Nationalism Is Virtuous—Hazony’s Is Not

By | 2018-09-23T22:08:08+00:00 September 22nd, 2018|
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In his book, The Virtue of Nationalism, Yoram Hazony attempts to provide a much needed defense of the widely misunderstood and much maligned word.

A review of The Virtue of Nationalism by Yoram Hazony (Basic Books. 284 pages, $19.49)

Unfortunately, after misunderstanding the roots of American political thought, Hazony ends up expounding a theory of nationalism that should give readers some cause for concern.

Hazony believes that all forms of government tend towards anarchy or imperialism, so he favors nationalism which he sees as a moderating mean between these extremes. He defines nationalism as “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.” His principles, however, lack the necessary moral guidance.

To see why nationalism is desirable, Hazony begins by presenting a historical framework to understand the confrontation between imperialism and nationalism in Western nations. This confrontation, he says, is central to both the Hebrew Bible and Protestantism which renounced the authority of the Holy Roman Empire and established two foundational principles for legitimate government: a minimum moral standard, and national self-determination. Hazony’s misunderstanding of the liberalism of Hobbes and Locke leads him to conclude erroneously that these two principles were overtaken by the liberal construction of the West. According to him, for liberalism there is “only one principle at the base of legitimate political order: individual freedom.” This, he implies, is incompatible with the two principles.

In the second part of the book, Hazony lays out his main argument. He makes the case for the “national state” as the best political order in terms of “collectives” such as families, tribes, and nations. He rejects the idea that people are motivated to act politically to protect individual rights. Rather, he says, they do so for “collective self-determination,” which is “the freedom we feel when the collective to which we are loyal gains in strength, and develops those special qualities and characteristics that give it unique significance in our eyes.” In other words, people are not motivated politically to protect their rights but instead to accumulate power. For him, the common claim that the British and American concepts of individual liberty are universals that immediately can be understood and desired by everyone is nothing more than “the cultural inheritance of certain tribes and nations.”

The family, says Hazony, is the strongest and most resilient of all institutions in human politics. It is the bond of loyalty to one’s parents that holds the family together, which extends to the clan, tribe, and nation. This bond of “mutual loyalty of individuals to one another is the most powerful force operative in the political realm.” The health and prosperity of the family—as well as every human collective—is measured by nothing more than “physical and material flourishing,” “strong internal integrity” (i.e. loyalty between its members), and by “the extent and quality of the cultural inheritance that is transmitted by the parents and grandparents to the children.” Note what is missing. There is no discussion of virtue or of any transcendent view of the good. In fact, as we will see below, any such claims are to be avoided.

Much like John C. Calhoun, Hazony believes that the original form of human political order is anarchical, unlike Hobbes and Locke who view the state of nature as social but not political, since politics begins when there is a common judge between individuals. Tribes have no governing authority over human beings, says Hazony, but come together to form a state better to protect themselves from a foreign threat. It is a great falsehood descended from Hobbes and Locke, he goes on to say, “that political life is governed largely or exclusively on the basis of the calculations of consenting individuals as to what will enhance their safety and protect and increase their property.”

It is hard to see how Hazony claims this to be a falsehood when he himself defines politics as “the discipline or craft of influencing others so that they act to accomplish the goals one sees as necessary or desirable.” What Hazony finds troubling is the idea that consent is involved in the calculations. There is “no such consent and no such calculation,” he says. These liberal thinkers, he claims, ignore “the bonds of mutual loyalty among its members” which are a necessary motive for the state to endure. In this respect, says Hazony, the state is a collective “of the same kind as the family,” a claim that Aristotle attributes to the barbarians.

As a result of the primacy of the collective in his political thought, Hazony rejects the idea that the freedoms guaranteed to individuals in England and America are had “by nature.” Rather, he claims that they are “the result of an intricate machinery developed through many centuries of trial and error.” Rights and freedoms are established by “balancing the powers of the ruler against those of the various tribes or factions of the nation assembled in the parliament; and by balancing the powers of both the ruler and the strongest tribes or factions against those of independent judges and juries that are tasked with determining the application of the laws to the individual.” For Hazony the task of government is not to protect inalienable rights, but to establish rights in a balance of power between the interests of the ruler and those of the ruled. A similar argument is made by Glaucon at the beginning of Plato’s Republic when he restores Thrasymachus’ argument that justice is the advantage of the stronger.  

Hazony rejects all forms of federal governance because they inevitably lead to a consolidated government and empire. This, he says, is also true of the United States.

“Throughout the history of American federalism, the national government has thus used the powers at its disposal to force the states to conform their constitutional and religious traditions to the range of behaviors it has considered acceptable,” he writes. For Hazony, the current form of consolidated government in the United States is a natural consequence of its federal constitution and not the result of Progressive deviations from it. Jefferson’s “overthrow of the Protestant constitutional and religious order in Massachusetts and Connecticut,” and Lincoln’s “war against the secession of the Southern states and the appalling right they asserted to own and enslave human beings” are examples of that.

It is hard to understand what in Hazony’s view justifies the claim that slavery was an “appalling” practice. Having done away with natural right, natural law, and universal truths in general, Hazony is left with collective self-determination and bonds of loyalty as the only foundations for political life. These will not do. Had he paid more attention to Hobbes, but especially to Locke, he might have noticed that the state of nature is not a hypothetical theorem but the actual condition of individuals with no common judge, a claim echoed by the American Founders. More importantly, he would have noticed that individuals in a state of nature are under a law of nature, a law not only that grants rights to individuals, but one that demands duties from them. As Locke clearly states in the Second Treatise “though this be a State of Liberty, yet it is not a State of Licence.”

Even though Hazony seems to recognize some form of immutable human nature by claiming that human intolerance is innate, he fears that it will be inflamed to the highest degree by disseminating “a worldview according to which there is but one true doctrine, and mankind’s salvation depends on the entire world submitting to it.” For him, universal truths inevitably will lead to empire which is why he concludes that “one can have no better destroyer than an individual ablaze with the love of a universal truth.” Yet a universal truth, specifically the one found in the liberalism of Locke is the one thing that would keep the individual ablaze and turned away from becoming a destroyer. The concept that governments derive “their just powers from the consent of the governed,” is the strongest argument for the Nation-State and the strongest argument against imperialism.

In essence, Harzony’s position seems almost indistinguishable from Stephen Douglas’s “popular sovereignty,” which states that each national state is autonomous and can decide what is and what is not right for their own prosperity without any transcendent view of justice to guide it. This, of course, left Douglas incapable of recognizing the moral wrong of slavery. For Hazony, collective self-determination and bonds of loyalty are the only characteristics that all national states must share and these are insufficient moral guides for any political community. If Harzony does believe there is a transcendent view of justice, he does not make it clear in the book. On the contrary, all such universal claims are presented as suspect since necessarily, to his mind, they lead to empire.

About the Author:

Juan E. Dávalos
Juan E. Dávalos is a Ph.D. student in politics at the Van Andel Graduate School of Statesmanship in Hillsdale College where he served as a Winston S. Churchill fellow. He holds an M.A. in philosophy of religion and ethics from Biola University. Born and raised in Ecuador, Juan became a U.S. citizen in 2011. His work has also been published at The Federalist, and The Hill.