Nationalism: Will It Help a Country Thrive?

Nationalism: Will It Help a Country Thrive?

William Thomas

4 Mins
June 11, 2010

Question : What is the Objectivist position on nationalism and national socialism? A close relative of mine is a British Nationalist who believes the only way for Britain to survive and thrive is via a nationalistic government.  

Answer:  Nationalism is the doctrine that a unitary cultural and political entity, the nation, should be the organizing principle of society. Particular nationalisms (you mention British nationalism) hold that one nation ought to be promoted and defended, as against international influences and individual choice. Nationalism assumes that a person is defined by his language and the history of the place where he is born. Objectivism defends the rational individual and rejects nationalism as an irrational collectivist doctrine. In fact, nationalism is a sophisticated form of tribalism.

What is a nation? In common usage, a nation can mean simply a country, that is, the group of people who are citizens of a certain government. But nationalists typically mean something more than this: They mean that a nation is a group of people who “share common origins, history, and frequently language.” (American Heritage Dictionary, 3rd edition). The French nation is an example.

National independence and “national self-determination” have been a major political trend of the last two centuries, as old empires have been broken up into new countries, usually organized around a language-group. The breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s into Croatia, Serbia, Slovenia, and Bosnia, and the subsequent breakups in Bosnia and Kosovo, were driven by nationalism, for instance. When Hitler united Germany and German-speaking Austria in the 1938 "anschluss", he was fulfilling a German nationalist dream. This is making a political theory out of tribalism.

Linguistic-cultural groups are made up of individuals, just like any group. It is the individuals who really matter. Political theory should ask first: What purpose does government serve in relation to individuals? The answer should be: to protect individual freedom. Only within that context does it make sense to speak of the process by which governments should be chosen (e.g., democracy) or what the geographical boundaries of a country ought to be (perhaps language and culture might provide a guide, or natural boundaries like oceans and mountains).

Nationalism inverts the relation of the individual to the government, insisting that the government should serve not the individual, but the nation. In fact, linguistic groups are statistical generalizations; some people conform more to a cultural standard, some less. Many travel between and across cultural-linguistic lines. There is no mystical force that unites people into a nation, and nothing to ensure that acts taken for the sake of the nation will be based in objectivity or justice.

“National self-determination” is a misnomer. Nations are groupings, not selves, and the “self-determination” of a nation just substitutes gang warfare inside a language group for whatever preceded it. Most nations were formed by war against other nations, and new nation-states are typically born in a spasm of genocide and “ethnic cleansing.”

An objective patriotism, or love of country, is based in the recognition that one has chosen one’s country. It is based in the recognition that one’s country has a just government. And, in this context, it involves an appreciation for the distinctive traits of one’s country.

But most countries are not chosen by their citizens. Many countries have unjust, oppressive governments. And a country’s distinctive traits (its typical food or its general cultural attitudes, for example) are no substitute for respect for freedom. These unjust regimes gain no legitimacy from their embrace of the nation. In fact, they are exploiting a superficial connection among many of their subjects in order to justify oppressing all of their subjects—and treating foreigners unjustly, as well.

One nasty from of nationalism is national socialism. The Nazis were the most infamous of these, but every jingoistic, protectionist, statist politician partakes of national socialist policies. Socialism has been a disaster over and over, because it treats the productive as the slave of the shiftless and stifles initiative under government controls. Man flourishes when left free to act on his own judgment. Declaring him to be somehow a cell of a social organism called the nation won’t make him so.

Nationalism is an instance of what Ayn Rand called “the mystic-altruist-collectivist axis.” It is mystical because it insists on an entity that doesn’t exist, and assumes that justice will arise from the authenticity of the group making political decisions, rather than the observation of objective standards of rule of law. It is altruistic, because it insists that you must serve the fellow members of your tribe, people, or nation. It is collectivist in its very conception.

One final note: Immigration is a flashpoint for tribalist sentiments. Even the most open countries, like the U.S. and Canada, restrict immigration pretty radically. Some conservative nationalists in developed countries argue that allowing the “wrong kind” of immigrants in will destroy the cultural base of prosperity and good government in their country. So Japan only admits Japanese, for example. This view trades on a truth: that historically, the most progressive political institutions evolved in certain countries. In particular, liberty and capitalism colonized wide swaths of the world thanks to the outmigration of British peoples in the 18th though 20th century. But few recall that the stalwart German stock of today’s Pennsylvanians were the untrustworthy krauts of yesteryear. The descendents of the Irish and Italians who were considered trash in the 19th century today provide the social bedrock of many cities in the Northeast U.S. All countries would be served by being open to new immigrants, who come to share their talents and exploit opportunities that natives neglect. We don’t know which groups will provide disproportionate numbers of talented, responsible people in a generation or two. What we do know is that a system of liberty and respect for the individual is our best hope of encouraging talent and responsibility in everyone we deal with.


William Thomas

William R Thomas writes about and teaches Objectivist ideas. He is the editor of The Literary Art of Ayn Rand and of Ethics at Work, both published by The Atlas Society. He is also an economist, teaching occasionally at a variety of universities.