Patria, parenti, amici,
Voi dunque non avete?

Country, family, friends,
Possess you none of them?

-Giuseppe Verdi, Rigoletto

I’m a staunch opponent of nationalism.  But I’m also a family man.  Isn’t there a direct contradiction between the two?  If I refuse to show favoritism to my fellow Americans, how can I in good conscience buy Christmas presents for my children?  You might argue that whether you favor your countrymen or your kin, you’re neglecting far more deserving strangers.

There is one obvious difference between nationalism and familial favoritism.  Familial favoritism is a deep and ineradicable part of the human psyche, thanks to many millions of years of evolution.  Nationalism – and expansive tribal identities more generally – pretends to be equally fundamental, but it’s largely cheap talk.  People happily give tons of free stuff to their children.  But you need coercion to make people surrender more than a pittance to their “fellow citizens.”  To ask people to stop favoring their own children goes utterly against human nature.  To ask people to stop favoring their countrymen is a modest, eminently do-able request.

There is however a less obvious, but far more important difference between nationalism and familial favoritism: Despite its mighty evolutionary basis, almost everyone recognizes moral strictures against familial favoritism.  Almost everyone knows that “It would help my son” is not a good reason to commit murder, break someone’s arm, or steal.  Indeed, almost everyone knows that “It would help my son” is not a good reason for even petty offenses – like judging a Tae Kwon Do tournament unfairly because your son’s a contestant.

Nationalism, in contrast, is widely seen as an acceptable excuse for horrific crimes against outgroups.  Do you plan to murder hundreds of thousands of innocent foreign civilians?  Just say, “It will save American [German/Japanese/Russian/whatever] lives” – and other members of your tribe will nod their heads.  Do you want to deprive millions of foreigners of the basic human rights to sell their labor to willing buyers, rent apartments from willing landlords, and buy groceries from willing merchants?  Just say, “It’s necessary to protect American jobs” in a self-righteous tone, then bask in the admiration of your fellow citizens.

The surprising lesson: familial favoritism isn’t just inevitable; it’s basically benign.  People know that this fundamental emotion is no excuse for ignoring the rights of strangers.  Nationalism, in contrast, is at once phony and dangerous.  Phony, because nationalists’ behavior belies their gradiose claims of loyalty and devotion to their countrymen.  Dangerous, because when people remember their nation, they forget their basic moral obligations to leave strangers alone.