Illustration by Sam Island

Nationalism Threatens Racism, Not War

a | A

Aug. 30 (Bloomberg) -- Somewhere in England, an elderly man reverts to the behavior of disaffected teenagers and daubs a slogan on a wall: “England for the English.” He is tracked down by the police and rightly prosecuted and convicted: The sentiment is clearly intended as racial abuse.

In much of the high-income world, the concept of the nation-state has become unfashionable both with educated elites and with the young. Modernity strings identity between one pillar of individualism and another of globalism. Many young people see themselves both as fiercely individual outsiders in their surrounding society and as citizens of the world.

Modern individualism has deep roots. Rene Descartes derived our knowledge of the world’s existence from his experience of his own thoughts: cogito ergo sum. Many modern philosophers now think Descartes got things back to front. We cannot have knowledge of ourselves except in the context of a society of which we are a part. Hence, at the foundations of philosophy is a tension between people as individuals and people as members of society.

Many units of organization are important for community -- family, clan, locality, ethnic group, religion, profession, region, nation and world. In this array of possible clubs, how important is the nation?

Challenging Nationalism

Albert Einstein condemned nationalism as “measles,” and it has become fashionable in Europe to suggest that the nation has been superseded. It is challenged from below by regional identities, as Spain is threatened with the secession of Catalonia and the U.K. with the secession of Scotland. And it is challenged from above, formally by the transfer of power to entities such as the European Union and culturally by the emergence of globalized educated elites. Yet national identity remains enormously important.

Nations are overwhelmingly the most significant institutions for taxation. Only if people feel a strong common identity at this level are they willing to accept taxation. Take that Catalonian desire to exit from Spain. Catalonia is Spain’s richest region, and exit is being driven by reluctance to continue transferring 9 percent of Catalans’ income to other regions. A stronger sense of Spanish nationalism would be highly unlikely to trigger warlike intentions against Portugal but would, perhaps, reconcile Catalans to helping their poorer neighbors. In other words, modern nationalism may be less like a mass infection of measles than a mass injection of oxytocin.

Of course, it would be even nicer if a sense of shared identity could be built at a level still higher than the nation. But this is extremely difficult. Even after half a century, the European Union redistributes far less than 1 percent of European income between countries. The travails of the euro, and the opposition of Germans to the notion of a “transfer union” -- read “paying for the Greeks” -- is testament to the limits of refashioning identity. Within Europe, around 40 times as much revenue is dispensed by national governments as by the European Commission.

Tax Rates

By the time we get to the global level, the mechanism for redistributive taxation -- aid -- is even weaker. The international system has struggled and failed for the past four decades to reach a tax rate of even 0.7 percent of income. From the perspective of cooperation, nations are not selfish impediments to global citizenship; they are virtually our only systems for providing public goods.

National redistribution is also more powerful than lower-level systems such as states and provinces, which almost invariably handle a much smaller share of revenue than the national government does. The ultimate decentralized system of redistribution -- the family -- is but a pale reflection of the state, which is heavily involved even in the transfer of resources from parents to young children: In the absence of state-financed and state-required education, many children would be left uneducated.

Nations function as systems of redistributive taxation because, from the emotional perspective, identifying with a nation has proved to be an extremely powerful way in which people bond. There is a good reason that the French revolutionaries who ushered in modernity bundled in fraternity with liberty and equality. Only if we see others as members of the same community do we accept that the redistributive taxation needed for equity does not infringe our liberty.

Nations have fallen out of favor as solutions to the problem of collective action. But the fears of nationalism are outdated. As Steven Pinker argues, warfare between developed countries is now unthinkable.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has committed Germany to maintaining the euro at all costs, arguing that its collapse would revive the specter of war between the European powers. But this fear, though a heartfelt reflection of Germany’s past, is blatantly ridiculous as a prospect for its future. European peace is not built on the euro or even on the European Community. Is Germany one whit more likely to invade Norway, which is not a member of the European Community, than Poland, which is? What underpins European peace is not a currency and a Brussels bureaucracy but a profound change in sensibilities.

Potent Symbol

The more reasonable fear of nationalism is not that it will unleash war with other nations but that it will not be inclusive, only defined by the majority ethnic group -- a front for racism. The British National Party really means the Indigenous English Party; the Finns Party really means ethnic majority Finns, and so forth. But allowing racist groups to hijack the potent symbol and effective organizational unit of a nation is itself dangerous. If, by default, other politicians underplay a sense of national identity, it hands a potent political tool to evil.

National identity is valuable and it is also permissible. So is it threatened by immigration? No glib answer is warranted: A sense of shared identity is not necessarily perturbed by immigration, but it may be.

Migrants are to be welcomed and inculcated with the culture. This role is not only consistent with pride in self-identity, but it is also reinforcing. For most of U.S. history, this was the country’s migration model. Americans have been proud of their nation, and immigration reinforced a common self-image of American exceptionalism.

The problems with assimilation and fusion are practical. For them to work, there is a need for controls on the rate of migration that are fine-tuned to take into account its composition. Neither the indigenous nor migrants can be hectored into integration, but the indigenous must be subject to requirements that all their organizations become inclusive of migrants, while migrants may need to be subject to requirements of language learning and spatial dispersion.

Almost inevitably, if Bangladeshis in England are “the Bangladeshi community” and Somalis are “the Somali community,” then the indigenous become “the English.” But with this development, the sense of shared nationality is forfeited. This is the royal road to “England for the English.”

(Paul Collier, a professor of economics and public policy at the Blavatnik School of Government at the University of Oxford, is the author of “The Plundered Planet,” “Wars, Guns and Votes” and “The Bottom Billion.” This is the last in a series of three excerpts from his new book, “Exodus: How Migration Is Changing Our World,” published by Oxford University Press. Read Part 1 and Part 2.)

To contact the writer of this article: Paul Collier at mail@wylieagency.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Mary Duenwald at mduenwald@bloomberg.net.