Bryan Caplan  

All You Ever Needed to Know About Nationalism, but Were Afraid to Ask

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I'm admittedly a sucker for a period piece.  But 2006's The Painted Veil is fantastically good.   It's mostly a love story about two British ex-pats living in China during the 1920s.  But it's set against a vivid background of Chinese politics, and peppered with gems like this conversation between a British businessman and a British diplomat:
Businessman: What about support from Chiang Kai-shek?  Where does he stand on this?

Townsend: He's a nationalist.  He will stand on the side of the Chinese.  That's why they call themselves "nationalists."
You won't find a better postcard version of Tolstoy's "Patriotism, or Peace?"  Yes, but what are they talking about?  The point is precisely that it doesn't matter - nationalism is about putting loyalty before morality and reason.


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COMMENTS (7 to date)
Dennis Mangan writes:

Nationalism is about banding together to make sure that the other guys - who are also banded together - don't do you in. As such, it's a completely moral and rational behavior. The world of human beings is a vast game of prisoners' dilemma - you can stay un-nationalized only if everyone else does.

hutch writes:

isn't bryan saying that "nationalism", at least in the way he defines it, is putting loyalty ahead of reason. banding together when the other guys are trying to "do you in" is reasonable. historically, when bryan refers to nationalism, his argument seems to be that it isn't reasonable. for example, with immigration, he doesn't think, and i agree with him, that immigrants are trying to do us in, making nationalism against reason (and immoral). but that's my interpretation of what he's saying.

Steve Sailer writes:

How's globalism working out these days?

JC writes:

Read Elie Kedourie.

Marc writes:

Seeing ourselves as part of a group and being emotionally attached to group goals is probably part of our evolutionary make up and not something that reason is going to overcome. But these primal forces are not bad in themselves; the important point is how these forces are channeled. For example, individual self interest in a free economic system is channeled to benefit everyone who takes part in that system. I cant think of any good examples of nationalism being used effectively. The closest I can think of, off hand, are Nobel prizes, perhaps, in the past, the US space program...But the basic idea is use it dont fight it.

John Alcorn writes:

Right on. I'm glad you'll have a chance to speak more truth to power tomorrow in your testimony before Congress - Good luck!

Mitchell Young writes:

I cant think of any good examples of nationalism being used effectively.

Here is John Jay (he's one of those guys that gave you this polity)

With equal pleasure I have as often taken notice that Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people--a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs, and who, by their joint counsels, arms, and efforts, fighting side by side throughout a long and bloody war, have nobly established general liberty and independence. [my emphasis]

This country and this people seem to have been made for each other, and it appears as if it was the design of Providence, that an inheritance so proper and convenient for a band of brethren, united to each other by the strongest ties, should never be split into a number of unsocial, jealous, and alien sovereignties.

Similar sentiments have hitherto prevailed among all orders and denominations of men among us. To all general purposes we have uniformly been one people each individual citizen everywhere enjoying the same national rights, privileges, and protection. As a nation we have made peace and war; as a nation we have vanquished our common enemies; as a nation we have formed alliances, and made treaties, and entered into various compacts and conventions with foreign states.

I'd say they did pretty good. Of course, professor Caplan might not identify with these folks for all sorts of reasons.

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