On the Versailles Palace, transformed into a museum in the 1830s by the “King-Citizen” Louis Philippe, stands the inscription À toutes les gloires de la France (“To All the Glories of France”). Many rulers in history have illustrated, some more savagely than others, a truth that American conservatives seem to ignore: “national greatness” is a propaganda device for subjecting individuals to the reigning power.

On Law & Liberty, our sister website, James Patterson described a “conflict of vision within conservatism” that transpired from a conference held by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. Although some conferees defended libertarianism and classical liberalism, it appears that most stood for a statist, interventionist, and European sort of conservatism. Patterson reports:

The insurgent “National Conservatives” like Josh Hammer and Julius Krein made a splash. … They insisted that conservatives must let go of their anxiety over crony capitalism because, they believe, genuinely free competitive enterprise is a fantasy. Since a level playing field is not possible, America should protect its firms from foreign competition. They viewed the idea that this might interfere with international gains from trade as irrelevant—it is simply a cost of national greatness.

“Happy peoples have no history,” says a French proverb (les peuples heureux n’ont pas d’histoire). Individuals are not forced to sacrifice their own happiness for a history of national greatness. They can just live in peace and prosperity. National greatness entails individual misery because ordinary individuals have to pay, in taxes, submission, and blood, the cost of the rulers’ glory and of the privileges granted to their supporting clienteles. Leviathan charges a high cost for some to feel national greatness emotions. Some individuals benefit at the cost of other individuals. National greatness is not a public good to which each individual contributes in proportion to his benefits; it is one form of organized discrimination.

If, on the contrary, all individuals are equally free, many of them will bring “greatness” to the country; others will be great in their own personal way. The objection that an individual cannot be great without his country “as a whole” being great brings us to President Barack Obama’s saying that “you did not build this.”

It is for sure easier for an individual chosen at random to be great in a great country if that means a country that is great in individual liberty—where, for example, individuals are free to trade with whoever is willing and able to trade with them—than under a tyranny. But such is not the meaning of “national greatness”; otherwise, it would be called “generalized individual greatness” or free pursuit of happiness.

In this view, the ideal would be a country whose national greatness consists in having none. Of course, the absence of imposed national greatness is a necessary but not sufficient condition for individual liberty. It was in this spirit, I suppose, that Adam Smith wrote:

Little else is requisite to carry a state to the highest degree of opulence from the lowest barbarism, but peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice; all the rest being brought about by the natural course of things. All governments which thwart this natural course, which force things into another channel, or which endeavour to arrest the progress of society at a particular point, are unnatural, and to support themselves are obliged to be oppressive and tyrannical.