If Not in Our Own Interests, Then in Whose?

General view of Denver firefighters with the United States of America flag. (Ron Chenoy/USA TODAY Sports)

Rich, I am a little bit perplexed by that Washington Post review.

As you know, I do not think of myself as much of a nationalist, and I do sometimes get the feeling that the “benign nationalism” of which you sometimes speak is a little like the “real socialism” that never has been tried, as we are assured by generation after generation of college sophomores. I take your point about benign nationalism, but benign nationalists seem to be a little bit scarce.

That being said, I cannot understand what is objectionable about the proposition that the U.S. government should attempt to orient its actions to the interests of the American people, which Carlos Lozada of the Post faults you for arguing. If the U.S. government should not act in the interests of the American people, in whose interests should it act? That applies to questions such as trade and immigration as much as to anything else. This should be too obvious to need explaining but apparently is not.

I think the confusion comes from our modern elevation of government to the position of sacrosanct embodiment of our shared aspirations, whereas properly understood it is only a convenience and an instrument, a tool that is necessarily employed by particular people for their own particular ends. Self-interest is the point of it. From Hobbes on, the character of government as an instrument of self-interest has been widely assumed by almost all liberal and democratic theories of government. I cannot see why it should be controversial now.

For example, President Trump’s incompetently executed trade war and broader neo-mercantilist agenda have been extraordinarily harmful to the economic interests of the United States, not only in the particular cases (soybean farmers, bankrupted steel producers) but also to those of the people at large by reducing trade, imposing difficult-to-calculate opportunity costs, and diminishing our national standing as a credible and reliable trading partner. Which is to say, the people who call themselves “nationalists” ought to object to “economic nationalism” on grounds that are . . . nationalist. Though I suppose it would be enough to say that these policies have been foolish.

I think it is the places where U.S. government action touches foreigners, such as would-be immigrants or those who suffer as collateral damage in our often destructive military misadventures around the world, that gives what you are calling nationalism its uncomfortable feeling for some critics. That the interests of people x are made subordinate to the interests of people y by the y government is a natural and inevitable part of politics, and progressives do not actually object to it—consider all that Democratic talk of “economic patriotism” or Bernie Sanders’s quite Trumpesque views on immigration circa 2016 if you doubt that. But your version of nationalism involves saying so out loud, which must be, as they say, problematic.

In reality, every Democrat who ever has complained about “shipping our” — whose? — “jobs overseas” is to some extent a nationalist in the sense of assuming rivalrous interests between two peoples and endeavoring to secure their own at the expense of the other. That the expense of the other rarely is explicitly acknowledged—that one of the questions involved in the economic rise of China and India is unwelcome economic competition for Americans, and another is whether Chinese and Indian people get to eat—does not make it any less obvious or true. There is far too much zero-sum thinking among our current nationalists, Left or Right, but the guiding principle of national self-interest is hardly new or illegitimate.

The question of self-interest in the U.S. context ought to be easier to understand in that the U.S. government was drawn up and laid out by people who created it as an act of self-interest and said so right there in the founding documents: to “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity,” etc. This distinguishes the United States from many other countries. But, if anything, the American compact is the exception that proves the rule: France, for example, has had many different governments over the course of its history, as have Japan and Spain, but at no point did the French cease being French, the Japanese Japanese, or the Spanish Spanish, even as their organs of government were subject to revision or revolution. But the United States would not quite be the United States without the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Even though it is true that what happened in 1776 was not the founding of a new nation but the working of a revolution in the government of a distinct (though diverse) people who had by then existed for some time, American nationhood is bound up with American government in a way that is not true of most other countries.

Speaking of which, you write: “Size matters. The Swiss have ideals. Does anyone give a damn?” As the resident Helvetiphile, I would point out that Switzerland punches well above its weight on the world stage, and that many similarly small polities are very much worth giving a damn about, Israel and Hong Kong prominent among them — and, once upon a time, the United States of America. Swiss ideals are worth knowing about and worth giving a damn about. So are Israeli ideals and Hong Konger ideals. And young American ideals: When young John Quincy Adams was sent as a diplomat to Prussia, he was stopped at the gates of Berlin by an officer who had never heard of any such thing as the United States of America and was skeptical that they were in a position to send an emissary to Berlin. You never know how these things are going to go.

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