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 remains 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 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.

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