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Nationalism: Its Nature and Consequences


In the 19th century, many classical liberals believed that the ideas of “national identity” and “nationalism” were false scents that were likely to lead the world away from liberty and towards a continuation of political tyranny and international conflict. For example, William E. H. Lecky, in his study Democracy and Liberty (1896), argued that “the idea and passion of nationality blend quite as easily with loyalty to a dynasty as with attachment to a republican form of government, and nations that value very little internal or constitutional freedom are often passionately devoted to their national individuality and independence.”

Furthermore, Lecky warned:

The doctrine of nationalities has assumed forms and been pushed to extremes which make it a great danger to the peace of the world. It becomes the readiest weapon in the hands both of a conqueror and of a revolutionist, and, by discrediting the force of international treaties, deepen lines of division, and introducing elements of anarchy and rebellion into most great nations, it threatens the most valuable elements of our civilization.

Furthermore, while the “nationalist sentiment” seems in our century to be a natural instinct and emotion in men around the world, historians have reminded us that nationalism is a relatively new phenomenon, dating back only to the 17th and 18th century. Carlton J. H. Hayes explained in The Historical Evolution of Modern Nationalism (1931):

We can be sure that prior to the eighteenth century A.D., it was not the general rule for civilized nationalities to strive zealously and successfully for political unity and independence. . . . [T]he “first modern nationalists,” those whose ideas and attitudes and activities have been rationalized by our philosophers and been imitated by the masses, have been in the main, men of brains and some means, belonging most often to the middle class. They are the authors and the propagandists of modern nationalism. These have provided the inspiration of nationalist theorizers and the patterns for whole nationalities.

Professor Hayes suggested three factors that made nationalism appealing for European intellectuals in the 18th and 19th century. First, was the idea of democracy. As intellectuals “become more democratically inclined, they discover they can best and most conveniently operate the necessary machinery of democracy within linguistic frontiers, that is, within nationalities.”

Second, was the search for a secular religion. Professor Hayes argued:

It may well be that during and since the eighteenth century the rise of skepticism concerning historic supernatural religion, especially among the intellectual and middle classes, has created an unnatural void for religious emotion and worship, a void which it has seemed preferable to supply with nearby nationalist gods and fervent nationalist cults.

And, third, was the growth of statism:

Still another “underlying tendency” which may (and in our opinion, does most plausibly) explain the vogue of nationalism in modern times is the growth of a belief that the state, particularly the national state, can and should promote human progress.

According to Professor Hayes:

[Intellectuals] looked for fruition of their ideas not in the supernatural realm but in the realm of human reason and human effort, and hence they turned away from the church and toward the state.. . . [A]nd just as a member of any church may go to heaven beyond the skies, so every man by membership in an enlightened national state will share in the heaven on earth.

Men have been indoctrinated and educated to identify themselves — to see themselves as inseparable from — a national group. As Professor Hayes pointed out in his volume Essays on Nationalism (1928), “Nationalism, being a cultural phenomenon, is not ‘in the blood’; it cannot be transmitted biologically from one person to another; it is an ‘acquired character.'” And the European intellectuals possessing “nationalist proclivities,” who desired a worldly entity to replace God for creation of a heaven on earth,

. . . found expression [for it] in the glorification of the state and eventually . . . in the development of a kind of neo-mercantilism — a governmental favoring of national industry, national trade and national banking. This kind of mercantilism swept Germany, France, Italy, the United States, and many another national state in the last quarter of the nineteenth century.

At the same time, Professor Hayes explained, politicians discovered “that the masses when brought under [nationalism’s] spell not only were less inclined to criticise their leaders but also more disposed to accept the status quo” in political and economic affairs. “On the multitudes nationalism could be made to act as sort of a laughing gas. . . . A sustained inhalation of nationalism, in a time of national election or international war” reduced the likelihood of opposition to the existing political order of things.

At the same time, nationalism tends to produce in people an increased intolerance to those who differ from themselves or who question the policies of the state to which they belong. “If nationalism, in times of international tension, encourages a whole nationality or the entire citizenry of a national state to present a united front and to evince a collective intolerance towards an alien nationality or a foreign state,” Professor Hayes elaborated, “nationalism at all times actuates certain individuals and groups within a nationality to assume that they are the standard, one-hundred-per-cent patriots of that nationality and to adopt an appropriate degree of specialised intolerance in coping with their less endowed fellow countrymen.”

Furthermore, Professor Hayes explains:

These citizens are not content with unity of national action in time of war; they must secure in time of peace unity of national word and thought and usage, and the unity at which they aim involves, of course, the adoption of their particular and peculiar brand of nationalism by all their fellow citizens. If the adoption is not voluntary, then it must be compulsory . . . all must be one as they are.

The paradox of our world today is that in spite of the 20th century’s lessons about the dangers of aggressive nationalism and mega-statism in the form of totalitarianism — in spite of the experiences of numerous ethnic conflicts and civil wars — “national conscience” is still placed above and given preeminence over individual conscience and individual freedom. The United States government insists that “the nation’s” economic prosperity and well-being requires a potential trade war against Japan, regardless of the sacrifice imposed upon countless American importers and consumers of Japanese goods. Disturbed by the wide popularity and number of American films in the French movie market, the French government wants to limit the percentage of American films shown in France, in the name of preserving “national culture.” Fearful that the newly independent country of Macedonia might make territorial claims on portions of northern Greece, the Greek government refuses to grant diplomatic recognition to Macedonia and prohibits the use of Greek ports by Macedonian merchants and manufacturers, with no thought to the hardship created for both Macedonian and Greek traders and consumers.

Concerned that some sectors of their national industries might not be able to compete successfully against farmers and manufacturers in a number of Eastern European countries, the governments of Western Europe restrict imports from Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic in the name of maintaining “national” employment and the “national heritage” of agriculture and certain traditional occupations. Determined to impose cultural and linguistic homogeneity over their territories, the governments of Romania and Slovakia prohibit the Hungarian minority in their countries from having their own schools in the Hungarian language; the Turkish minority in Bulgaria, likewise, finds itself threatened with cultural and linguistic oppression.

It might be said that in many of these cases, the cloak of nationalism is merely a cover for the state when it uses its power to benefit some selected and privileged groups in society at the expense of the rest of the citizenry.

And this may well be true. But the fact that it works demonstrates how imbedded the nationalist consciousness is in our times. But far more serious is the fact that many, if not most, people in our societies truly believe in the transcendent supremacy of “the nation” over any and every individual who happens to reside in the particular country in question.

In his study of National Consciousness (1943), German economist Walter Sulzbach emphasized:

[N]ational consciousness became an historic force of paramount influence, not because races or languages or cultures had changed, but because certain human groups had adopted a new attitude toward matters previously regarded with indifference. Therefore, a nation must be defined by the subjective attitude of the people concerned. . . . “Nationalism” is a certain condition of mind. . . . [A person] is nationalistic when he feels toward his nation as those citizens of Florence felt toward their city, who, according to Machiavelli, valued its greatness more than the salvation of their souls.

What needs to be changed, therefore, is the “condition of mind” of ourselves and our fellow human beings. The mythology of the transcendent “nation” must be purged from the psyche of man. Language may be the mental tool by which we think, act and interact with other men. Culture, customs and tradition may contain the symbols and rules by which we live and often judge our own conduct and the conduct of others. The commonality of historical experience by various peoples may be a crucial element in our personal senses of being and belonging. But nations and nationalities do not have an existence separate from the individuals who comprise them, and who happen to speak a particular language, adhere to certain customs and traditions, and happen to share a variety of common experiences and memories.

As a consequence, there is no mythical “nation” distinct from the individuals who make it up at a point in time and over time. To think otherwise is to make some members of a national group subservient to others in that group who believe they know how all in the group should be made to conform and behave. In other words, it requires making some the linguistic and behavioral slaves of others who claim to have the transcendent vision of knowing how all within the group or within a geographical area should speak, believe, and act to reflect the “true national spirit.”

Furthermore, the existence of others who speak different languages, practice other customs and traditions, and share alternative historical memories need not threaten any other one group of individuals with another language, set of customs, or historical memory. But for all to live together peacefully, with all their respective differences as well as similarities, and mutually benefit from each nationality’s contribution to civilization as a whole, requires both tolerance and adherence to the concept of individual liberty.

The idea of tolerance means that we recognize that not all that is good only belongs to ourselves, and that only reason and experience can teach us and others which ways of life are most beneficial and desirable. And the principle of individual liberty means that we respect each man’s right and responsibility to choose his own way of living, speaking, and acting, though we may not share his choices and beliefs or always agree with all of his forms of conduct.

Only when this radically different “condition of mind” replaces the present collectivist notions of nationality and national consciousness will national conflicts and ethnic tensions no longer disrupt and often destroy the peaceful business and personal affairs of life. Unfortunately, the vast majority of men seem unaware that it is their own collectivist habits of mind that are the cause of many of their own societal problems. So, many more nationalist wars of aggression and oppression are likely to darken our world’s future.

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    Dr. Richard M. Ebeling is the BB&T Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Free Enterprise Leadership at The Citadel. He was formerly professor of Economics at Northwood University, president of The Foundation for Economic Education (2003–2008), was the Ludwig von Mises Professor of Economics at Hillsdale College (1988–2003) in Hillsdale, Michigan, and served as vice president of academic affairs for The Future of Freedom Foundation (1989–2003).