly contagious, life-threatening diseases. Otherwise, the right to liberty that all individuals possess, implies the right to trade and form contracts with consenting parties, to move freely on unowned land or water, to use willing transportation services, and to rent or buy property from willing owners. The nation’s government has no right to stop international travel by those who do not pose a threat to the individual rights of others. (It can momentarily detain immigrants as absolutely necessary to perform background checks, if they come from countries where the government can’t be trusted to effectively catch and punish criminals or hostile terrorists.)
Now, it’s sometimes argued that, in a democratic republic, immigrants can be a threat to the local population in a non-criminal way, through their voting patterns. Immigrants bring bad ideas into the society and vote to give power to politicians who will violate individuals’ rights.
This is indeed a potential threat, if sufficient immigrants, fresh off the boat, gain the vote. But one does not combat this nebulous, potential, distant threat to rights by preemptively violating individuals’ rights, immediately. All that does is negate the very idea of individual rights in people’s minds, making a bad outcome much more likely. Also, this threat is not unique to immigrants, but comes from the resident population as well.
The voters or architects of the government can combat this threat by making voting citizenship difficult to attain, in the proper way. If every would-be voter, both immigrant and native-born, is required to reside in the country for a few years and to pass a clear and objective test on the principles behind the operation of the government, you are much more likely to get a voting population that will preserve individual rights. A voting population with the desire to legally punish people for the ideas the majority of “their group” holds, is not likely to preserve individual rights.
Now, in the case of trade, the individualist will only want the government to stop trade that is a real threat to individual rights. So the only trade that the government has any business stopping is that with rights violators like criminals and actively hostile foreign regimes. Only that sort of trade is a violation of individual rights, since it aids those who violate rights.
But the nationalist thinks that the government should have a right to restrict trade whenever it “threatens or damages the well-being of the nation as a whole.” This idea is often put in the form of threats to “our stuff”–say, “German land,” “American jobs,” “British jobs,” or “French candlestick makers.” Nationalists speak as though land and companies are owned by the country as a whole, rather than by the individuals who developed the land or built the companies.
This is in fact what they imply, when they say that the government has a right to put tariffs on foreign goods to protect local industry and jobs. If the property involved in transactions belongs to the individuals, then they have a right to do with it what they want, so long as they don’t violate the rights of others. In place of the protection of individuals’ right to liberty in being able to buy and sell their property without being fined by the government, these nationalists uphold the alleged right of the nation to exercise control of “its stuff” to “protect itself” from “economic damage.”
Finally, on the issue of military conscription, the consistent nationalist ends up supporting it. If the nation is an end in itself, then individuals’ interests must be subordinated to it, as Adolf Hitler stated in the quote above. Under nationalism, there is no reason why the national government can’t force its people into military service, when the “good of the nation” demands it.
The individualist, on the other hand, sees the national government as a servant protecting the rights of the individuals under its jurisdiction, rather than their slave-master. It cannot force them to abandon their livelihoods and risk their lives to fight another country. Their lives are theirs, not the government’s or the nation’s to risk.
Now, if the country is a basically a good country, and the war is an important and worthwhile one for its defense, then there should definitely be enough people who will volunteer to fight. Those who are in a position to fight will see it as in their interest to go to war, since they would rather risk their lives than stand by and watch their country be taken over by an evil, destructive government. Those who are not in a position to fight directly, will generally do whatever they can to support the war effort.
It’s only if the country is oppressive, or if the war is unnecessary to the defense of citizens, that there will be a shortage of volunteers for the military or for war-support roles.
The Destructiveness of Nationalism
Nationalism is destructive to human well-being in a number of ways. I’ll discuss a few of the major ways here.
First, nationalism prevents people from properly judging their country’s government. The government may be pursuing policies that lead to destruction, economic ruin, and even the individual’s own death, but so long as the leadership are able to cloak their policies in the language of national destiny, sovereignty, or greatness, the nationalist will be led along like a lamb to the slaughter. Appeals to some vague, undefined “good of the nation” can mask all sorts of destructive policies in the eyes of nationalists. This is because they don’t have any clear standard by which to judge what is “good for the nation.” This is quite unlike the individualist patriot, who understands the “good of the nation” as being rooted in the protection of individual rights: Only that which protects the individual rights of citizens can be “good for the nation,” or “in the national self-interest.”
Stark examples of this include the general support for the Nazi government in 1930s Germany and the current popular support of the regime of Kim Jong Un in North Korea, today. Less extreme examples include Russian support for “strongman,” Vladimir Putin, and the typical attitude of Turks that downplays the Armenian genocide, (since, as far as they’re concerned, it was just something the Ottoman government did as part of a battle for the well-being of what would become the nation of Turkey.)
Nationalism also prevents people from properly judging other individuals, especially when it comes to comparisons between their countrymen and foreigners. Nationalists tend, by default, to see countrymen as “my people” (good) and foreigners as suspicious or subversive, (bad) regardless of what the evidence actually indicates about the person’s character. And when they do decide to judge their countrymen in some fashion, it tends to be by an improper standard: Instead of “Do they stand for pro-human life principles, or anti-life principles?” the question becomes: “Are they pro-homeland or anti-homeland?”
Nationalism tends to provoke irrational hostility between nations. This can lead to unnecessary and destructive wars, whether “hot wars” or “cold wars.” This is because of the effects that nationalism has on both the leadership of a nation, and the average citizen. Since he views his nation as a unique super-organism, the nationalist leader can easily be convinced that his nation has a special place in the world, with interests that involve conquest. Perhaps his nation is a predator, whose role is to eat other nations and make them part of itself. Or perhaps it’s a nation whose role is leadership, and it should lead an empire. Or perhaps it just has a rightful place as the authority over a certain area of land, or certain natural resources. The nation’s path to greatness could then involve accomplishing these goals by the time-honored methods of deception, assassination and open warfare.
Aside from the obvious example of Hitler’s invasion of Poland in pursuit of a thousand-year Reich, there was Imperial Japan’s invasion of Manchuria, (China) leading up to the Second Sino-Japanese War, and Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1935.
Where the “nation” in question doesn’t currently have a united governmental structure and internationally recognized territory, nationalism tends to produce terrorism. The goal of the terrorism is typically to establish the nation as a recognized political entity, in the way the terrorists want. Examples include the bombings carried out by the IRA in Northern Ireland, as well as the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by Serbian nationalists, which precipitated World War I.
Lastly, nationalism tends to stifle international trade, harming people’s economic well-being, relative to what it would be otherwise. Nationalists have a strong propensity for imposing tariffs and other regulations on trade, destroying trade opportunities and making international trade too expensive to benefit from.
Examples from the US include the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act, which exacerbated the Great Depression, the “Nixon Shock” of 1971, which included an import tariff and wage and price controls, and the recent “Trump Tariffs,” which some economists estimate led to real income losses of $7.2 billion.
Many nationalists today like to present the available choices as nationalism or globalism. Either you’re a nationalist, or you’re with the globalists. This is much the same type of binary choice that the socialist left presents: either you’re a socialist, or you’re in league with fascists. Both of these dichotomies are false alternatives. They are both the result of collectivist worldviews, and they both ignore individualism and laissez-faire capitalism.
The individualist patriot typically thinks that the nation-state is a good unit of governance for the protection of individual rights. And he realizes that this protection of rights requires that individuals be left free to trade, unrestricted, with others in other nations, (so long as those nations are not active military threats to the home country.) He judges his nation’s government by an objective standard: How many of its policies protect human rights, and thus safeguard human life, and how many violate rights and thus damage human life?
Because there is no such thing as “the good of society,” apart from what is good for the individuals who live there, the nationalist has no objective standard by which to evaluate his country. He ends up being a social subjectivist: The “good of the nation” ends up being whatever the nation’s leadership want. Often this is some version of “national greatness,” which is often associated with national prestige, power and influence on the world stage. Or it may be connected with the preservation of the nation’s culture–not because it’s good by any objective standard, but because it’s what happens to be most of the citizens’ current practices and identity. Or, as in North Korea today, it may be the preservation of the genetic group–race or ethnicity–that’s dominant in the country.
Then, the nationalist holds that it is the individual’s duty to serve whatever version of the national good he has latched onto. Why? Just because that’s the individual’s duty. Those who don’t do their duty are “selfish,” “degenerate,” “traitorous,” “subversive,” “cowardly” and various other epithets that have no substantial meaning beyond “somehow bad” in the nationalist’s mind.
The individualist patriot has no place for duty as an end in itself. He pursues his own life and happiness. He judges cultures and governments according to how their practices and policies impact human life. He supports–morally and financially–those aspects of his national government that are good, because he knows that those government policies make his continued life and happiness possible.
For a broader understanding of Ayn Rand’s political philosophy and how it applies to the world today, I recommend the book, A New Textbook of Americanism: The Politics of Ayn Rand. This should be of interest to anyone interested in Ayn Rand’s philosophy, even if you’re not an American.
 It should be noted that Ayn Rand apparently didn’t reject the term “nationalism” entirely, as a label for a good, healthy patriotism. In response to a question at the Ford Hall Forum, “What is the value of nationalism?” Rand supposedly said: “That depends on how you interpret the term. Nationalism as a primary—that is, the attitude of ‘my country, right or wrong,’ without any judgment—is chauvinism: a blind, collectivist, racist feeling for your own country, merely because you were born there. In that sense, nationalism is very wrong. But nationalism properly understood—as a man’s devotion to his country because of an approval of its basic premises, principles, and social system, as well as its culture—is the common bond among men of that nation. It is a commonly understood culture, and an affection for it, that permits a society of men to live together peacefully. But a country and its system must earn this approval. It must be worthy of that kind of devotion.” (Source: Ayn Rand Answers, edited by Robert Mayhew, p.102)
I personally, based on the more fundamental epistemological ideas in Objectivism, disagree with this “properly understood” use of the term “nationalism.” I think this idea should be called “individualistic patriotism,” to clearly distinguish it from a fundamentally different attitude toward one’s country. Using “nationalism” in this way is like calling healthy food–as well as toxic food–poison. It promotes a deadly confusion, intellectually. It gives national collectivists a place to hide, since they can easily equivocate and package-deal in their arguments, sometimes claiming that, when they say “nationalism,” they just mean the healthy thing. Then, when their opponents’ backs are turned, they continue to advocate toxic national collectivism, in the form of rights-violating conscription laws, immigration and trade restrictions.