On Individualism and Nationalism

One of the most common sentiments expressed by both individualists and nationalists is that these two perspectives are incompatible. It is supposedly impossible to both prioritize the well-being of the singular individual and the well-being of the nation. No matter if the charge is being an anti-social, politically autistic individualist or a collectivist nationalist, there is a tremendous amount of hostility between the adherents of these ideas. If one wants theoretical reasons for why individualism and nationalism are supposedly incompatible, one must analyze the objections from both sides and consider what it means to be an individualist and a nationalist, respectively.

The Individualists

The doctrine of individualism rests on a fundamental assumption that in both theoretical and practical matters, an appropriate guideline is the primacy of the individual. Collectives are not immoral or illogical, but all collectives are ultimately reducible to the actions of individuals. Since societies are determined by individuals and not vice versa, it must also be the case that individuals are responsible for the health of societies. By this standard, there can never be any attempt to increase the health of a society by suppressing the individual. Individualism also implies that each individual ought to be judged by one’s own actions. This means that an entire society should not be glorified for the actions of a heroic individual within that society, and an individual should not be held accountable for deeds done by others in the society who claim to act on behalf of all.

This supposedly creates a fundamental incompatibility between individualism and nationalism, as nationalism judges individuals by their collective affiliations. Nationalism discriminates according to national origin, even though a person does not choose one’s heritage. Individuals become tied to a collective and are discriminated either for or against by collective preference, regardless of their individual goals and deeds. This is contrary to individualism because it subordinates individuals to the national collective. Individuals have their opportunities reduced or expanded, and their persons degraded or elevated due to being considered part of a nation. Furthermore, some forms of nationalism aim to practically reduce the role of individual choices and increase the role of national choices. Even worse, a significant amount of nationalist philosophies are thoroughly anti-individualist, so nationalism as a political force can be contrary to individualism as a political force.

The Nationalists

At its core, nationalism is a focus on the advancement of the nation, either in relation to other nations, the history of the nation, or some goal set by the ruling class. Nationalism can manifest as imperialist expansionism, progressive isolationism, or anything between. This contrasts with internationalism, which does not aim to advance nations on their own but rather a collaboration of nations. Internationalism holds that the advancement of individual nations is irrelevant when contrasted with the advancement of supranational aims. These may be ending global poverty, establishing a worldwide economy, or simply putting in place a pan-European superstate. Nationalism and internationalism are not ideologies, but rather manifestations of special interests by different groups. Many ideological positions inherently incorporate internationalism or nationalism, but neither position becomes defined by the ideologies with which they are associated.

Due to the diversity of nationalist ideology, it is difficult to define the opposition that nationalism as a whole has to individualism. One can easily critique individualism from fascist, national communist, or communitarian perspectives, but there is no singular nationalist critique of individualism. There is not even a cohesive nationalist critique of anything (is imperialism nationalist or internationalist?). If individualism advances the nation more than any other form of social organization, then any good nationalist ought to favor individualism. For this reason, a nationalist cannot properly judge individualism to be completely incompatible with nationalism. The most coherent argument against individualism from a nationalist standpoint is that the focus on individual desires and aims will always create a society in which the organization of the nation can never advance. The sort of non-conformity and disorder that individualism can bring will never form a national identity that can be on par with more collectivist societies. But this is not a cogent or complete critique for the reasons elaborated on below.

A Synthesis

To prove that an integration of nationalism and individualism is possible, one must prove that individualism advances the nation and that nationalism is not necessarily based on individual submission. This can effectively defeat the criticisms of nationalism advanced by individualists and the criticisms of individualism advanced by nationalists. Although this cannot explain why individualists should support nationalism, it can demonstrate that individualists could support nationalism.

First, one must demonstrate how internationalism is held up by a fundamentally collectivist attitude, and how true internationalism can never be replicated under individualist conditions. The ideology of internationalism is derived from the egalitarian notion that all individuals, no matter their culture, genetics, history, or language, are equally valuable and united by their common humanity. But this is the worst form of collectivism, a collectivism that spans the entirety of the globe. The extent of this collectivism is so vast that many even confuse it with individualism. This collectivism completely ignores subjective valuations and assumes that the value of all persons is some objective matter.

Many classical liberals and libertarians fail to understand that internationalism is collectivist. Universalism, humanitarianism, and globalization are so deeply ingrained into the liberal tradition that they cannot bring themselves to question these values. In this view, all people are the same, are subject to judgment under the same higher law, and ought to cooperate for the maximum benefit of each individual. Additionally, with less institutional discrimination based on national collectives, it could only be true that internationalism is advanced when there is more individualism. But if people acknowledge that there is no common humanity, what attachments would anyone have to people with whom they have no recognizable contact? At best, internationalism can only be a pragmatic policy for individualists and not an ideological position.

If the collectivism of all peoples is the worst form of collectivism, would it not also be true that the collectivism of a single genetic and historical group is similarly undesirable? This is the second question in need of an answer: why is nationalism not the same sort of collectivism that internationalism is? The answer to this is fairly simple. The definition of a nation has two important conditions which must hold true. First, positive externalities must accumulate easily. Since people within a nation share physical, economic, and cultural connections, the people within that nation all benefit when single people benefit. When there are more rich people in China, very few people benefit in Oregon. The profits from trade and commerce from China only make up a small part of the goods to which the people in Oregon have access. However, if there is more economic advancement in Oregon and if more wealth accumulates to individuals in Oregon, then many Oregonians can expect to benefit. Likewise, advancements of the culture in Tibet do not necessarily mean that those living in Hong Kong benefit from a better culture. All of these groups have more and stronger internal connections compared to their external connections with other groups. Each individual is incentivized to look after their own group or groups rather than concern themselves with the welfare of out-groups. This is especially true whenever there is a democratic state, as all groups will aim to gain access to the powers of the state for their own benefit.

Internationalism requires collectivism based on a fictitious idea of humanity. This is not to dismiss the notion of biological incentives shared across all human groups or a natural law that should apply to all. Rather, this is a recognition that in the real world, there are natural incentives for cooperation between nations but none for global unity. One could also say that the smallest possible group is the individual and as such, independence is best for the advancement of an individual. But interpersonal and economic relations are vital to sustain a society, and these are most effective within a small community no larger than a historical city-state. Decentralized nationalism is tremendously beneficial to individuals, and it is perfectly individualist to support voluntary nationalism of this kind. Furthermore, this creates a spontaneous national order in which voluntary individual actions advance the nation as they advance the goals of the individuals. This means that there is no need to force people to be nationalists.

The second important aspect of a nation ties together with the first. Within each nation, the transaction costs are reduced as language barriers, geographical barriers, cultural incompatibility, and a lack of trust are all lesser problems. When all else is equal, it is always preferable to work inside one’s own nation. Thus, free trade should be understood in the context of cooperation between nations and not as something that supersedes nations. The incentive structure in a free market system favors local exchanges and high-trust networks. Therefore, it must be true that individualism advances nationalism and that individuals do not need to submit to their nation and give up their own self-interest to be nationalists.

The Case for Individualist Nationalism

It has been demonstrated that individualism will lead to nationalist ends, and that nationalism does not require individuals to be secondary. However, this does not mean that nationalism is necessarily good. It may still true that individuals without national connections are better off than individuals who are within a connected nation. There are some ways to demonstrate how individuals can benefit from not having an institutionalized nation. However, if one is to claim that individuals are better off without national bonds, one must ignore the entire purpose for which anyone would become an individualist in the first place. Individualism supports making one’s own choices and having those choices respected. Most people will make choices that strengthen their relationships to other people in their nation. This is because the majority of people value their own nation and want to be a part of it. The vast majority of the human population has a preference for their in-group and has connections to their heritage and history. Thus, if one is to be an individualist, one must account for the fact that to most people, this means nationalism within the individualistic framework.

Although some individualists support nationalism, it does not follow that this is necessarily correct. There is no reason why an individualist ought to support nationalism in the modern sense unless one is choosing it as a lesser evil than internationalism. Furthermore, it is contradictory for individualists to support anything other than what they themselves as free individuals wish to support. Individualism, however flawed it may be, allows for each individual to choose one’s own priorities. Nationalism may be antagonistic to some and favorable to others, but the beauty of the individualist mindset is the possibility of personal choice. There is no need for a monolithic individualism; the notion that individualists all ought to think the same way and adhere to some strict principle is self-contradictory. All individualists need to respect the power of persuasion and debate while accepting that some people will make mistakes, such as a rejection of even localist forms of nationalism.

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