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Nationalism: Good and Bad

The historian Allen C. Guelzo in the epilogue to his rather hostile Robert E. Lee: A Life (Knopf, 2021) raises important questions about the value of nationalism that I’d like to discuss in this week’s column. Guelzo has favorable things to say about some of Lee’s personal qualities, but in his mind Lee committed one unforgiveable sin—he betrayed his native country. I don’t think that Lee was guilty of treason, not, at any rate, if you look at the definition of that crime in the US Constitution, but that isn’t the main issue I want to discuss here.

Before getting to what Guelzo says in his epilogue, we should recognize that people generally feel attached to their country, and this is a good thing. In the familiar words of Sir Walter Scott, “Breathes there the man, with soul so dead, / Who never to himself hath said, / This is my own, my native land!” Ludwig von Mises in Socialism speaks in a related way of people who fight for their country’s survival:

When society’s existence is threatened, each individual must risk his best to avoid destruction. Even the prospect of perishing in the attempt can no longer deter him. For there is then no choice between either living on as one formerly lived or sacrificing oneself for one’s country, for society, or for one’s convictions. Rather, must the certainty of death, servitude, or insufferable poverty be set against the chance of returning victorious from the struggle.”

We’ll see later that the rest of this passage offers a clue to what is right and wrong about nationalism.

We’re now in a position to look at Geulzo’s epilogue. He criticizes two people for what they say about nationalism: one is the political philosopher A. John Simmons and the other is Murray Rothbard. He quotes Simmons as saying that membership in a nation-state “does not free a man from the burdens of moral reasoning” (p. 433) and suggests this gives inadequate recognition to national loyalty. On reading this, I wondered whether Guelzo was serious. Can he really believe that national loyalty is so important that the aim of keeping your nation together obviates the need for moral reasoning? Would it be all right to commit any atrocity, no matter how grave, if this were required to preserve your nation? That is a doctrine more suited to European fascism than to any doctrine recognizably American.

Guelzo criticizes Rothbard as an example of libertarians for whom “the charge of treason loses its taint of moral betrayal and becomes a mechanism by which an all-powerful state prevents dangers” to its own existence (p. 433). He gives a citation to Rothbard’s Anatomy of the State, pp. 45–46.

If you look up these pages, you will see that as usual, Rothbard is right on target. He says that the state uses accusations of disloyalty and treason to get people to fight for the government. A political system has value only to the extent that it helps individuals to survive and prosper. In Rothbard’s words,

War and revolution, as the two basic threats, invariably arouse in the State rulers their maximum efforts and maximum propaganda among the people. As stated above, any way must always be used to mobilize the people to come to the State’s defense in the belief that they are defending themselves. The fallacy of the idea becomes evident when conscription is wielded against those who refuse to “defend” themselves and are, therefore, forced into joining the State’s military band: needless to add, no “defense” is permitted them against this act of “their own” State…. We may test the hypothesis that the State is largely interested in protecting itself rather than its subjects by asking: which category of crimes does the State pursue and punish most intensely—those against private citizens or those against itself? The gravest crimes in the State’s lexicon are almost invariably not invasions of private person or property, but dangers to its own contentment, for example, treason, desertion of a soldier to the enemy, failure to register for the draft, subversion and subversive conspiracy, assassination of rulers and such economic crimes against the State as counterfeiting its money or evasion of its income tax.

In brief, the feeling of attachment to your own native land should never be confused with allegiance to a particular government. If we continue with the quotation from Mises given above, we see that he too makes the essential point that fighting for your country is valuable to the extent it protects your interest as an individual. You aren’t committing “treason” if you refuse to fight to preserve the government. Mises says,

War carried on pro aris et focis [for hearth and home] demands no sacrifice from the individual. One does not engage in it merely to reap benefits for others, but to preserve one’s own existence. This of course, is only true of wars in which individuals fight for their very existence. It is not true of wars which are merely a means of enrichment, such as the quarrels of feudal lords or the cabinet wars of princes. Thus Imperialism, ever covetous of conquests, cannot do without an ethic which demands from the individual “sacrifices” for the “good of the State.”

There is another problem in Guelzo’s book, and this returns us to his accusation that Lee committed treason. The feeling of attachment to your own land does not delimit the proper boundaries of your land. Lee’s “country” was his own native state above the federal union; what is the matter with that? Feelings of loyalty to your nation are valuable to the extent they ward off attempts to subject people to international government bureaucracies, as in the recent Brexit movement, but they do not properly rule out secessionist movements, which themselves rest on attachment to a people’s own land.

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