Is Nationalism Good for You?

Is Nationalism Good for You?

Think of "nationalism," and you might think of a country brainwashed to hate its neighbors. You might imagine thousands of people sacrificing themselves for a power-hungry dictator. You wouldn’t be alone. Albert Einstein himself called nationalism "an infantile disease, the measles of mankind."

Political scientists blame it for civil wars and territorial ambitions, from Rwanda and Yugoslavia to Nazi Germany and Napoleonic France. Many economists view it as an irrational distraction from free-market principles, impeding growth and promoting corruption across the developing world. When war broke out in the past, nationalism was often automatically assumed to be a party to the crime, either as a tool that would allow leaders to seduce the masses into fighting, or as fuel that stoked popular outrage. There is no denying it: nationalism has got a bad name.

But this negative publicity confuses what is more often than not an innocuous sentiment. Nationalism is a feeling of unity with a group beyond one’s immediate family and friends. In and of itself, it is not conducive to disastrous wars. The bad rap on nationalism relies almost exclusively on cherry-picked exceptions. These conclusions were drawn without considering the far-more-common cases in which nationalism was not the root of some evil. Moreover, many previous studies on the causes of war lacked one key component: an adequate measure of nationalism. Absent this measure, it is impossible to tell if the brand of nationalism of, say, the Axis powers was more intense than others in the years leading up to 1939. Yet, scholars are quick to blame nationalism for a host of ills.

Why this haste? Part of the reason lies in the scholarly reverence to homo economicus, the cool-headed and self-interested person thought to make optimal decisions at all times. This assumed rational egoist stands in direct opposition to the stereotypical nationalist. After all, the nationalist is often anything but coolheaded. And, being willing to die for his compatriots if need be, he isn’t selfish either. Thus, many scholars conclude, if nationalism does exist, it would only disturb the God-given rationality of humanity, and that meant trouble in politics and economics.

But the deeper roots of antinationalism seem to lie in the value system of scholars. Success in academia is often gauged by how coldly logical one can be. Intense emotional content is frowned upon. So your run-of-the-mill academic, devoted to library stays, will naturally view nationalism as unintelligent and primal. And being so, nationalism could not possibly produce better countries. Or could it?


Modern political science generally holds that nationalism predisposes a nation’s members to see outsiders as potentially inferior and evil. This perception is supposed to make it easier for nationalists to, say, curtail trade with others and even wage war. But there is a problem with this logic. If nothing else, nationalism is a sense of collective unity that turns large groups into extended families. In itself, this says nothing about how one nation should treat another. In everyday life, we usually love and identify with our own family. That certainly does not make us believe that neighboring families pose a threat. The same goes for nationalism. It does not manufacture hatred for others, just concern for one’s fellow citizens. By believing that everyone is in a national endeavor together, citizens value each other’s welfare as well as their own. In other words, nationalism makes people less selfish. Granted, the altruism that nationalism provides is not the cosmopolitan sort that philosophers dream about. Members of a nation may not care about all the people in the world, but they do exhibit a selective altruism in caring about their fellow compatriots. And this selective altruism, when shared by all citizens, makes for a better country than one populated by purely selfish individuals.

Consider economic life, where self-interest is assumed to reign supreme. Any economy comprises millions of everyday transactions. In many of these transactions, a citizen can easily shortchange another and get away with it. Yes, cheaters are somewhat deterred by the law and the fear of gaining a bad reputation. But there are many ways to skim off the top without getting caught. A simple case: Your favorite restaurant can charge you higher prices — say, from a few cents to a dollar — than those printed on the menu. If caught, your waiter can say it was a mistake. But how many people ever bother to remember the exact menu prices when the bill lands on the table? Very few, if any. This window of opportunity for cheating exists in thousands of activities in every conceivable industry. And if citizens actually exploited it, interpersonal trust would disintegrate. Business activity would slow to an inefficient crawl as people spent additional time and effort deterring cheaters.

On the other hand, when citizens are nationalistic, those who might cheat will face an unpleasant trade-off: to help themselves at the expense of their brethren. Surely, nationalism will never stop all cheating. But in countries with a mature sense of nationalism, this trade-off will significantly discourage cheating and promote economic growth. Meanwhile, without nationalism, citizens do not hesitate to abuse each other, and the threat of underhanded cheating destroys the trust necessary for economic development. One need only recall the fall of the Soviet Union and how the crisis of national identity suffered by its citizens presaged endemic corruption and economic underdevelopment across the post-Soviet states. In cases such as these, the economy degenerates into a swarm of flies, with each citizen relatively oblivious to others’ welfare. By contrast, the nationalist economy resembles a colony of bees, with members mindful of the group’s well-being.


The benefits of nationalism could have just remained another untested theory in the pantheon of social science. But today, we have the tools to test it systematically. Using data from the International Social Survey Programme (ISSP), we can track levels of nationalism across countries. In 1995 and 2003, the Norway-based ISSP carried out surveys of national identity across 23 and 34 countries, respectively, ranging from established democracies like Australia and the United States to younger ones such as the Czech Republic and Slovakia. In the polls, people were asked about the degree to which they agreed that their country is better than most. The stronger this sense of national superiority, the higher the level of nationalism.

One finding is immediately apparent: Across the board, countries with a higher average level of nationalism were consistently wealthier. This evidence flies in the face of the antinationalism harbored by many economists. In truth, though, the problem with many poorer countries is that their citizens are not nationalistic enough. Consider Eastern European states such as Latvia and Slovenia, which many fear contain the seeds of hypernationalism. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, these countries are actually among the least nationalistic of the group. And rich Western countries, such as Australia, Canada, and the United States, score as the most nationalistic. It’s a fair bet your economist never taught you that.

The virtues of nationalism also transcend citizens’ bank accounts. If nationalism fosters altruism, its effects should be visible in political and social life as well. Consider corruption. Research in this area is still relatively scant, but it is apparent that there is a broad relationship between nationalism and the ability to keep corruption in check. Using corruption estimates from the World Bank and the same survey data on nationalism, another positive effect of nationalism emerges: Corruption is consistently lower in countries with higher levels of nationalism.

How does nationalism reduce corruption? For many of the same reasons that it improves the economy. Just like parties to a business transaction, public servants who contemplate corruption face an unsavory trade-off: to profit at the expense of fellow nationals. So, if bureaucrats are highly nationalistic, they are also more sensitive to any damage to society, and less prone to abuse public office. Nationalism also changes the mind-set of those affected by corruption. A nationalistic public is less likely to accept government corruption and simply look the other way. On the other hand, without nationalism, the purely selfish citizen might not care about corruption at all. To this person, the diluted cost of corruption in his or her life is minimal compared with the effort required to fight it. But a nationalistic citizenry gauges the effect of corruption on the entire nation, and this greater concern for potential abuse triggers the collective response that keeps corruption in check.

In social life, too, nationalism makes its presence felt. As nationalistic citizens care more about each other, they are less likely to break the law and violate the rights of others. Using World Bank data on citizens’ adherence to laws, another striking relationship becomes evident. The countries endowed with a higher level of nationalism tend to have a stronger rule of law. For all nationalism’s supposed faults, it is incredibly — and consistently — associated with things we value in economics, politics, and society.


So what about the cases of nationalism gone bad? Do they tell us anything useful? Yes and no. From power-hungry Napoleonic France to Serbia during the 1990s, these cases show that nationalist aberrations are possible only when other forces are at play. One such factor is military power. When technological advances and military tactics allow for the easy conquest of other countries, nationalism might be tempted to expand. In the 19th century, the many innovations of Napoleon’s Grand Army — such as fast and flexible troop formations with fully integrated artillery — convinced the French nation that expansion was a viable proposition. Similarly, Adolf Hitler exploited German nationalism at a time when blitzkrieg tactics could prove devastating.

Nationalism can also be dangerous whenever a single territory is contested by many nations, especially when there is a history of violence among them. When these conditions exist, as in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, civil war is a real possibility. Young democracies are also at a higher risk of virulent nationalism. In these democratizing states, ambitious leaders might pursue risky strategies — such as invading a neighbor — to boost the immature nationalism of their people for their own motives. And nationalism can turn ugly if it mixes with a belief that one’s nation is beyond any standard of morality. That was possibly the case of Nazi Germany, because the German people’s love for their nation was not counterbalanced by a moral doctrine that valued self-control and compassion.

However, the important thing about these unsavory forms of nationalism is how rare and sporadic they really are. To cite a few cases as proof that nationalism is always harmful or barbaric is to confuse the exception with the rule. Most developed strains of nationalism do not promote aggressive expansionism or the abuse of minorities within their borders. That is because contemporary nations are usually missing these other, high-risk conditions. They exist in a world where war is expensive, borders are largely settled, and the actions of nations are usually tied to some moral code. As a result, nationalism today often leads citizens to look inward and focus their energies on bettering their countries.

If social science is to gain relevance beyond the ivory tower, it must help derive policies that make the most of a country’s assets. With nationalism, this is clearly not happening. What’s worse, instead of seeing its potential for progress, scholars largely dismiss nationalism as an ill. To be sure, the broad relationships outlined here ought to be further dissected. Perhaps nationalism does not matter much when we account for a host of other factors, such as educational levels and natural resources. A debate could be had about whether nationalism is helpful or simply harmless. At the very least, though, we must move past the simplistic notion that nationalism is only dangerous. What it is, is misunderstood.

Of course, scholars can persist in looking down on nationalism as a backward, unevolved reflex, and governments could continue to fail to develop policies that harness its potential. But this alternative carries a heavy cost. It allows opportunistic leaders and demagogues to control the future of nationalism. If responsible policymakers have in their hands something proven to encourage increased wealth, lower levels of corruption, and higher obedience to the rule of law, they would only be wise to use it.