Do Americans Comprise a Nation?

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Do Americans belong to a nation? Or ask the question this way: Is the “republic for which it stands” actually “one nation, indivisible”? Is there actually an American nation?

I don’t think so. I think it’s a political fiction, a myth that’s designed to support a government. I think that when we look closely at definitions of nation, we find that they are circular in relating nation to government. That is, they simply are attempts to accept and implicitly defend (rationalize) government. The definitions of nation are actually excuses for government. That is to say, once one assumes that a people is a nation, the definitions require one to think that this people has a government, and having that government is what defines that people as a nation. This is all circular. It is all conceptualization that prevents one from questioning the basic ideas involved. I’m questioning those ideas.

If there is an American nation, what characteristics of its members define it? If such characteristics actually exist, do they imply a government that each member is automatically required to accept?

I think that supporters of the ideas of one nation and government expressed in the Pledge fail to provide a meaningful elaboration of those characteristics of each person in this land that mean we form a nation. Having failed at that task, they certainly do not explain why this purported nation should have one government, much less the kind of government that such supporters typically call for, which is a big, paternal, powerful government.

Government of any size and big government in particular draw support from the idea that Americans are one indivisible nation. This idea is one of the foundations for the idea that there has to be one set of laws made by one government over all who live within certain territorial boundaries. This conclusion derives from three other presumptions. One is the idea that everyone within those boundaries has membership in the nation. The second is the idea that somehow this membership gives rise to an amalgamation of everyone, and this amalgamation entails consent to a government. The third idea is that this nation has identifiable wants, needs, goals and aspirations.

There is a fourth idea that government supporters invariably assume and invoke, which is that intellectual and government leaders can identify the hopes and desires of those who are in the nation. They not only can identify them, they can implement laws that help people get their desires and realize their hopes.

For example, Cass Sunstein, who is an articulate Establishment elite member, writes “Roosevelt’s purpose was to give a fresh account of the nation’s defining aspirations.”

All of these ideas are at best shaky, ill-founded and unproven. At worst, they are simply false, misleading and cruelly deceptive, diverting significant energy into counter-productive and dysfunctional paths.

So, what is a nation? It is what is called a set in mathematics. It is a set of people. A set is defined by having members that have known properties. There is a Wikipedia account of nation. It has several possible properties that it says may identify a nation. “People who share a common language, culture, ethnicity, descent, or history.” However, none of these suffices to define an American people. Many non-Americans speak english. Americans comprise many ethnicities and descents. Every person has his own history, personal and family. We cannot infer a government for Americans by appeal to a common history that itself is political in nature without making the definition of nation a circular one. We surely cannot infer a government from culture or language.

The Merriam-Webster online definitions of nation are boldly circular and of no value whatsoever, if we are attempting to understand how government derives from nation. It says “a large area of land that is controlled by its own government.” It also says “a politically organized nationality”. This is circular. It defines a nation as a group that has politically organized itself. This is also what Wikipedia says: “The 18th century brought an alteration to the meaning of the term ‘nation’, which became more narrowly referred to as a group with a recognizable and sovereign government with physical borders. This new definition aligns more with the concept of a nation-state.”

If I ask “What property do all members of the set of people have in the set called a nation?”, the answer that comes back at me from these sources is this: “They all live in a defined territory that is controlled by a government.”

To accept the idea that Americans comprise a nation is, under the existing concepts, to accept its one government. This is to slide into accepting its laws as legitimately speaking for the nation. This slippery slope is to accept the other presumptions I pointed out. These are that you are automatically a member of this nation because of your location within a particular territory. You are amalgamated into the group and must accept its government. The group has aspirations that supersede your own. The leaders of the government identify your hopes and desires and pass laws to help you realize them.

Furthermore, taking these kinds of presumptions even further, what you are and what you own are not yours. That is, you do not simply have interactions with other members of the nation. Instead, because you are all united under one government, you have inter-dependencies with others. You welcome taxes. You welcome the laws. They define your liberty. You are not a MAN. You are a MEMBER. You must be made to be in a nation and under a government, you must be made to pay taxes. Otherwise you will be both unfree and poor. I’m not exaggerating. Here is what Cass Sunstein has written

“In what sense is the money in our pockets and bank accounts fully ‘ours’? Did we earn it by our own autonomous efforts? Could we have inherited it without the assistance of probate courts? Do we save it without the support of bank regulators? Could we spend it if there were no public officials to coordinate the efforts and pool the resources of the community in which we live? Without taxes, there would be no liberty. Without taxes there would be no property. Without taxes, few of us would have any assets worth defending. [It is] a dim fiction that some people enjoy and exercise their rights without placing any burden whatsoever on the public…There is no liberty without dependency.”

What does Prof. Sunstein know, really know, about who helped me in my life, what I did on my own, what part others played, among family, friends, enemies, acquaintances, strangers, people dead who wrote books and articles, and public officials? Who is he to claim to know what taxes I paid and what I got in return? How does he know what property I have now that’s owing to government or might have had in its absence? How does he know what burdens I’ve placed on others or on the commonwealth? How does he know what I’ve provided to others?

Yet he is arguing that he knows these matters that he cannot possibly know, and he knows them well enough to make the claim that I am a MEMBER of this “community” (the stand-in for nation in this passage) of which he writes. He has lost sight of what it is to be a MAN and reduced a man’s life to dependency on government.

The next thing he will do is tell me how I MUST live, and of course that is precisely what he does:

“Rights to private property, freedom of speech, immunity from police abuse, contractual liberty and free exercise of religion – just as much as rights to Social Security, Medicare and food stamps – are taxpayer-funded and government-managed social services designed to improve collective and individual well-being.”

My individual well-being is being improved, he informs me, by the welfare state. What of the warfare state? As late as May 10, 2006, Sunstein could still write

“By the time it ends, the war in Iraq is expected to cost the United States at least $500 billion and possibly $1 trillion or more. But if the war leads to a large decrease in the risk of terrorist attacks and to a wave of democratization in the Middle East, perhaps the money will have been well spent.”

In 2013, he would be straddling the war issue while supporting Obama on attacking Syria on his own:

“Similarly, it might be argued that the international norm against use of chemical weapons, reflected in the Chemical Weapons Convention, promotes the security interests of the U.S., and that the use of force, meant to deter erosion of that norm, would promote those interests.”

In that article, he goes back to the Constitution to analyze the question. When he defended FDR’s Second Bill of Rights, he felt no need to refer to the Constitution. I’ve criticized FDR on this matter before.

Patrick McGoohan’s jailkeepers demanded information from him and said that they’d get it “by hook or by crook”. This was in 1967 and the handwriting was on the wall. His response is a succinct expression of libertarianism: “I am not a number. I am a free man.” This is the 10-word response to Sunstein.

I’ve made no mention of how this territory was actually formed. Such an account would involve a great number of factors. A key one was warfare. If a nation is identified by its territorial government and the people in its borders, then isn’t warfare in most cases one of the most important factors that produces the borders that are said to help define a nation? If this is true, why pledge allegiance to such a political result and why be made to be a member? How can that be reconciled with willingly pledging allegiance to values one believes in that may have nothing to do with a political map and a government?

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