Nationalism, Patriotism, and Libertarianism

The nation isn’t the government

I was struck by a tweet from libertarian Republican congressman Justin Amash, who has become the “new Ron Paul” now that the three-time presidential candidate and libertarian icon has taken a well-deserved rest from politics. The other day he tweeted:

“Patriotism & nationalism are profoundly different. Patriotism is love of country. FA Hayek called nationalism ‘a twin brother of socialism.’”

Amash, who has vowed to never support GOP frontrunner and likely presidential nominee Donald Trump, undoubtedly had the New York real estate mogul in mind, but no matter what one thinks of The Donald, Amash is quite wrong about the nature of American nationalism and the meaning of “patriotism.”

To begin with, Hayek was clearly talking about European nationalism, not the American variety. I’ll get to the difference between them, but I want first to point out the irony of Amash’s citation of this particular Hayek quote, because the great libertarian theorist was here talking about the problem of centralization: that is, the growing tendency of smaller political units to be subordinated to and swallowed up by bigger entities.

If we place Hayek’s discussion in the present context, then it becomes clear that nationalism is not the enemy but a (potential) friend of liberty. For the modern trend is toward supra-national entities, like the European Union, the UN, and the North American “Free Trade” Agreement, which are engaged in erecting precisely that “society which is consciously organized from the top” so abhorred by Hayek. When nationalism is arrayed against globalism, i.e. against the concept of a regional superstate, or even a World State, libertarians must clearly take sides with the former.

Furthermore, what is a “nation,” exactly?

The libertarian theorist Murray Rothbard takes on this question in his trenchant essay “Nations By Consent: Decomposing the Nation-State,” and his ability to cut through to the heart of any question underscores the error made by Amash and anti-nationalist libertarians in general:

“Libertarians tend to focus on two important units of analysis: the individual and the state. And yet, one of the most dramatic and significant events of our time has been the re-emergence – with a bang – in the last few years of a third and much-neglected aspect of the real world, the ‘nation.’ When the nation has been thought of at all, it usually comes attached to the state, as in the common word nation-state, but this concept takes a particular development in recent centuries and elaborates it into a universal maxim. In recent years, however, we have seen, as a corollary of the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and in Eastern Europe, a vivid and startlingly swift decomposition of the centralized state or alleged nation-state into its constituent nationalities. The genuine nation, or nationality, has made a dramatic reappearance on the world stage.

“The nation, of course, is not the same thing as the state, a difference that earlier libertarians, such as Ludwig von Mises and Albert Jay Nock understood full well. Contemporary libertarians often assume, mistakenly, that individuals are bound to each other only by the nexus of market exchange. They forget that  everyone is born into a family, a language, and a culture. Every person is born into one or several overlapping communities, usually including an ethnic group, with specific values, cultures, religious beliefs, and traditions. He is generally born into a country; he is always born into a specific time and place, meaning neighborhood and land area.”

In short, the “nation” consists entirely of non-governmental structures and institutions: it is the web of social interactions and cultural context which the government spends most of its energy trying to bend to its will.

In a free society, this effort is largely unsuccessful: in a dictatorship, the state has replaced the nation and substituted its own “culture,” imposed from the top, for the traditions and values that have been established over time by the voluntary actions and decision-making of individuals.

What Amash forgets, or never knew, is that from a libertarian perspective American nationalism is sui generis. Nationalism, after all, is by definition the valorization of a nation’s heritage, its traditions, and most especially its origins. And how did the American nation originate? Why in the first – and only – successful libertarian revolution in world history.

“Constitutional conservatives” of Amash’s sort are constantly invoking the Constitution as some sort of sacred canon, the libertarian ur-text through which all issues must be viewed. We’ll pass over just how libertarian this document is – there’s a large and persuasive school of libertarian thought that views the adoption of the Constitution as a counterrevolution – and ask: where does Amash think that holy writ came from? It was made possible by those who had fought a revolution and established a nation, one founded on the supremacy of individual liberty.

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