Bryan Caplan  

Colonialism and Anti-Colonialism: Blame Nationalism for Both

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Some historians argue that colonialism was an outgrowth of nationalism.  Once the people in the leading industrial powers started to strongly identify as British, French, German, American, or Japanese, they fell in love with the idea of planting their national flags all over the map.  Hence, "empire."

Other historians argue that anti-colonialism was an outgrowth of nationalism.  Once people in Asia and Africa started to strongly identify as Indian, Malaysian, Egyptian, Algerian, or Angolan, they fell in love with the idea of replacing the foreign flags on the map with their own.  Hence, "national liberation."

A thinly-veiled political agenda usually stands behind these claims.  Most people nowadays agree that colonialism was bad.  So if nationalism leads to colonialism, that's a mark against nationalism; but if nationalism leads to anti-colonialism, that's a mark in favor of nationalism.  Lingering fans of colonialism naturally reverse these scoring rules.

So who's right about the connection between nationalism and colonialism?  As far as I can tell, both sides are right.  Nationalism inspired many of the world's mightiest countries to attack and annex the world's economic laggards.  But this in turn exposed the inhabitants of the colonies to the idea of nationalism.  Before long, native thinkers were marketing their locally-made variants - and calling for national liberation.  Once the colonial powers lost the stomach for draconian repression, the anti-colonial movement swiftly triumphed.

If nationalism inspired two incompatible movements, how should we evaluate it?  You might just call it a wash: Nationalism giveth, and nationalism taketh away.  But this shoulder shrug overlooks two mountains of bodies.  The first mountain: All the people killed to establish colonial rule.  The second mountain: All the people killed to overthrow colonial rule.  It is perfectly fair to blame nationalism for both "transition costs." 

Surprising implication: Regardless of the relative merits of colonial versus indigenous rule, the history of colonialism makes nationalism look very bad indeed.  Why?  Because colonial rule didn't last!  So if you're pro-colonial, nationalism led to a high transition cost, followed by ephemeral wonders, followed by another high transition cost.  And if you're anti-colonial, nationalism led to a high transition cost, followed by ephemeral horrors, followed by another high transition cost.  Two dreadful deals, however you slice it.

But don't you either have to be pro-colonial or anti-colonial?  No.  You can take the cynical view that foreign and native rule are about equally bad.  You can take the pacifist view that the difference between foreign and native rule isn't worth a war.  Or, like me, you can merge these positions into cynical pacifism.  On this view, fighting wars to start colonial rule was one monstrous crime - and fighting wars to end colonial rule was another.  Nationalism is intellectually guilty on both counts, because it is nationalism that convinced people around the world that squares of multi-colored cloth are worth killing for.

COMMENTS (13 to date)
MikeP writes:

Some historians argue that colonialism was an outgrowth of nationalism...

Other historians argue that anti-colonialism was an outgrowth of nationalism.

Are you sure that these two sets of historians cover the whole belief space? Indeed, I expect most historians who would quarrel with your conclusions would argue that colonialism was an outgrowth of capitalism.

I agree that whether one's leaders are in London or Washington or in Paris or Algiers is much less important than we've been led to believe. But those who blame colonialism on capitalism or the search for wealth in general would not.

johnleemk writes:

A relevant article from The Onion: I'm Prepared To Give My Life For This Or Any Country

BTW, I would distinguish traditional nationalism from less harmful/beneficial sorts of national group identifications. As a Malaysian and amateur historian of the region, I am keenly aware that Singapore being a nation independent of Malaysia is a complete accident of history. This does not change the fact that I enjoy remarking on cultural differences between Malaysians and Singaporeans, making fun of Singaporean peculiarities (such as how Tyler Cowen et al. seem to believe Singaporean food is so fantastic, when it's mostly an overpriced and inferior version of Malaysian cuisine), and generally am happy to say that Malaysians and Singaporeans are distinct and unique sets of people. I think of most humans adopting a national identity being mostly unavoidable, and given how humans are wired, an occasional force for good (e.g., a strong sense of being Malaysian makes it much easier to tap into the Malaysian diaspora as a network or community when a Malaysian travels abroad).

The trouble is that most people who embrace the general idea of national identity as a force for good seem to make the assumption that most uses of national identity as a binding force are morally acceptable or even good. As Bryan shows, it's not long before you have people arbitrarily excluding and sometimes murdering people from different patches of land following made-up lines that did not exist for most of our human or even, as in the Malaysia-Singapore case, national history. I'm quite happy to embrace my Malaysian national identity without saying I need my government to wage any war to defend what it means to be Malaysian -- let alone wage a war on refugees or economic migrants, which is unfortunately what most of our countries do today.

Jon Murphy writes:

@MikeP :

Indeed, I expect most historians who would quarrel with your conclusions would argue that colonialism was an outgrowth of capitalism.

They would be wrong

I think of colonialism as immigration that leftists don't like.

johnleemk writes:

Joseph: Actually the parallels between colonialism and modern immigration controls are actually pretty striking. Both constitute arbitrary use of force in the name of the nation-state against innocent people of another nation-state, in the name of promoting the nation-state's interests.

One can be an ardent nationalist in the 21st-century and reject colonialism or wars of aggression as morally condonable policies. Similarly, in my view there is no inherent reason one cannot be a nationalist who rejects arbitrary immigration controls. You can even be a huge xenophobe who hates foreigners and nonetheless reject the moral authority of the state to arbitrarily refuse entry to unarmed foreigners simply because "it'll benefit our own". Governments may have the authority to promote their citizens' interests, but not at all costs. Many today already reject colonialism as a morally legitimate way to further the interests of citizens or the state. Open borders advocates simply go a little further in rejecting arbitrary refusal of entry to foreigners as well.

Capt. J Parker writes:

Colonialism did last in the Americas. And colonialism, in North America at least, had the unintended benefit of providing fertile soil for the ideas of classical liberalism to take root and flower. Dr. Caplan’s argument against nationalism and hence colonialism is well constructed but, isn’t it a tiny bit ironic that that very same colonialism indirectly fostered the ideas about the importance of the individual that would lead Dr. Caplan to question the legitimacy of nationalism? Big, overreaching, nanny-state government is bad in that it can be shown economically that that type of government makes us all poorer. Nationalism is another matter. Nationalism is more than colored pieces of cloth. It is a complex assembly of in-group systems, customs and ideas. Imperfect? Certainly. Disposable? I remain skeptical. I need to check out what Burke would say.

Jeff writes:

This is a bit reductive, isn't it? I don't think the British colonized North America or Australia for the greater good of Britain. I think they did it because the land was sparsely populated by primitive hunter gatherers who could be easily, ahem, removed to make way for farmers, ranchers, miners, etc, who could produce things people in Europe wanted to buy. Likewise, wasn't the forerunner of actual British rule in India the East India Company, ie, traders who brought Indian tea, silks and the like back to London? I don't think colonialism was the phenomena you're making it out to be here. I think it was more a product of Europeans being centuries ahead, technologically and militarily, of the rest of the world, and thus having the means and the willingness to travel to distant lands and impose whatever conditions on the locals would most benefit the colonialists. That's not really what I'd call nationalism.

Musca writes:

As implied above, it would really help to define "nationalism" here. Is it a package-deal combining national pride with violation of non-nationals' individual rights? In that case, the difference between nationalism and colonialism just becomes one of method.

Perhaps Dr. Caplan is calling the concept of a nation-state into question. That might be OK, except for the cultural factors named by johnleemk above: if groups of people in an area share a common culture, and cultures differ in their attitudes to individual rights, then having different nation-states to embody those differences (and being encouraging and proud of the ones that respect individual rights) becomes almost desirable.

Foobarista writes:

The problem with this narrative is the great age of nationalism, even in the countries that ended up with big colonial empires, came _after_ the colonial conquests. The Spanish conquests were largely done by the 17th century. British India was mostly "colonized" by a crown-chartered corporation, as were most Dutch colonies. For that matter, many of the British colonies in North America were business startups of a sort, often funded out-of-pocket by rich nobles. It was only after they were established did the empires establish governance.

The age of populist nationalism didn't really kick off until the American and (especially) the French Revolution. By then, other than Africa, most of the world's colonies had been in place for centuries.

Brian writes:

"The first mountain: All the people killed to establish colonial rule. The second mountain: All the people killed to overthrow colonial rule. It is perfectly fair to blame nationalism for both "transition costs."

Yes, it's fair to blame nationalism for all those deaths. But one has to subtract the deaths that would have occurred but didn't because the various empires controlled their colonies and prevented inter-tribal fighting and civil war. These latter effects are much harder to determine and it's not clear that they're much less than the deaths due to colonial rule.

Moreover, the British Empire alone was responsible for exporting free-market capitalism around the world and establishing a common language for trade. This caused the extraordinary growth in global wealth that created the modern world. All in all, I think the deaths from colonialism are all but a drop in the sea compared with the incredible unleashing of human potential due to colonialism.

Jeff writes:

One other thing I'd point out is that it's also a bit simplistic to just declare that foreign and domestic rule were equally bad during the age of colonialism. The broad sweep of history, as they say, is, well, broad. If you're talking the tribal anarchy of the Congo or North America, that was no picnic, I'm sure, but it beats the heck out of slavery at the hands of Leopold or Cortez or whoever. On the other hand, life under British colonial administrators was probably preferable to the Mughal warlords they replaced in greater India. The more modern examples are probably Haiti and Rhodesia. Coming back under French and British rule would probably benefit people in those countries tremendously.

I guess my point here is that trying to shoehorn an entire era of history into an unambiguous "nationalism: bad" narrative (which I'm generally in agreement with) isn't the best idea.

Vipul Naik writes:

There's one view that you don't consider: colonialism was good to begin with (because it helped spread ideals of freedom, equality, rule of law, democracy, and established international trade and migratory connections) but at some stage, it outlived its usefulness, and the granting of independence to former colonies reflecting the changing circumstances.

Pajser writes:

If I defend myself against bad guys, I'm doing morally good thing. If price is high, my decision may be stupid, but it is still morally good. That's why anti-colonialism is good.

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