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Western Nationalists as Palestinians
Zero sum thinking hurts your own people too
Nationalism is often considered immoral because it values the interests of some people over others, rather than being universalist in its circle of concern. For nationalists themselves, the ideology is often defined by such a preference. I agree with the standard liberal critique of this worldview, but I think the universalist/particularist distinction is the weakest point on which to attack it. The bigger problem with nationalism is that it’s usually very bad for the people it claims to speak for and represent, even putting aside the interests of outgroups.
Many observers have been noting the distinction between caring about the “Palestinian cause” and the Palestinian people. As I’ve also pointed out, if you want what’s best for the actual human beings who live in Gaza, you would encourage them to seek a better life elsewhere. But there is relatively little interest in this as a solution, because it would harm the cause of Palestine, which keeps millions of individuals and their families stateless for generations for the sake of a political movement.
This kind of thinking isn’t limited to Middle Easterners. Last year, I did an X poll and found that white nationalists would prefer by over a 6:1 margin a country with 400 million Americans that is 75% white over one with 1 billion Americans that is 50% white, even though the latter would have 200 million more white people.
This is quite frankly a deranged result. Just to be sure people knew what they were voting for, I also clarified that the question was about more or fewer white people existing in the entire world, rather than whites being plucked from other countries and brought to America. All of this means that if you had a proposal that could increase the white birthrate, white nationalists would oppose it if it led to a similar number of black and brown babies being born too. I think if you posed the question above to Ibram X Kendi or some other radical leftist, they would pick the option with more white families. Few people are more anti-white than white nationalists. Their indifference to the fate of their own people, at least relative to how much they care about coming out ahead of an outgroup, makes them similar to the leaders of the Palestinian cause.
Maybe because it is so taboo, white nationalism simply attracts a particularly disturbed kind of human being. But I see similar category errors when I read or hear from more mainstream types of nationalists. Take the idea that immigration makes a country poorer. Imagine two states, where Country A has a GDP per capita of $60K a year and Country B is at $10K. An individual who is making $20K a year in Country B moves to Country A, where his salary increases to $40K a year. A nationalist will argue that both states became poorer. But all we did was make one individual better off, while leaving everyone else the same.
Of course, immigration restrictionists will try to make more complicated arguments, like this hurts low-wage workers in the receiving country, or makes the poorer nation suffer from “brain drain.” There are good reasons to just see this as motivated reasoning. If one takes these arguments at face value, they would imply support for other kinds of policies that nationalists tend not to favor, like keeping the birthrate low. Some restrictionists are Malthusians, and just think people are bad as a general principle, and we can at least take their positions as genuine because they’re logically consistent with one another. But most immigration restrictionists I’ve read support a higher birthrate for native born Americans of all classes, which directly contradicts the arguments they sometimes make about the supposed negative effects of immigration in relation to wages, resource depletion, and overcrowding. Similarly, many nationalists are anti-free trade but in most other contexts pro-market, as if the laws of economics change based on the nationality of the person you’re interacting with.
The GDP example above applies equally to IQ, or any other measure on which you think migration makes a country worse off. The funniest example of this is Ann Coulter’s complaint that immigration harms women’s rights in America by letting in Muslims. But Muslim women born in America surely have more rights than they would have if their families had stayed home. And no native born American woman becomes less free because of new arrivals who make their daughters dress modestly and avoid unrelated men. What exactly is the concern here? Global women’s rights? Or the well being only of American women? On either measure, migration doesn’t hurt the cause. This critique of immigration only makes sense if you care about something like “average freedom calculated by the level of freedom enjoyed by each woman in America,” which is not the same thing as advocating for the rights of women as individuals.
The good thing about increasing GDP is that it can go towards practically whatever ends you want, and the extent to which nationalists fail to consider how greater wealth can help them achieve their goals is simply another manifestation of zero sum thinking. Some people will argue that they just want to live around people like themselves, and that’s fine. What prevents them from doing that though is civil rights law, which is why we don’t have that freedom anymore. Trying to make a country white because you want to live around other white people is like trying to pass a law to make everyone into anime so you’ll have more friends with similar interests. The solution is simply out of proportion to the problem that it is trying to solve. And a nation is too large of an entity to seek community at that level. Across the West, a lot more political capital goes into immigration restriction than legalizing freedom of association, while the latter is actually the direct path towards building communities composed of likeminded individuals and families.
Of course not everything that has ever been called “nationalism” has been bad for humanity. I think it was a good thing that the British Empire took over much of the world, spreading both its people and institutions. And the US-led international order set up after the Second World War has done an admirable job of at the very least penalizing aggression by other countries. If nationalism leads a people to resist Soviet Communism, then it is obviously a net plus in that context. But the meanings of words change over time, and when an intellectual or politician calls himself a nationalist today it generally indicates that he takes a parochial and overly pessimistic view of intergroup relations and favors policies that if adopted would make most people worse off.
Nationalists can respond to all this by saying that they simply have different values. A “nation” of one family of their preferred ingroup sitting around a campfire is superior to a multicultural empire even if it has hundreds of millions of individuals of the same background living happy, healthy, and productive lives. Indeed, if you read nationalist websites, you’ll find a lot more positivity toward Estonia than the US, despite the latter having over two orders of magnitude more people of European descent, who are also better off on average. American nationalists similarly care about the relative gains of trade and migration rather than population or economic growth as a general matter.
If those are your priorities, I can’t force you to take a different perspective. But I think some nationalists are simply misguided in adopting a default zero sum worldview, which they can be argued out of if you can convince them that their outlook makes the people they care about worse off. The great advancements in ethical reasoning have come from moving beyond this kind of thinking. The current state of Arab societies presents a stark warning about what happens to cultures that are stuck in the past. Westerners with pride in their civilization should have higher ambitions.
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