Thursday, February 21, 2019

In Support of Actual Nation-States: A Response to Yoram Hazony's Virtue of Nationalism


In the previous post, I spoke about my leaving conservatism for libertarianism and even anarcho-capitalism while recognizing that, in certain subtle ways, I remain tied to aspects of conservative thought. Yoram Hazony is a thinker well-positioned to challenge my turn against conservatism as he is the kind of conservative that I am still attracted to. He comes from the classically liberal Burkean tradition. He is remarkably nuanced and avoids the obvious anti-left polemics that dominate conservatism today. This comes from him having actual conservative beliefs as opposed to simply hating the left. Finally, Hazony is a serious Jewish thinker committed to making Jewish tradition relevant to the Western political discourse.

I would like to, therefore, take this opportunity to respond to Hazony's most recent book, The Virtue of Nationalism. Hazony's goal is to defend nationalism, as embodied in the nation-state, as an essential component of the classical liberal tradition. This is opposed to the nationalism equals racism view that has come to dominate the post World War II West. For Hazony, nation-states are the only alternatives to the extremes of tribalism, which cannot recognize individual rights and empires based around universal ideals that are compelled to eliminate all opponents. Like a good Burkean, Hazony opposes attempts to build political systems out of pure theory. Instead, states need to arise from the ground up based on the experiences and traditions of the particular group in question. I agree with Hazony's basic argument. I would simply apply it in a very different manner. For example, I fail to see how the United States as a whole could be considered a nation-state any more than the European Union. The United States should be considered a universalizing empire. Therefore, in the name of the nation-state, I call for the United States to be split up into culturally unified sections that could plausibly claim nation-state status.

What is a meaningful nation? I would say that it is the largest group which so encompasses one's identity that self-sacrifice becomes not only possible but even expected. Take the family, for example. Imagine that some billionaire tried to bribe me to walk out on my wife and kids so he could move in and take my place. I would turn him down despite the fact that everyone would be better off if I agreed. The reason for this is that my identity is so wrapped up with my family that to take that away would effectively make me a different person to the extent that I might as well kill myself.

Let us widen this sense of identity to a religion/ethnicity like Judaism. Any close study of the history of Jewish martyrdom reveals that many of the best-known examples, such as the Crusades, violated Jewish Law. (No, Judaism does not allow you to murder your children and burn the synagogue down around you in order to avoid falling into the hands of Christians.) So, historically, people have been willing to die for Judaism less because they were particularly religious but because Judaism was fundamental to their identity to the extent that apostacy effectively became a form of suicide.

Now, in a post-Holocaust world, it is unlikely that Judaism, either as a secular culture or as a religion, can survive the combined threats of genocidal anti-Semitism and the modern demand for assimilation without the State of Israel. This makes Israel a functional nation-State. Jews across the religious spectrum and whether they actually live in Israel or the diaspora, recognize an obligation to sacrifice for the sake of Israel for without it there can be no more Judaism. (Note that I am defending Israel's right to exist and engage in self-defense. This is not a blank check to deny Palestinians the right to create their own nation-state.)

How about the United States? Imagine if someone offered you a well-paying job if you abandoned your American citizenship and became a Canadian. How much of your identity is wrapped up in being an American (or whatever country you are a citizen of) to make such an abandonment the equivalent of suicide? I think that people on both the left and right really do identify with a country, red and blue America respectively. Republicans and Democrats see their voters as the "real Americans" and the other side as people who happen to live in the United States, who, unfortunately, enjoy the legal privileges of citizenship. This leads to both sides pretending to be patriotic while simply hoping that one day that other America will disappear, resolving the conflict.

As I have mentioned previously, unity has a tendency to turn into an intellectual trap where what is really meant is that everyone should agree to do things my way. Unity is only meaningful when it becomes an end in itself to the extent that we are willing to do things the other person's way. Supporting a unified America means that it is so important to you that America remain a united country that you are willing to surrender to whatever major political party (Republican or Democrat) that you hate more and give them complete control. By this standard, there are few genuine Americans.

A step in the right direction would be to simply divide the country into several regional countries. Let us admit that Americans in the Mid-West, the West Coast, the South, and New England do not obviously have more in common with each other than with people in Canada or Mexico. It is unreasonable to expect New Englanders to lay down their lives to protect the South's version of America but I expect them to be willing to die for New England. Divide the country and almost all of our political, social and cultural conflicts would be solved. California would have abortion and gay marriage and Mississippi would not. People would be free to be perfectly apathetic about politics because there would be no threat that a few thousand votes would send their country in a direction they would find that objectionable. I encourage readers to take a look at Colin Woodard's American Nations, which tells over the story of American history as if the United States were a collection of different countries making alliances and in competition with each other. If we really are a collection of different nation-states, then why not make it official and stop pretending that the United States is anything other then an attempted universal empire.

Defending the nation-state is often used as a reason to tighten borders and restrict immigration. Breaking the United States down into regional nation-states should actually make them more friendly to immigrants. For starters, it would be in the interest of all the new states to attract like-minded individuals from the rest of the former United States as this would allow for more self-consciously ideological states. So, for example, the South should want to attract religious conservatives from the newly independent California, who fear that they will be forced to bake gay wedding cakes. This will allow the South to grant smaller pockets of territory to those Southern liberals who cannot be bribed into leaving for California a state of their own. From there, it is only a small step for the South to want to market itself as the place of refuge for Christian conservatives from around the world. Since Christianity would be written into the Constitution of this new state as the official religion (hopefully with some degree of tolerance for non-Christians), only people comfortable pledging loyalty to such a state would want to come so there would be no threat of immigrants hostile to local values. On the contrary, immigrants could be embraced as the true embodiment of the nation, people who already such Southerners that felt compelled to move to the South. Such a state of affairs could further be strengthened by eliminating the welfare state. If there are few government-funded social services than no immigrant is going to want to come in order to take advantage of them.

This is in contrast to our present situation where Republicans and Democrats have different values, want different countries, and, therefore, desire different sets of immigrants. They both also desire to use the welfare state to support their particular tribes. Hence both immigration and welfare become weapons in the unnamed civil war ruining our political discourse.

To understand Hazony's blind spot for existing states, it may be useful to look at another set of eighteenth-century thinkers, besides for Burke, that loom behind him, the authors of the Federalist Papers. For Alexander Hamilton and company, the chief alternative to the Constitution they had to argue against was dividing the new United States up into individual states or perhaps three regional groups. Their main argument against this position was that each faction would be trapped into pursuing its own particular interest as opposed to the general welfare of the country. The problem with this argument is that if there is no general consensus that could be agreed by separate countries than there can be no agreed-upon common good whatsoever.

In practice, the common good of the Federalist Papers was simply taking the welfare of Hamilton's New York Federalist bankers as the pretended welfare of the country. It turned out that Jefferson and his Republican farmers could be equally disingenuous. Despite his objections to federal power, once he became president, Jefferson was perfectly willing to engage in the Louisiana Purchase despite his lack of constitutional authority to do so. Furthermore, the Louisiana Purchase was not to the benefit of the entire country as it was detrimental to Federalist business interests, turning the American economy away from the Atlantic coast and trade with Europe. In the end, trying to maintain a unified country has meant that the United States has been racked by sectional differences, even leading to the Civil War.

Hazony supports the nation-state as an alternative to petty tribes and universal empires. The problem is that he fails to offer clear distinctions between the three. How big does a tribe have to become in order to be a nation-state and how much does ideology have to mix with culture for the nation-state to become an empire, particularly as in the case of both Judaism and the United States, ideology and culture are hopelessly intertwined? Hazony tries to paint the United States as an English Protestant nation that managed to assimilate a variety of other cultures. I fail to see America as a unified nation-state. It is simply too big and diverse. By contrast, I see Israel as the model nation-state as it offers something specific, a Jewish homeland, that cannot be matched by any other country. By contrast, what can the United States give me that Canada cannot? Hence, it makes sense for Jews to die for Israel in ways that it does not make sense for Americans to die for the United States. The solution is for the United States should be divided into parts that are culturally unified enough that everyone could get behind one particular vision that is worth sacrificing one's personal interests for.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

From Conservatism to Libertarianism: My Personal Journey (Part III)


Part I, II.


In the previous posts, I described how my strong distaste for the Left led me to become a conservative and how my frustration with the Republican Party, particularly over Iraq, grew. So the me who was neither shocked nor horrified by Republican defeats in November 2006 (in contrast to my enthusiasm for Bush in 2004) was an independently minded Republican with a socially liberal streak. If you were paying attention to the last post, you might have noticed that I did not use the word "libertarian" and that was on purpose. When I began this blog in December 2006, I still did not identify myself as a libertarian. Going back over my early posts, you can see that I identified myself as "operating within the classical liberal tradition" and use the word "libertarian" to describe the position that the government should stay out of people's bedrooms. For me, classical liberalism meant J. S. Mill, specifically that people should be left to themselves to pursue their own understanding of the good life, in contrast to modern liberalism. (I was unaware at the time that Mill was actually more open to government intervention in the economy than would be implied by On Liberty.) I was already even ok with gay marriage as long as it was framed in terms of personal liberty and not group rights. That being said, I did not identify myself as a libertarian. The main reason for this was that I had almost no contact with libertarianism as a political movement or as an intellectual tradition. I still thought in terms of conservatism vs. liberalism. I criticized conservatism from within conservatism. I still hated the left as much as always and was not about to turn traitor.

I started identifying myself as a libertarian around 2008 during the presidential campaign. I still supported the late Sen. John McCain and did not vote for Ron Paul even during the primaries. I even attended a McCain rally in Columbus when he clinched the nomination. I identified as a libertarian conservative as a way of telling people on campus that while I did not support Obama, I did not agree with the Republican Party on social issues such as abortion. I was not one of those "close-minded" religious extremist Republicans. At this point, I still had little contact with libertarianism. My libertarianism was the product of my own thinking. But I decided that if I was going to be a libertarian, I might as well discover what libertarians actually say.

I started binge-watching Youtube clips of Milton Friedman in the summer of 2009. Friedman was a revelation to me as someone who was saying the kinds of things I had been thinking and being far more articulate about it than I ever could. At a practical level, I recognized in Friedman a roadmap for a compassionate conservatism that could expand the Republican base to include blacks and Hispanics. From Friedman, I quickly branched out to reading Hayek (I owe a debt of thanks to Simon Snowball for giving me a copy of the Constitution of Liberty and for alerting me to the existence of a something called Austrian economics), Ayn Rand, and Murry Rothbard. I attended my first IHS conference in the summer of 2011. IHS has remained my chief lifeline to libertarianism as a flesh and blood movement. People like Sarah Skwire, her husband Steve Horwitz, and Michael Munger have been models for me of how to be an intellectually serious and principled defender of liberty in all of its radicalness while keeping both feet planted in the real not yet converted to libertarianism world. As someone on the autism spectrum, that last part has proven critical.

One implication of my path to libertarianism was that, since I came to libertarianism largely through my own thinking and only discovered later that there existed people who thought like I did, I have not felt tied down by faction. For example, being an Objectivist or a Rothbardian was never what defined libertarianism for me as I did not become a libertarian through them. I could recognize some things of value in such groups and move on.

It should come as no surprise, considering that I came to libertarianism while still a registered Republican, I was firmly in the minarchist camp. In fact, when I first encountered anarcho-capitalism through David Friedman, I was quite critical of it. Granted, my defense of government was firmly planted in pragmatism over principle. For example, I made a point of teaching my students that government was a magic wand that we used to call kidnappers policemen taking people to jail, something that could never seriously be defended unless we accepted that it was necessary for the well being of society that we all participate in such an immoral delusion.

What eventually turned me against even this moderate apology for government was my growing disenchantment with the American political system. As long as I could pretend that the Republican Party was serious about economic liberty and that everything else would pull itself together from there, I could hope that the Republican Party could fix America and that that the United States could still be considered a defender of liberty (even if an imperfect one). Once I lost faith in the Republican Party, it set off a domino effect in which I could no longer defend the United States government and modern states in general.

Even today, I am on the very moderate end of the anarchist spectrum. One could even argue that I remain a minarchist at heart. I still am, fundamentally, a Burkean conservative. I am not a revolutionary seeking perfect justice. The moment you make a claim on perfect justice, you hand a loaded gun to everyone out there to pursue their perfect justice, including those whose perfect justice requires your death. I am willing to accept that human institutions will always be marred by flaws and logical contradictions. The best we can do is make a good faith effort. If that means some government, so be it.

I acknowledge that I lack the moral authority to challenge governments rooted in some traditional authority, particularly if, like England and the United States, that authority itself is the classical liberal tradition. That being said, I feel no such bind when it comes to those governments premised on progressive notions of overturning tradition in the name of perfect justice. From this perspective, my anarchist attack on progressive government is simply the other side of my defense of traditional government. Edmund Burke himself famously defended the American revolutionaries as good Englishmen forced to defend English values against a monarch intent on changing the status quo. The Americans were not the real revolutionaries. They were forced to create a new system of government for themselves (that actually was not so different from what they previously had) because their opponents had embraced revolution first. (This argument is also crucial for how Burke understood the Glorious Revolution and why it was acceptable, unlike the French Revolution.)

While in principle I oppose government as an institution of violence, I accept, in practice, that we might not be able to do better than limited government. In pursuit of that goal, I embrace using the threat of anarchy as a weapon to threaten the political establishment. If this actually leads to the overthrow of government then so be it. In my heart, I have rejected the authority of government over myself and no longer see myself as morally bound to follow its laws. My obedience is merely that of a man with a gun to his head.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

On Open Boarders and Free Speech: It is a Matter of Principle


So, in his State of the Union Address, Donald Trump accused the Democrats of supporting open borders and Democrat Stacy Abrams felt the need to deny this. With both parties committed to denouncing open borders, it seems necessary to explain what open borders are and to address a strawman argument that has come to be associated with it. Let us be clear what open borders are not; supporting open borders does not mean giving up control over borders and the end of national sovereignty. Open borders are a statement of principle that people have a right to come into this country. As with any principle, it is the beginning of a conversation and not a suicide pact. This means that, in practice, there will be situations in which the principle will be violated in order to defend against a clear and present danger. That being said, while certain people, such as terrorists, should not be allowed to enter the country, the burden of proof is on those who wish to restrict immigration to demonstrate that they are acting to protect against a clear and present danger and that their plan is closely tailored to meet that threat.

Consider the example of freedom of speech. I would hope that it is clear to people on both the left and right that free speech has inherent value as a principle. That being said, freedom of speech is not a suicide pact. It does not mean that you can say whatever you want where you want it. For example, free speech does not allow you to undermine national security. It does not even allow you to block traffic. It certainly does not apply when you are on someone else's private property or working for them beyond the hope that the owner or boss will seek to demonstrate their own principled commitment to free speech by going beyond the letter of their legal obligations. How we reconcile the principle of free speech with the many practical restrictions is part of our ongoing conversation and reasonable people are going to disagree about the precise boundaries. That being said, we can embrace free speech as a starting assumption with a very heavy burden of proof on anyone who wishes to restrict free speech to demonstrate the existence of a clear and present danger.

Israel is a good example where there is a clear and present danger from immigration. Those Palestinians who took part in Hamas' March of Return were not trying to enter Israel to look for jobs or to enjoy the Tel Aviv nightlife. Many of them were clearly coming to expropriate the property of Israeli citizens and commit acts of violence. Thus, the IDF was justified in not letting the marchers into Israel and even using violence to stop them. The fact that innocent Palestinians were killed as well does not change this fact. To be considered non-violent, they were under the moral obligation to disassociate themselves from groups like Hamas.

By contrast, Israel has a moral duty to allow the entrance of Sudanese refugees as they are not coming to Israel with violent intent. I would even go so far as to say that allowing refugees with no association with the Arab/Islamic program of destroying Israel is a critical plank for Israel's moral defense against the Palestinians. It would demonstrate that Israel is honestly acting to protect the lives and property of its citizens and not merely to maintain some ethno-state.

Similarly, if there were to arise a radical Hispanic supremacist movement that sought to bring their people into the United States to murder American citizens, then the United States government would have the moral authority to stop such an entrance even to the point of opening fire on a large group of people, including women and children. As with the innocent Palestinians, their failure to make sure they were not associated with those seeking violence means that their deaths lie on their own heads. That being said, it would not be enough to say that some immigrants are criminals because the burden of proof is on the government (even if it might be less than in a criminal trial) to demonstrate that the individual is a threat or at least has allowed themselves to be associated with a terrorist group.

In the cases of both free speech and immigration, while we accept restrictions, they must be implemented in the good faith that those calling for the restrictions and the politicians implementing them actually believe in free speech or immigration as a principle. The moment we recognize the existence of an organized movement that denies the right of immigration to this country in the name of maintaining some kind of white Christian state then such people lose the right to enforce any kind of immigration policy. If they truly believe there is a threat, they can go back and convince us that they have no outside agenda.

The defense of open borders is the fundamental human rights issue of our generation. In a world in which many people are oppressed based on their religion, race, gender or sexual preferences, allowing individuals to take advantage of modern travel to shop for a country that best protects their rights, is a necessity. If you are not willing to take a stand on this issue when it so obviously could help so many demonstrates that you were never serious about individual rights in the first place. Granted, this does not mean no restrictions or an end to borders. I accept that reasonable people are going to disagree with me about precisely where to draw this line. (Some of my readers might even want to accuse me of being a statist for allowing the government to step in and police borders at all.) That being said, I would hope that we could at least accept the right of individuals to immigrate across borders as the start of a conversation. There is nothing radical about such a position. This was official American policy until the late nineteenth-century.