Why Nationalism is Bad, But Patriotism Can Be Good: Nationalism is Collectivism, But Patriotism Can Be Individualist

“You know what I am? I’m a nationalist.” — Donald Trump

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…especiallya 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.

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The Nature of Individual Rights: Short Notes

Bill of Rights - First Ten Amendments to the US ConstitutionSome short notes about the nature of genuine human rights. I start by clearing up some common misconceptions about rights, then discuss what rights actually are.

What Rights Are Not

  1. Rights do not come from religious texts, like the Bible. Biblical Commandments like “Thou shalt not murder,” and “Thou shalt not steal,” don’t provide an answer to what killing counts as murder, or what taking counts as stealing. In the Biblical book of Exodus, priests and leaders may kill those in their community who are not attacking them, and it is apparently not considered murder. (See: Exodus 32:27-29) Also, many early Christians eschewed private property and lived a communal lifestyle, with all things held in common. (Acts 2:42-45) The Judeo-Christian tradition relies on the arbitrary dictates of the Biblical God and does not provide a solid basis for rights to life, liberty and property.
  2. Rights are not moral duties or “side constraints” on purposeful action, as many academic libertarians believe. They don’t have their basis in some vague concept of “inherent human dignity.”
  3. Rights are not means to “general utility”–i.e. the “collective pleasure” of everyone in society–as John Stuart Mill thought.
  4. Rights do not protect need-based claims to goods or services to be provided by other people, such as food, shelter, healthcare, etc. Contra Bernie Sanders, healthcare is not a right.

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What is Individualism? What is Collectivism?

German man refusing Nazi saluteModern political debates, from the 18th Century up until today, are full of appeals to the ideas of individualism and collectivism, whether open or merely implied. People speak of “the common good” or “public goods” or “obligations to society” on one hand, and of “individual rights” or “individual freedom” on the other.

The late novelist and philosopher, Ayn Rand, is well known today for being an arch individualist who was very opposed to any form of collectivism. But what does it really mean to be an individualist or collectivist? Are the two views mutually exclusive? Is one or the other right, or is the reality a mixture of both? Here I will discuss what individualism and collectivism mean, which one or mixture represents the truth, and what the major implications of each of the views are for today’s moral and political debates.

Life is the Active Pursuit of Self-Sustaining Goals

The issue of individualism versus collectivism does not arise out of thin air. It arises out of the observation–whether explicitly stated or implicitly understood–that life consists of organisms that pursue goals that keep them alive. Lions find watering holes and hunt gazelles, eagles catch rabbits or fish, termites dig and build mounds for shelter, etc. The ultimate goal of this activity for any given organism is its continued life as the type of organism it is. (The origin of organisms in evolution has ensured that reproduction is a natural part of the life-pattern of each nonhuman species–i.e. reproductive behavior is part of an individual organism being the type of organism it is.)

The question of individualism versus collectivism is the question of what the living unit is for human beings–that is, what is the human organism that acts toward self-sustaining goals: is it the individual, or some group?

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