May 3, 2017

The Fuzzy Borders of “Benign Nationalism”



Ramesh Ponnuru and Rich Lowry of the National Review recently defended a version of what they call “benign nationalism,” that is, a nationalism that “includes solidarity with one’s countrymen, whose welfare comes before, albeit not to the complete exclusion of, that of foreigners. When this nationalism finds political expression, it supports a federal government that is jealous of its sovereignty, forthright and unapologetic about advancing its people’s interests, and mindful of the need for national cohesion.”

Even a “benign” nationalism invites a question: what, exactly, justifies partiality to one’s compatriots? After all, when you get down to it, here’s what distinguishes the United States from other nations: border lines. And this is a distinction with a difference. For instance, an American earns more than twice as much as a comparable worker in Mexico simply because of the “place premium.” But location relative to a line is hardly a good enough reason to justify this inequity.

Think of it this way. Suppose your boss promotes your coworker and doubles his salary even though his work performance was no different than yours. When you ask her why, your boss replies that her partiality toward your co-worker is justified because their offices are on the same side of the hall.  My guess is you’d raise hell.

Similarly, for nationalist partiality to be justified, there must be something beyond sharing one side of a line that unites Americans and sets them apart from the rest of the world. But what is it?

The Neighborhood Affect

Maybe the United States is like a neighborhood characterized by familiarity and friendliness. Just as you owe more to your friends than to strangers, you owe more to Americans than foreigners. In this spirit, Ponnuru and Lowry approvingly quote Roger Scruton: “A nation-state is a form of customary order, the byproduct of human neighborliness, shaped by an ‘invisible hand’ from the countless agreements between people who speak the same language and live side by side.”

One problem with Scruton’s argument is that plenty of Americans don’t live side by side. Alaskans live side by side with Canadians but not Arizonans who, in turn, live side by side with Mexicans. Still, I doubt nationalists would infer that Alaskans owe more to their Canadian neighbors than the Arizonans living thousands of miles away. In any case, living near someone is not, in itself, morally significant. I shouldn’t give special consideration to a job applicant or an emergency room patient simply because their house is at the other end of my subdivision.

Perhaps location is just a proxy for community. Close quarters encourage social bonds and shared values, both of which are morally significant. Here’s Ponnuru and Lowry:

People aren’t just atomistic individuals bouncing around in a free market; they are members of communities with attachments to faith, family, and civic associations that give their lives meaning. The nation is a community writ large, and it is natural for people to love it — to revere its civic rituals, history, landscape, music, art, literature, heroes, and war dead.

These remarks echo the sentiment of Steve Bannon, who says, “We’re a nation with an economy. Not an economy just in some global marketplace with open borders, but we are a nation with a culture and a reason for being.” Proximity isn’t what matters; community—what we have in common—is.

Uncommon Culture

But my original question remains: what, exactly, is it that Americans have in common with each other but not with foreigners? Tellingly, Bannon never specifies the culture of the American nation. There’s no doubt that America has culture, but it has culture in the way that Spotify has music. On a typical day this American drinks coffee from Colombia, listens to heavy metal from Sweden, and talks shop with academics from three or four different countries.

Consider religion. Although most Americans identify as Christian, there is no majority denomination. If religion is the tie that binds, then shouldn’t an Irish-American Catholic in Boston have stronger ties to Ireland (roughly 80% Catholic) than to their fellow Americans (only 20% of whom are Catholic)? Along the same lines, an Orthodox Jew in Borough Park, Brooklyn has more in common both culturally and religiously with the typical resident of Tel Aviv than Texas.

The argument generalizes. I eat Szechuan Stir Fry, but not Memphis Barbeque (in fact my favorite restaurant’s head chef is a Chinese immigrant). I enjoy the British shows Luther and Black Mirror more than any television made in America.  Here’s the point. Culture cannot be the basis of nationalist partiality because there simply isn’t a culture that is both inclusive of Americans and exclusive of foreigners.

The Narrow Scope of Reciprocal Obligation

Another argument for nationalism alleges that we have special obligations to compatriots in virtue of the contributions they make to our good. Compatriots pay taxes to fund common political projects, they vote in national elections, and they produce goods and services for each other to enjoy. Ponnuru and Lowry write, “We are citizens of particular nations where we live and are enmeshed in relationships of reciprocal obligation. No nation opens itself to all people of the world willy-nilly; every nation privileges people born within it (and those foreigners it decides to welcome).”

The reciprocal obligation argument suffers from two problems. First, plenty of native-born Americans fail to make the relevant economic and political contributions. Over half of American households receive more in federal benefits than they pay in taxes. Nearly half of Americans didn’t vote in the presidential election. The reciprocal obligation argument thus implies a conclusion unfriendly to the nationalist cause, namely that we owe no special debts to 100 million or so of our compatriots.

Second, legions of immigrants and foreign workers do make relevant contributions. Pia Orrenius of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas reports that both immigrants and natives currently represent a net fiscal cost, but that immigrants’ net fiscal contribution will exceed that of native-born Americans over the long term:

Natives meanwhile have grown more costly over time because they have become an older population; their health costs impose a disproportionate burden on the federal government because it pays for Medicare. The long-run, dynamic estimates of immigration’s fiscal impact are both far more positive and relevant, at least from a policy perspective. Recent immigrants represent a large fiscal boon because they are projected to pay much more in taxes than they use in benefits over the next 75 years. Even low-skilled immigrants, those without any college education, while they impose a net long-run cost, they are far less costly than similarly-educated natives.

Rather than buttressing the case for nationalist partiality, Ponnuru and Lowry’s reciprocal obligation argument implies that Americans owe more to a 24-year-old Haitian immigrant working as a mechanic than the 82-year-old retired Social Security recipient in Missouri.

The reciprocal obligation argument doesn’t simply fail to support nationalism; it actively hurts the case for nationalism. The chief complaint of “economic nationalists” is that foreigners are responsible for too much of the American economy. Bannon infamously bemoaned the high number of Silicon Valley CEOs from Asia. Donald Trump wants to tax imports because Americans consume too many goods produced in other countries. If our obligations to others are proportionate to their contributions to our good, then we have especially strong obligations to CEOs from Asia and manufacturers in Mexico.

The Nation is Not a Family

Finally, consider the notion that a nation is like a family. Alexander Downer, an Australian minister of immigration, put it this way: “We seek to create a homogeneous nation. Can anyone reasonably object to that? Is not this the elementary right of every government, to decide the composition of the nation? It is just the same prerogative as the head of a family exercises as to who is to live in his own house.”

The family analogy is a non-starter because a nation is nothing like a family. I spend hours with my family every day. We eat together. We vacation together. We distribute household duties from each according to their ability to each according to their need. We love each other. Aside from a handful of family members I’ll guilt into reading this, I’m guessing that none of you love me like a brother or a son. (Not only would that be weird, you’d also staring down a birthday-gift deficit stretching back 35 years.)

It’s also worth noting that the alleged force of the family analogy comes from the value of actual family bonds. But actual family bonds are torn apart by the immigration raids endorsed by nationalists themselves.

Our National Resiliency Comes Through Openness

Even though the standard nationalist arguments don’t work, it would be a mistake to conclude that there is nothing common to Americans other than a shared side of a line. Consider the following observation from Gustave de Beaumont, who traveled with Alexis de Tocqueville to America in the 1830s:

As a matter of fact, nothing is commoner in the United States than this indifference toward the nature of religions, which doesn’t however eliminate the religious fervor of each for the cult he has chosen. Actually, this extreme tolerance on the one hand towards religions in general, on the other this considerable zeal of each individual for his own religion, is a phenomenon I can’t yet explain to myself. I would gladly know how a lively and sincere faith can get on with such a perfect toleration; how one can have equal respect for religions whose dogmas differ. . . .

What struck Beaumont as remarkable about Americans was their ability to reconcile sincere religious belief with toleration for rival sects. What Americans have in common is not a shared culture, religion, or morals but, ironically enough, a respect for others’ rights not to share one’s culture, religion, and morals.

I should mention that Beaumont’s observation of mutual tolerance was restricted to Protestant sects. In those days, Americans weren’t exactly tripping over themselves to be the first to greet Irish Catholic immigrants at Ellis Island. But that reinforces my point. America remains stable and resilient in the wake of centuries of importing new people, ideas, and cultures. This result suggests that our stability and resilience don’t require homogeneity. More likely, they require a continued willingness to allow others to peacefully pursue their own way of life. We don’t need to enforce a common destination; everyone just needs to respect the rules of the road.

We have every reason to think that today’s immigrants respect the rules of the road. Despite nationalist hand wringing over “the ceaseless importation of Third World foreigners with no tradition of, taste for, or experience in liberty,” immigrants are no more a threat to liberty than natives. They break the law less often and adopt the same political values. So let’s stay true to the centuries-old American tradition of perfect toleration and open ourselves to trade and association with those whose dogmas differ from our own.


Christopher Freiman is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the College of William and Mary.