How Bad Is White Nationalism?
By Bryan Caplan
White nationalism is one of the most reviled ideologies on earth. But what exactly is so awful about it? Menachem Rosensaft‘s piece in Slate quotes some leading white nationalists, but never really explains why this nationalism is worse than all other nationalisms.
As you’d expect, white nationalists dominate Rosensaft’s comments. Several point out that he’s is a staunch Zionist, and quip, “Nationalism for me but not for thee.” I’m a staunch anti-nationalist, so I’m tempted agree with this critique but “level down” – to embrace the view that every form of nationalism is just as bad as white nationalism.
What’s so bad about nationalism in general? Perverse moral priorities. Human beings are naturally biased in favor of the groups they identify with; psychologists call this “in-group bias.” Once you recognize this human failing, your moral priority should be bending over backwards to treat out-groups justly. No nationalism I’ve ever heard of even tries to do so.* Instead, nationalisms embrace in-group bias – shouting and shoving to maximize their side’s share of wealth, power, and especially status.** This brief exchange in The Painted Veil aptly boils down the iniquity of nationalist thinking:
Businessman: What about support from Chiang Kai-shek? Where does he stand on this?
Townsend: He’s a nationalist. He will stand on the side of the Chinese. That’s why they call themselves “nationalists.”
On reflection, though, I should resist the intellectual temptation to equate all nationalisms. Nothing in my critique rules out moral distinctions between them. So how does white nationalism measure up on the most obvious metrics?
1. Historical track record. Even if you only count Nazism and European colonialism, white nationalism has a massive body count. But several non-European nationalisms – especially Chinese and Japanese – are in the same bloody ballpark.
2. Expected track record. Given white nationalism’s ongoing half century of pariah status, it seems unlikely to do much damage in the foreseeable future. For the time being, white nationalism looks about as dangerous as Luxembourgian nationalism.
3. Expected track record conditional on popularity. Even without white nationalism to urge them on, First World
governments continue to kill large numbers of innocent people in the Third World
to prevent statistically trivial harms. If white nationalism were an influential doctrine, it is reasonable to expect far worse treatment of Third World innocents. After all, white-majority countries still have greater military power than all other countries combined. Furthermore, since they have relatively prosperous economies, they could easily make their military dominance even more lop-sided. While there’s a chance this could ultimately supplant even worse non-white tyrannies, the “transitional period” would be hell on earth. By this standard, non-white nationalism poses a considerably smaller – though still potentially apocalyptic – threat.
4. The viciousness of the advocates. Being unpopular doesn’t make a moral theory more or less evil. But as I’ve argued before, we should expect people who support evil views despite unpopularity to be especially morally vicious. This prediction seem to fit the facts well. The average white nationalist really is angry and hateful. Indeed, it is very hard to locate white nationalists who are even civil to people who disagree with them. (Feel free to prove me wrong in the comments… or right, as the case may be). Reliable statistics on contemporary white nationalist violence are hard to find, but if you divide white nationalists’ most visible crimes by their tiny population, their per-capita violent crime rate looks very high indeed.
So how bad is white nationalism? Back when white nationalism was popular, its sins were massive, but hardly unique. The doctrine currently does little harm because it’s so rare. If however white nationalism regained popularity, it would be a cataclysmic disaster because white-majority countries have the firepower to wreck the havoc other nationalist movements can only fantasize about. Finally, white nationalists score as badly as you would expect in terms of moral character. Intellectually, their nationalism is no worse than hundreds of other nationalisms; but the kind of people willing to embrace white nationalism despite the stigma against it really do tend to be hateful, if not violent.
* If you’ve got a solid counter-example of a self-styled “nationalist”
movement whose top priority is (or was) treating out-groups justly, please
share in the comments.
** Doesn’t this critique condemn the family as well? It would, if people
thought it morally praiseworthy to treat outsiders unjustly to
benefit their families. Fortunately, few parents consider it
morally praiseworthy for their kids to bully, cheat, and rob
non-relatives. Most of us recognize that we should strive to treat non-family members justly precisely because familial love tempts us to do otherwise.