The Austrian

Home | Mises Library | What Mises Could Teach Today's Nationalists

What Mises Could Teach Today's Nationalists

Tags SocialismPolitical Theory

02/12/2019David Gordon

The Virtue of Nationalism
Yoram Hazony
Basic Books, 2018
285 + vii pages

Yoram Hazony is a thinker of great originality, and in The Virtue of Nationalism, he enables us to see nationalism in a new way. He is not a libertarian, but his way of looking at nationalism can be of great value to libertarians in understanding how our views should be applied to the world in practice.

Hazony is not only a political theorist but a theologian as well, and it is his understanding of the Hebrew Bible that provides the key to how he sees nationalism. Many people today, having in mind the wars of the twentieth century, think of nationalism as aggressive and expansionist. In contrast to this common account, nationalism to Hazony is not aggressive but defensive. It reflects a desire by a people to live in accord with its own laws and customs, unmolested by others. It seeks not to force its ways on others but rather to secure a space for a particular people.

Hazony puts the matter in this way: “The nationalism I grew up with is a principled standpoint that regards the world as governed best when nations are able to chart their own independent course, cultivating their own traditions and pursuing their own interests without interference.”

Nationalism in this sense is not a modern development. “By nation, I mean a number of tribes with a common language or religion, and a past history of acting as a body for the common defense and other large-scale enterprises. The Bible systematically promotes the idea that the members of a nation should regard one another as ‘brothers,’ and Mosaic law offered the Israelites a constitution that would bring them together in what today would be called a national state. ... Throughout the Bible, we find that the political aspiration of the prophets of Israel is not empire but a free and unified nation living in justice and peace among other free nations.” In viewing the origin of nationalism in this way, Hazony has been influenced by Steven Grosby, “whose own work on nationalism and its relationship with the Jewish Bible has long been an inspiration to me.” Grosby was a close associate of the great sociologist Edward Shils and is the author of the important work Biblical Ideas of Nationality.

To forestall an objection, Hazony is immune to challenges to the justice of the conquest of Canaan. (For an example of such objections, see Nicholas Wolterstorff, “Reading Joshua” in Michael Bergmann et al., eds., Divine Evil? The Moral Character of the God of Abraham, Eerdmans, 2013) He is concerned with what a state does once it is established, not how it came about.
Hazony’s depiction of the Biblical ideal is not merely of antiquarian interest. He holds that this ideal has been influential in the development of modern nationalism, especially since the Protestant Reformation. “Especially under the influence of the Old Testament-oriented thinkers such as Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin, Protestantism embraced and quickly became tied to the unique national traditions of peoples chafing against ideas and institutions that they regarded as foreign to them.” After the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, the “political life of Europe was rebuilt upon two principles” based on the Old Testament: a moral minimum required for legitimate government and the right of national self-determination. With characteristic erudition, Hazony notes that despite the changes of the Westphalian settlement, the three treaties preserve the old language of the respublica Christiana [“world Christian republic”].

Hazony sharply contrasts nationalism with imperialism: “For centuries, the politics of western nations have been characterized by a struggle between two antithetical visions of world order: an order of free and independent nations, each pursuing the political good in accordance with its own traditions and understanding: and an order of peoples united under a single regime of law, promulgated and maintained by a single supranational authority.”

Why should we favor nationalism rather than imperialism? Hazony maintains that “small institutions like the family or the squad, consisting of individuals bound together by mutual loyalties developed over long years of shared hardship and triumph, are the bedrock of all political order. It is out of such small units that larger-scale political institutions of every kind are built. ... The mutual loyalty of individuals to one another is the most powerful force operative in the political realm. Feelings of mutual loyalty pull individuals tightly together, forming them into families, clans, tribes, and nations.”  Given these facts, it is not surprising that people resent being brought under the domination of empire, however benevolent its professed intentions.

Is Hazony here vulnerable to an objection? He has characterized nationalism as self-determination and imperialism as rule over others. Is he guilty of an argument from definition, in that a country that aggresses against other nations is at once transferred from the national to imperial camp? He has the resources to counter this objection. He argues that European nationalism was in fact based on mutual respect for other nationalities, rather than on a drive for domination. His contention, then, is not a matter of definition but rather one of fact. He points out, e.g., that the great eighteenth-century theorist of nationalism J.G. Herder “describes the imperial state as nothing other than a ‘curse’ to all involved.”

In his criticism of imperialism, Hazony comments with great insight on the origins of World War I: “The astonishingly aggressive expansion of the British and French empires led many — especially in Germany — to conclude that the era of the European national-state system had in effect come to an end. ... This seems to have been Kaiser Wilhelm’s view.”

It is fundamental to Hazony’s perspective that a nation ought for the most part not to interfere with the policies of other nations, even if these policies violate its own ideals. Hazony does not exempt from this stricture his own ideal of national self-determination. Woodrow Wilson ignored this vital point: “The best political order that is known to us is an order of independent national states. This is not to say, however, that every nation has a right to be independent. In suggesting that national aspirations would be respected, and that no people would be governed against its will, Wilson ... was asserting a right of peoples not to be governed against their will, and therefore an obligation, to be borne by others, to guarantee this outcome. ... But the world of nations is not so clear-cut. Nor are there remotely sufficient resources available for granting such a universal right in every case where a plausible case can be made.”

Hazony’s argument has a very direct implication for libertarians. We have no duty to force other nations to adopt libertarian principles, however desirable it would be were they freely to choose to do so. Libertarianism depends on persuasion: it is not a patent medicine to be forced down the throat of others. Contrary to its critics, e.g., Quinn Slobodian, whose Globalists we reviewed in an earlier issue of The Austrian, libertarianism is not a program of compulsory globalization.

Unfortunately, Hazony fails to see this. He takes the classical liberalism of Mises and Hayek to be a prime example of the universalizing ideologies he deplores. He quotes Mises to this effect: “liberal thinking must permeate all nations, liberal principles must pervade all political institutions, if the prerequisites of peace are to be created and the causes of war eliminated.” He comments: “Although Mises states the demand for an ‘unqualified acceptance of liberalism’ by every nation and every political institution in the world in stark terms, the aspiration he expresses represents what is by now an entirely conventional liberal standpoint.”

Mises did indeed think that all nations should favor the free market, but he by no means favored imposing classical liberal policies on nations that disdained his advice. He did not, like Rousseau, wish to force people to be free. To the contrary, he speaks favorably of a primary text of nineteenth-century nationalism, Renan’s essay What Is a Nation? It is clear from what he says that he supports Renan’s brand of voluntary nationalism. “When Renan asks: What is a nation? he means: What should determine the boundaries of the various states? And his answer is: Not the linguistic community, not the racial kinship founded on parentage from common ancestors, not religious congeniality, not the harmony of economic interests, not geographical or strategical considerations, but — the right of the population to determine its own destiny. The nation is the outcome of the will of human beings to live together in one state. The greater part of the lecture is devoted to showing how this spirit of nationality originates.

The nation is a soul, a moral principle (‘une âme, un principe spirituel’). A nation, says Renan, daily confirms its existence by manifesting its will to political coöperation within the same state; a daily repeated plebiscite, as it were.” (Mises, Omnipotent Government)

It is unlikely that Hazony would accept this response. Even if he were to acknowledge that Mises did not support globalization at gunpoint, he would claim that the claim of liberalism to universally valid principles is false. Rights depend on particular historical circumstances. Hazony, who is philosophically an empiricist, traces the error of classical liberalism to the moral rationalism of its seventeenth-century progenitor John Locke.

In moral theory, Locke wrongly abandoned empiricism for rationalism: “Locke is known as an empiricist ... [but] his Second Treatise on Government is not, however, an ... effort to bring an empirical standpoint to the theory of the state. Locke was one of the few political writers of his time who did not argue on the basis of historical experience.”

It would be superficial to reply that Mises founded his defense of the market on its good consequences; he did not believe in rationalistically derived rights any more than Hazony does. A deeper response requires attention to the details of arguments for libertarian rights. What exactly is wrong with them? It does not suffice to dismiss them because they are not in accord with one’s favored philosophical methodology, in Hazony’s case empiricism in the style of David Hume.
Even where one disagrees, though, Hazony’s discussion is instructive. He tells us, e.g., that Edmund Burke declared “on the floor of Parliament that of all books ever written, the Second Treatise [by Locke] was ‘one of the worst.’” The Virtue of Nationalism is filled with striking details that display Hazony’s learning to full advantage.

Note: The views expressed on are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
When commenting, please post a concise, civil, and informative comment. Full comment policy here

Cite This Article

Gordon, David, "What Mises Could Teach Today's Nationalists," The Austrian 5, no. 1 (2019): 14-17.

Shield icon library