Nationalism Is Weird

Nationalism Is Weird

There are two basic moral frameworks people can adopt when thinking about how to treat others: localist and globalist. The basic difference is the size of the moral community.

Localism is the default human morality. Human sociality is adapted for life in a close-knit moral community. There's an in-group whom we trust and that trusts us in return; and then there's everyone else – the out-group – to whom we have basically no moral obligation.

Globalism is a more recent innovation: the idea that the entire world is your in-group; that humans are owed moral obligations by virtue of their humanity rather than by their group membership. In a world where deities served as tribal markers, it's no surprise that globalism could only come from monotheism – in particular Christianity. Judaism had brought tribal religion from "our god is stronger than your god" to "there is only one God". Christianity, with the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith (and more concretely with the parable of the good Samaritan), divorced religion entirely from ethnic identity. Though localism had a great deal of institutional inertia behind it, it became well-accepted enough in principle to continue on as a big driver of the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution.

Globalism has its pros and cons. Like most liberals, I tend to think the pros outweigh the cons, but it would be dishonest to pretend there's no tradeoff. The main pro is to be able to exploit gains from trade and economies of scale arising from increasing the size of the market. All of the explosive economic growth of the centuries following the industrial revolution would have been far too costly to exploit without the cross-cultural trust engendered by globalist morality.

The main con arises from the fact that exploiting these gains dramatically increases the size of one's relevant moral community. In the first place, a large and anonymous moral community tends to encourage free-riding, making the private provision of public goods more difficult. No doubt this explains a great deal of the demand for the state following Western urbanization. More significantly, without the sort of personal moral community in which rituals and meaning arise, in which true friendship can be forged, people tend to feel alienated and lapse into anomie. This is nothing more than the standard countercultural complaint against bourgeois values. Personalistic community is still possible to achieve in a globalist economy, of course; but because it's no longer obligatory, the less motivated tend to suffer.

Even despite the dominance of globalism, the localist impulse never goes away, and even still expresses itself more forcefully in some personalities than others. It's important now that localism is an impulse, and globalism an ideology. It explains why something so destructive and – quite frankly – weird as nationalism could ever have any staying power.

Nationalism is a fusion of the worst of localism with the worst of globalism. Like localism, it draws a sharp moral distinction between the moral community and the out-group. I recall (though I can no longer find the specific example) a pundit countering globalist arguments for freer immigration, asking something like, "is it so unreasonable that a nation's policy be for the benefit of its own citizens?". In its purer forms it erodes the sort of moral commitment necessary to sustain cross-culture trade. Nationalist regimes are unreliable parties to international trade, and – as we saw in World Wars I and II – can bring down the entire edifice of global trade.


In exchange for giving up the massive benefits of globalism, you'd expect nationalism to offer a pretty major benefit of its own. Maybe nationalism can restore meaningful ritual and personal community to its borders?

As a matter of fact, nationalism suffers exactly the same downside as globalism. The nation is simply too anonymous and too big to meaningfully fulfill the human drive for community. In this sense, while driven by a localist moral impulse, nationalism is closer in scale to globalism than to original localism. National rituals such as a nationalist regime might establish are participated in mostly anonymously (at least between participants). They are faux-fillment. Ultimately, nationalism is no answer at all to the problem of globalist alienation. It tosses away the immense material benefits of globalism, and offers none of the emotional benefits of localism in return.

The grand illusion of nationalism is the idea that the nation as such could ever be a personalistic moral community. Returning again to immigration debates, the usual nationalist analogy is between a national border and a door lock. If you lock your doors to keep people out, why shouldn’t a country close its borders? Gated Community The analogy fails to distinguish between a personalistic moral community (the household) and an anonymous community (the nation). Personal moral communities are necessarily limited in size to Dunbar’s number – about 150 – and are the only communities capable of addressing globalist alienation. There is no analogy at all between a household and any community beyond this size.

The fact that nationalism is largely the expression of an impulse, rather than an ideology in its own right, probably explains its utter failure to address globalist alienation. To fill that gap, a proper localist ideology is needed. Most of these are still religious in nature. Subsidiarity fits the bill; C.S. Lewis also had a localist ideology in his treatise on friendship. But you also see it in the tradition of Tocqueville and the "art of association" that he attributed to early American democracy.

A localist ideology does not necessarily conflict with a globalist one. Again, globalism does not necessarily destroy personalistic community; it's just no longer obligatory. It's easy to slip through the cracks in a globalist world. We can get the best of localism and globalism – international trade and personalistic community – within this free space: localist ideology as a spur toward the establishment of voluntary communities. All the high-level aesthetic arguments about order being defined by borders properly apply at the level of personal community – not at the anonymous level of the nation-state.


CultureEthicsImmigrationNationalismNormsTradeAlexis De TocquevilleC.S. LewisJames Buchanan


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  • 1


    Jan 27, 2016 at 21:32 | Reply

    I feel sports culture/fanaticism is a great and semi-harmless modern device that provides an outlet for people’s local impulses.

    • 1.1

      Cameron Harwick

      Jan 27, 2016 at 22:12

      I definitely agree as far as playing sports on a team. I’m ambivalent about pro sports; it seems that could go either way. “All Panthers fans” is a pretty anonymous group, so just yelling at the TV in solidarity with your team would be “faux-filling” in the same way as nationalism (though you’re probably right that it’s much more harmless). Though I wouldn’t rule out Superbowl parties, or fantasy football leagues, as promising localist seeds.

  • 2

    Lorenzo from Oz

    Nov 02, 2017 at 19:04 | Reply

    Nationalism was to a significant degree a state creation. Not only, however, as it was also a creation of printing and mass literacy. Whenever it has had popular oomph it seems to get it from the notion of having a state on the side of “people like me”.

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