Skeptic Magazine commissioned the following essay for a special issue on the theme of nationalism (vol. 27, no. 4 / Dec. 2022). We are pleased to republish a slightly revised version of the essay, with permission, in New Ideal. Part I appeared last week.
Start with Part 1 here
National conservatism’s anti-Enlightenment crusade
Distancing themselves from nationalism’s blood-soaked legacy, those who call themselves “national conservatives” would have us believe that their ideology is pro-liberty, that it is in fact the path to restoring the American vision. But as with the nationalism of the last century, their vision is hostile to reason, individualism and liberty.
National conservatism fundamentally devalues the individual’s rational mind, and consequently, it repudiates the principle of individual rights. In his book, The Virtue of Nationalism, Hazony argues that — contrary to the evidence — human reason is incapable of arriving at universal truths. He writes that, “no human being, and no group of human beings, possesses the necessary powers of reason and the necessary knowledge to dictate the political constitution that is appropriate for all mankind.”1 Therefore, he believes, it is wrong to regard the principle of individual rights as a universal truth. Instead, he downgrades it to a “cultural inheritance of certain tribes and nations.” (And as we’ll see, despite pro-liberty rhetoric, this view empties the principle of individual rights of all meaning.)'National conservatism fundamentally devalues the individual’s rational mind, and consequently, it repudiates the principle of individual rights.' Click To Tweet
National conservatism is tribalism with a theoretical fig leaf. If you unpack Hazony’s idea of “the national state,” inside, like nesting Russian Matryoshka puzzle dolls, you find tribes; unpack tribes, and you find clans and families. Unpack families, and yes, there is a reluctant concession that families consist of individuals, but the basic unit of value is really the family/tribe. Binding the collective together are a common language, and history and the self-recognition as a community. To be part of this collective is to owe your devotion to its “collective self-determination.” (This implies divining the “collective’s” will, by some means transcending our senses and reasoning minds.) Here as with twentieth-century varieties of nationalism, the nation’s needs take precedence over the lives and judgment of individuals.
National conservatism repudiates the Enlightenment’s focus on individual sovereignty. Yoram Hazony, in a keynote at a nationalist conference, announced that “We declare independence from neoliberalism, from libertarianism, from what they call classical liberalism — you can give it any name you want — but that set of ideas that sees the atomic individual, the free and equal individual” as central to political thought.2
Will a national conservative state protect your individual rights? To have even a semblance of freedom, in this view, you have to live in a tribe or nation where that is a “cultural inheritance.” (Tough luck if you’re born where “honor killings” and female genital mutilation are accepted cultural inheritances.) Whatever degree of freedom you may be afforded is not a matter of your moral right, but rather a permission granted by the collective, and hence a permission that it may withdraw. Essentially, your life and freedom actually belong to the nation. To echo Hegel, your life is “something subordinate,” and if the collective “claims life, the individual must surrender it.”
National conservatism seeks not to safeguard individual liberty, but to exert authoritarian control. You can see this in a 10-point manifesto that Hazony co-authored, “National Conservatism: A Statement of Principles,”3 which bears the signatures of a long list of writers, political figures and activists. The document puts forward several anodyne positions that give it a veneer of compatibility with freedom: an embrace of the rule of law; a repudiation of racism; the idea of constitutional government; a nod to the idea of free enterprise. These, however, are merely window-dressing.
The manifesto’s conception of the purpose of government is overtly collectivist. Government is not instituted for the sake of securing the rights of individuals, but “to establish a more perfect union among the diverse communities, parties, and regions of a given nation.” To serve the collective’s welfare, national conservatives call for imposing a “national economic policy” to command every individual and prop up favored industries (while somehow, miraculously, avoiding “cronyism”). In reality, this erects but the facade of enterprise, trade and private property, while negating their essence.
The manifesto’s distinctive aim, however, is religious authoritarianism. National conservatism seeks to demolish one of the signal achievements of the American political system — the separation of church and state. This separation reflected a sober recognition of historical experience: the Old World had been racked by wars of religion and by the political dominion of one Church or another. For their part, national conservatives assert that:
No nation can long endure without humility and gratitude before God and fear of his judgment that are found in authentic religious tradition. [. . .] Where a Christian majority exists, public life should be rooted in Christianity and its moral vision, which should be honored by the state and other institutions both public and private.
Such a Christian nationalist regime, we’re assured, would protect religious minorities. Notice, however, the statement’s glib evisceration of the First Amendment’s protection of intellectual freedom. The national conservative manifesto simply states: “Adult individuals should be protected from religious or ideological coercion in their private lives and in their homes.” [Emphasis added.]
To say that freethinkers, dissidents or atheists, for instance, “should be” protected “in their private lives and in their homes” is not to say that they have a right to freedom of thought and speech. That would necessarily include the right to voice and write and publish your ideas. A protection that extends only to your private life and home conflicts with that; it implies that you cannot hire a lecture hall, run a blog, publish books, release videos, exhibit artwork or run advertisements to express your views. And why exclude children from such protection? Presumably, national conservatives are only too eager to see children in state schools indoctrinated in the state’s dogmas (Christian dogmas, here in the U.S.).
Moreover, whatever this protection looks like, it is conditional. The nation’s “collective self-determination” takes precedence, overriding any permission granted to individuals. It is hardly an original tactic to promise people a vague freedom that the government can later revoke, once it has seized sufficient political power and no longer feels obliged to put on a friendly mask.
The authoritarianism latent in national conservatism can be seen elsewhere in the “Statement of Principles.” In keeping with the goal of marrying church and state, the government’s purpose is not only to bring criminals to justice. Its mission also encompasses the imposition of a religiously-rooted morality: in areas “in which lawlessness, immorality and dissolution reign, national government must intervene energetically to restore order.”
And how, exactly, does a government’s energetic intervention against “immorality and dissolution” square with protecting individuals from “religious or ideological coercion”? Further evidence of the religious authoritarian agenda is contained in the document’s alarm at “radical forms of sexual license and experimentation” and the notion that government must foster “stable family and congregational life and child-raising as priorities of the highest order.”
These goals — policing sexual behavior, promoting traditional “family values,” encouraging child bearing — are shared by Islamist regimes such as Iran and Saudi Arabia and, especially, the self-styled Christian regimes of Vladimir Putin and Hungary’s Viktor Orbán (fittingly, Orbán was an honored guest at one of the national conservatism conferences). There is a deep kinship between these authoritarian regimes and national conservatism.
Notice also the points of commonality between national conservatism and a political vision that came to power in the last century.
[This outlook] is a religious one in which man is viewed in his permanent relation to a higher law, endowed with an objective will transcending the individual and raising him to conscious membership of a spiritual society. [. . .]
Being anti-individualistic, . . . [it] recognizes the individual only in so far as his interests coincide with those of the State . . . ; outside of it no human or spiritual values may exist, much less have any value. [ . . .]
To achieve this purpose it enforces discipline and makes use of authority, entering into the mind and ruling with undisputed sway.4
The similarities are marked: Religion as a political foundation. Subjugating the sovereign individual to the nation. Authoritarian control. These are the words of a political figure who elevated the nation above the individual; who allowed the facade of enterprise, trade and private property, while negating their essence; and who built a militant dictatorship. That this statement from Benito Mussolini resonates with the political vision of national conservatism should be disturbing.
National conservatism is an ideology crusading for religious authoritarianism.
In The Virtue of Nationalism Hazony insists that his brand of nationalism is narrow, unambitious and therefore peaceful. Yet, by design, Hazony’s theory puts the life and freedom of the individual at the mercy of the tribe/nation, and so vulnerable to being exploited in the name of “collective self-determination.” What recourse is possible to an individual if his duty is to subordinate himself? What hope can there be of resolving disagreements peacefully through persuasion, if this society is predicated on sidelining reason and rejecting universal truth? What’s left, except physical force? Nothing.
These points are evident in examining actual societies that devalue reason and subordinate individuals to the collective. They exhibit an ingrained “us-versus-them” mindset, which leads to viewing outsiders with suspicion, if not contempt. How can disagreements and conflicts be settled in such societies? Why try to reason with “outsiders” who are inferior, wrong or beyond redemption? Think of the Rwandan genocidal tribal war in 1994. Recall the “ethnic cleansing” and concentration camps during the nationalist wars in the Balkans.
Nationalism is notorious for conflict and bloodshed, and that’s fitting: it pushes aside the faculty that enables individuals to avoid and resolve conflicts through persuasion.
A pro-reason, pro-American alternative
Why abandon the Enlightenment ideals at the foundation of America in the name of national conservatism? Because, we’re told, today’s cultural disintegration and the “woke” phenomenon are products of consistently practicing reason, individualism, liberty and their political-economic expression, capitalism. Supposedly, reason ends in alienation, individualism ends in nihilism, capitalism ends in unemployment, poverty, despair and misery. In their place, national conservatives offer religious collectivism as a cure.
Yet this is a fraud. Reason is our means of understanding the world, ourselves and others. It is our way of taking control of our lives, earning self-esteem, bonding with friends and lovers, resolving conflicts and creating lives of meaning. Nihilism and alienation are products not of reason, but of rejecting it in the name of faith and other forms of irrationality, a prevailing cultural trend. Moreover, it is not individualism but the focus on group identity and tribalism that dominate our culture. It is not capitalism but the betrayal of political and economic freedom that has been the theme of the past century. The economic upheavals and angst we’re witnessing are products of our refusal to uphold liberty — the full separation of state and economics — consistently.
National conservatism is not a cure for our cultural ills, but part of what’s ailing us.
But there is a rational alternative. What’s urgently needed today is a rethinking of the ideals of reason, individualism and freedom — and a commitment to realize them fully, consistently, without compromise.'What’s urgently needed today is a rethinking of the ideals of reason, individualism and freedom — and a commitment to realize them fully, consistently, without compromise.' Click To Tweet
In the twentieth century, the foremost champion of these philosophic ideals was Ayn Rand. Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism takes reason, not faith, as the only means to knowledge. It teaches us to follow our best, most rational judgment, not treating feelings as tools of cognition. Individualism is the theme running through Rand’s novels and thought. The hallmark of individualism is a fundamental orientation to facts and a commitment to grasping the truth first-handedly, rather than obedience to authority or unthinking social conformity.
This thoroughgoing individualism implies a distinctive moral code. The moral purpose of an individual’s life, Rand argues, is “the achievement of his own happiness.” Happiness cannot be achieved by the satisfaction of irrational whims; it entails “using your mind’s fullest power” to identify, pursue, and achieve genuinely life-furthering values. And the Objectivist ethics of rational egoism holds that “human good does not require human sacrifices and cannot be achieved by the sacrifice of anyone to anyone.”5
Politically, the government’s proper function is not to subordinate the individual to some alleged greater good, “the public interest,” the community, the “race,” God’s will or the nation — but to protect his freedom to pursue his own path in life. Rand wrote:
Individualism regards man — every man — as an independent, sovereign entity who possesses an inalienable right to his own life, a right derived from his nature as a rational being. Individualism holds that a civilized society, or any form of association, cooperation or peaceful coexistence among men, can be achieved only on the basis of the recognition of individual rights — and that a group, as such, has no rights other than the individual rights of its members.6
The Enlightenment bequeathed to us the idea of the sovereign individual, but since then this idea was attacked and marginalized. In Rand’s philosophy we find the philosophic validation, grounded in empirical facts and logic, for America’s foundational ideals. It is these secular ideals properly understood and defended that we desperately need today, not any whitewashed form of collectivism.