While nationalism produces many negative consequences, the fact that independent states—all of which are nationalistic to some degree—have survived the evolutionary test of time suggests, if not proves, that nation-states are, on balance, better for humans than chaos and the other approaches to governance that have been tried. At best, however, even the most successful nationalistic states create human conditions that are tragically short of idyllic. The human response to non-idyllic situations is to try to conceive changes to make things better. Such conceiving is noble and necessary if progress is to be made but, sadly, the vast majority of those conceptions when implemented do more harm than good. Even more sadly, no amount of conceiving will produce a set of policies that would create a paradise on Earth.
On the other hand, the fact that a vastly higher percentage of the people alive today are faring better than their ancestors shows that humans over the long haul and with much testing and many setbacks and failures can improve their conditions over time. Such progress can occur, however, only if the preponderance of changes that concern values and policies have been wise. The collapse of The Roman Empire, to name but one of many examples, demonstrates that humans are perfectly capable of choosing changes unwisely and/or failing to do what is necessary to protect and defend their wise decisions. Part of the mission of this blog is to help defer the day that the ideas, ways, and means that have enabled humans to reach the extant pinnacle of human achievement are not unwisely jettisoned in favor of unattainable perfection.[i] [More on that point in future posts.]
With millennia of trials and much error and failures, natural evolution has deemed nationalism to be the winning approach to governance. That does not mean that nationalism is not destined to become extinct when a more successful approach is discovered. It does mean, however, that the odds of any proposed “fundamental transformation” of the evolved state of affairs will work better than the current one are low.
This is not a claim that things are satisfactory here and now. Far from it. Injustice, ill will, rightful righteous indignation (righteous indignation based on wrong analysis is unhelpful noise), unfairness, danger, tragedy, illness, outrageous fortune, and sadness abound. Because, however, (1) anything near creating a perfect form of governance is beyond human grasp, and (2) human’s infinite capacity to imagine how things could be better regardless of their absolute level of general wellbeing, injustice, etc. will always be a permanent part of the human condition—no matter how comparatively great conditions happen to be. For example, all but a tiny fraction of humans who currently live in America, Canada, Europe, Japan, Australia, and several other places have standards of living that rank in the top 1% of all the humans that have ever lived, yet all of the awful things listed above exist everywhere in the world. Jesus’s comment, “The poor will always be with you,” is an eternal truth that no fundamental transformation of policies will change.[ii]
Nevertheless, things can be improved and wanting to improve things is virtuous. The problem is discerning which policies will produce more good than harm. Large human systems are astoundingly complicated and any significant policy change to such systems will produce both positive and negative consequences.[iii] This problem is intractable because the smartest people in the world are not infinitely smart and most the knowledgeable people can obtain only a fraction of the information needed to assess whether a major policy change will, on balance, be positive or negative—although many people claim otherwise.[iv] Making matters worse, in many circumstances the smartest and most knowledgeable people cannot know whether the fraction of the information they possess is a sufficiently high fraction of the information needed to justify the drawing of a conclusion. Examples of this reality were when some really smart, knowledgeable, and well-meaning people decided to remove wolves from Yellowstone National Park[v] (which helped the elk and a few other animals and made the smart/knowledgeable people appear, for a while, to be smarter/more knowledgeable than they were, but destroyed the habitat of many species) and the revolutionaries thinking it was a good idea to replace the terrible czarist Russian government with a communist one[vi] (which worked out well only for the U.S.S.R.’s General Secretaries and a few of their cronies). Contrary to what the instigators believed to be sound ideas, the Yellowstone idea was an example of the government not taking fully into account how nature works concerning wildlife, and the Soviet idea was an example of the government taking fully into account neither human nature nor economics (also a natural phenomenon). Natural, inevitable forces caused those ideas to fail—despite the science, logic, beautiful rhetoric, and good intentions of the ideas’ the “Intellectual Yet Idiot”[vii] conceived.
Consequently, the most reasonable and reliable test of whether a system is worthy of preservation is whether it has persevered and produced above average results for an above average percentage of its citizenry over a long time. This is particularly troublesome because pretty good is not great. Humans can always imagine things being better than pretty good. They often want, ask for, or demand at least extraordinary, if not great, and sometimes demand near perfection if the status quo does not suit their fancy. (It doesn’t help when “experts” are paid to promote ideas whether or not they are good ideas and social merit badges are dispensed to vainglorious people who excel at demeaning the status quo.[viii])
Though dreadfully short of great, a country that produces above average results for an above average percentage of its people over an extended period is a miracle.[/ix] [In my estimation, the video in this endnote is a “must see.”] As nationalist America has demonstrated, pretty good can produce many miracles. Because there is a baby in that bathwater, significant policy change proposals should be met with great skepticism and the grander the proposal, the greater the skepticism should be. Doing otherwise risks not only a baby going down the drain.
Of course, nationalism has also produced many horrors and has failed to solve horrendous problems. On the other hand, things were never fine for everyone or even most people in the Roman Empire. On the contrary, by the standards of modern societies, things were always awful for everyone in the Roman Empire. More important, however, things were worse for most people both before the rise and after the fall of the Roman Empire. That history will repeat itself if the ideas of the Enlightenment, which enabled the West to achieve what it has for humanity, are not preserved and defended.
Hopefully, someday our bumbling trials and errors will produce an approach to governance that is far superior to nationalism. As the 20th Century taught us, however, taking great leaps forward on a large scale tend to produce much worse outcomes.[x]
[iv] See “The Pretence of Knowledge.” “To act on the belief that we possess the knowledge and the power which enable us to shape the processes of society entirely to our liking, knowledge which in fact we do not possess, is likely to make us do much harm. In the physical sciences there may be little objection to trying to do the impossible; one might even feel that one ought not to discourage the over-confident because their experiments may after all produce some new insights. But in the social field the erroneous belief that the exercise of some power would have beneficial consequences is likely to lead to a new power to coerce other men being conferred on some authority.”
See also, “It’s a Wonderful Loaf.”