This is adapted from a talk Jack Spencer gave at The Heritage Foundation’s December event “The Problem of Nationalism.”
Let me start by saying that I understand why some folks are attracted to elements of nationalism.
For some, it’s an expression of love of country—it’s a way for us to say that we love the United States and we want policies that put her first.
It presents a policy framework intended to protect what we hold dear as American from the threats we see emerging around us.
And for others, nationalism is an expression of skepticism of the status quo that, without question, deserves skepticism.
For this, I am sympathetic.
My critique today is not of the nationalist’s desire to protect America’s unique heritage but rather of its calls to manage economic and social outcomes by consolidating power in Washington.
Really, what we are talking about here is whether the liberal order around which American society is built has lost its value.
Some on the right, like scholar Patrick Deneen, argue liberalism is “unsustainable in every aspect” because it relies on an endless quest for human satisfaction derived by pervasive consumption.
Nationalism would moderate this condition with a form of resource rationing.
Essentially, it relies on government to determine at some level, where we invest, with whom we trade, what we purchase, and the value of our labor.
Instead, I will argue, that retaining and expanding a governing philosophy centered on individual freedom, decentralized power, and personal responsibility is the best way to achieve a stronger America and a stronger nation
Nationalism essentially elevates the primacy of the nation over the individual as the central organizing principle of governance.
Under such a system, authority migrates from the individual to the government.
Once this Rubicon is crossed, we’ve essentially changed the nature of our country.
At that point, we’ve empowered bureaucrats and politicians to decide what is in the national interest and to manage every aspect of American society toward those ends.
But politicians don’t always have our best interests in mind and those that may will eventually lose power, if not become corrupt over time.
And further, the cumulative costs of supplanting economics with politics will leave us all poorer and worse off.
Now to be clear, the debate here is not about a free economy versus a regulated one.
We subsidize, tax, and regulate all kinds of things.
This is about something much deeper—how we organize our economy and society.
So long as we have special interests lobbying Washington, there will always be carve-outs.
But as long as we have an economy that is predominantly governed by markets, such interventions may cost us wealth and opportunity, but we will generally be OK.
But “OK” on the macro level sure doesn’t mean “OK” at the individual level for everyone, all the time.
In fact, despite the immense wealth being generated by the U.S. economy, things are “not OK” for a lot of folks.
And it is these pockets of struggle that inspire much of the nationalist narrative.
In general, nationalism would blame this condition on markets being too free.
The result, they argue, is the elite get richer and the middle class gets left behind.
This leads to economic struggle and a general breakdown of society and thus a weakening of the nation.
Nationalists don’t necessarily reject the market, per se, but they’ve argued that restricting economic freedom—or using government to manage economic activity—leads to better societal outcomes.
There are a number of problems here.
First, nationalism often asserts that our economy is much freer than it actually is. Yes. The philosophical underpinnings of our economy are definitely rooted in capitalism. However, as I mentioned, the economy today is heavily regulated.
Thus, to assign societies’ ills, economic or otherwise, to free market capitalism simply ignores the actual characteristics of the American economy.
Indeed, the opposite is more likely true.
Government interventions serve special interests.
They breed cronyism, inefficiency, and corruption.
This is the fountainhead of the problems that animate the nationalism critique—not too much freedom.
Second, it often associates unwanted societal outcomes with a failure of the free market.
A free market doesn’t give everything to everyone and it doesn’t solve every problem. A free market is a system of exchange that allows people to put their limited resources to their best and highest use. It will generate the maximum amount of wealth for society while also reflecting our cultural values and individual preferences.
If we have cultural and societal problems, don’t blame the free market. Blame us!
Third, it gives too much credit to politicians. The economy is simply too complex for any person or group of people to manage.
Fourth, it misunderstands individualism.
Individualism is not a rejection of community. It is a recognition that government shall not determine for the group how we each pursue our own happiness.
Instead, such pursuits are left up to the individual. That doesn’t mean that we pursue these things alone. It means that the government doesn’t do it for us.
Instead of relying on government, we rely on churches, civic organizations, and families.
And lastly, nationalism is its own form of elitism. Free markets and capitalism are the great democratizers.
It’s not the rich that benefit most in a free market. It’s the poor and middle class.
Rich people have always lived in nice houses. They didn’t lose their fingers in factory cogs. They didn’t have to do dishes by hand or mow the grass.
These were luxuries unobtainable by the middle class a generation ago.
But thanks to markets, all of this is within reach of every American because on the whole, prosperity is spreading across the nation.
Consider these simple statistics.
The share of households earning less than $35,000 fell from 36% in 1967 to under 28% in 2018.
The share of households earning more than $100,000 tripled from less than 10% in 1967 to more than 30% in 2018.
Society is getting richer!
We have more time to spend with our kids, recreate, pursue our happiness.
But an economy governed by nationalism restricts individual choice and builds an entire economy around ideals held by concentrations of power rather than by all.
We’ve already lost untold amounts of wealth, innovation, and entrepreneurial ideas due to government interventions.
And as we deviate further from the market, prosperity loss becomes deeper and wider.
Liberalism has always had its critics.
I understand Deneen’s critique that liberalism has normalized certain unsavory elements in society. As the father of a 10-year-old girl—I am very, very aware.
But liberalism has also brought about immense prosperity and opportunity for society.
And in the process, has eradicated any number of evils—many of which themselves were the product of the state.
Liberalism protects us from an intrusive state.
This is why the left rejects liberalism.
Marx understood that the individual was a direct threat to the state and its interests as defined by those who derive power from its strength.
When people are free, regardless of gender or ethnicity, to pursue their preferences and maximize their talents—
The nation gets wealthier.
Nationalism should be rejected because, purposefully or not, such a philosophy, in the name of strengthening the nation, transfers power from the individual to the state and this weakens us all.
Not because the nation is not important or worthy of strength but because, in America, the strength of our nation is not derived by the strength of the state but rather the strength of our people.
>>> Read the first article in this series, “The Problem of Nationalism,” by Kim Holmes.
>>> Read the second article, “Founded on a Creed’: Understanding America’s Unique Beginning,” by Mike Gonzalez.
>>> Watch the full Heritage Foundation event, “The Problem of Nationalism”: