Academic journal article Independent Review

Is National Rational?

Academic journal article Independent Review

Is National Rational?

Article excerpt

Ruminating on the causes and consequences of ethnic strife, I was reminded of a young woman who at one time used to type my manuscripts. Before she learned to read my handwriting, she kept mistaking my r for n, so that when I wrote "rational" she would type "national," and vice versa. The results were sometimes quite surprising. The mistake suggests an association of ideas and a potentially serious question. Can national be rational?

Most people of liberal leanings tend to regard (and to deplore or despise) nationalism, along with the feelings that feed it, as a gut instinct, and not the most creditable one at that. It stands outside the purview of critical reason, rather like a taste we do not dispute, an ultimate preference, a Humean "passion" that can explain human conduct but that neither need nor can be explained in terms of other, more final, more basic preferences or ends.

Although I sympathize with that position, I think it gives unduly short shrift to the issue. Nationalism, whether despicable, deplorable, or not, is dangerous, potent, and important; it calls for closer consideration. One way of doing justice to the phenomenon of nationalism is to treat it counterfactually. Even if in fact it springs from sentiment fueled by historical accidents, it may be worthwhile to try to see whether nationalism could possibly be the product of rational choice. If it is, we should be able to find a theory that can explain the phenomena of nationalism as if they were appropriate, perhaps even the best available responses utility-maximizing individuals could make to the similarly utility-maximizing strategies of others. For present purposes, I use "utility-maximizing" in a loose sense that is almost tautological but has the merit of encompassing everything an individual thinks he should do, given his means and the information at his disposal, to get the best possible combination of all the things he values, whether they be tangible or intangible, moral or material.

If we could construct such a theory, nationalism and its principal institution, the nation-state, could be represented as instrumental, serving a purpose, comprehensible in terms of methodological individualism. We could inquire into the efficacy of nationalism in promoting the aims (maximizing the utility) of those who embrace it and subject themselves to its disciplines. In the present article I engage in an elementary thought-experiment. I seek to find a plausible theory that, running in terms of broadly conceived cost and benefit, could furnish elements of an answer to the question, Is national rational?

The Differential Advantage of Group Action

For nationalism to make any sort of maximizing sense, there must exist important situations ("games") of human interaction in which the best response to the expected utility-maximizing actions of others is a group response. Impossible for any lone individual, such a response is available only to a group of individuals acting uniformly. They must form a group and then reach and submit to group decisions. In return they reap the differential advantage that, according to the hypothesis, such action can yield.

The advantage, if any, depends on at least two variables. One is group size and composition: who is in the group and who is left outside? The larger the group, the stronger it is, but perhaps the less cohesive; and the larger it is, the smaller the world outside it that group action can exploit for its own advantage. The other variable is the appropriateness of the group decision to which its members conform. How is it reached? Is the process, to use simplistic categories, democratic or autocratic? How does it allocate costs within the group, and what mechanism preserves it from stupid mistakes? Needless to say, both variables go to the heart of the problem of separate nations with their processes of collective choice and enforcement.

Bargaining and Taking

For present purposes, let us divide all possible interactions into four jointly exhaustive classes. …

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