Nationalism is a point of culture that many find difficult to fully reason with. Theodore Roosevelt's speech on "The New Nationalism" in 1910 is a good example -- while extolling the virtues of a certain good nationalism, he decries the bad done by "old" nationalism.
While national identity is to some extent a matter of tastes and preferences, making it difficult to discuss in rational or economic terms, it can be shown that there is an optimal degree of nationalism -- a sweet spot, if you will -- that does the most good while avoiding the most harm. In purely economic terms, there is a bell-shaped total utility curve to nationalism.
For simplicity, "nationalism" here will be taken to be the same thing as "national identity." Not racial, ethnic, or religious identity, but rather one's degree of attachment to one's state or nation for its own sake, rather than to its government.
|Too Little Nationalism||Optimal Amount of Nationalism||Too Much Nationalism||Rationale|
|Economy may be too weak or too weakly-held to prevent being overtaken by adversaries||Nation engages in healthy competition through trade with other nations||Autarky||Some nations have mistakenly believed that they can aggressively pursue economic growth without international trade. This approach, called autarky, usually results in those nations ending up with relatively weak growth and comparative poverty. North Korea is a particularly relevant example. Other nations, though, can expose themselves to grave danger by failing to adequately defend themselves against threats from hostile nations with significant economic power over them -- Poland, for instance, had little ability to fight back against Nazi and Communist occupation during most of the late 20th Century. A certain balance of nationalism helps to ensure the right environment for commerce inside a nation that is safe from control by larger powers, while not extending so far as to defeat the benefits of trade.|
|Tribalism||Cooperative pride||Xenophobia||Places like Rwanda and Yugoslavia have fallen into anarchy and genocide because ethnic and tribal passions vastly outpaced any sense of national unity. But national identity, when it grows too large, can cause the people of an entire nation to become xenophobic and insular, treating foreigners as second-class citizens or worse in violation of their own intrinsic human worth and dignity. An optimal point exists between these two, in which people have pride in their own nation that exceeds racial or ethnic ties but do so with adequate humility towards those of other nations.|
|Disinterest in national identity||Pride in good national characteristics with shame in bad||Over-extended belief in own goodness||Nations with too great a sense of their own goodness will tend to harm and oppress their neighbors when they can. But nations with too little a sense of purpose will lack the moral impetus to improve themselves for the sake of betterment. Separatist Quebecers are little interested in the welfare of greater Canada, which weakens Canada as a state and diminishes its capacity to engage in a cohesive debate about the larger issues that inevitably fall into the political sphere, as they cling to a regional identity that prohibits them from even communicating in the language of the rest of the country.|
|Politicians and civil servants only in it for the money||Decent public servants who are worth their work but who deliver more||Demagogues||The private sector seems to widely understand that corporate environments influence the work that their employees put out. People desire a sense of purpose in their work, so a nation that does not offer an adequate sense of purpose to its politicians and civil servants will fail to attract people to those positions who are willing to offer more than the market value of their labor. Too little national identity, and the nation will only employ those politicians and civil servants who are willing to work for the pay offered. Too much nationalism, though, and those who fill those public ranks will tend to be demagogues who subsidize their direct compensation with the intoxication of state power.|
|Not enough patriotism to fill armed forces and civil services||Sense of community purpose and a reserve of resources which can be tapped in an emergency||Blind allegiance||A nation in which no one feels sufficient obligation to his or her own country can only defend itself by means of hired mercenaries -- whether they come from within the country or from outside. Mercenary armies, of course, are difficult to rely upon, as they are available to the highest bidder. Nations need their people to feel a sense of duty to country in order to fill their defensive ranks (and others, like the civil and foreign service) with those who will resist temptations like desertion or treason. Too much nationalism, however, can lead to the ill of blind allegiance to the state, in which decisions are accepted because the principle of "just following orders" exceeds the individual's obligation to evaluate and make principled decisions in combat, commerce, and negotiation. Nations require a reasonable degree of reserve capacity -- in manpower, productive resources, and effort -- that can be called upon in times of crisis in order to solve the problems brought on by unique conditions. Until there are no wars, nations will need a level of "wartime capacity" that exceeds normal levels.|
|Political and social apathy||Participation||Jingoism||When people feel little or no sense of identity with their nation, they will tend to display political and social apathy toward the state. Under those conditions, democratic participation will tend to decline, which in turn diminishes the legitimacy of the elected government. At too great a sense of identity, though, the tendency is toward a sense of manifest destiny or jingoism that may have the tendency to harm "outsiders." Between the two, of course, is the optimal point at which people participate in political and social institutions in such a manner that they reinforce valuable parts of the social fabric (and the private social safety net) without simultaneously doing damage to those outside of the system.|
|Too little trust among citizens||Healthy level of intrinsic trust in other citizens||Police state||A healthy economy requires a degree of natural trust among people. This is sometimes called home bias. Within an economy, home bias subsidizes a sense of trust that greases the wheels of commerce, leading to greater prosperity. Nations with too strong a national identity, though, will tend to become economically insular. Japan, for instance, is notoriously protectionist due to home bias, and this has a very unfavorable impact on the efficiency of their economy. At its worst, excessive unquestioning belief in the nation itself can lead to police states and political purges, which themselves tend to destroy the level of intrinsic social trust necessary to a healthy economy.|
|Social disruption due to political, regional, ethnic, and other factions||Increased stability through a degree of national consensus||Fascism||The turmoil of the 1960s in the United States was in part caused by strong local resistance to some forms of needed change (in the South, for instance, where segregation came to a difficult end despite strong regional resistance) and in part by political radicals who had little or no faith in the larger community. On the opposite end of the spectrum, though, are those places like Nazi Germany in which fascism overtook the broader social consensus and led to horrors of unimaginable scale. When balanced well, the nation can experience a healthy level of social stability through general consensus on certain moral, social, and strategic issues that help to form national identity (faith in "American ingenuity", for instance) that simultaneously delivers surplus social benefit.|