If we seek resilience, we need liberty, not nationalism

If we seek resilience, we need liberty, not nationalism
© Getty Images

One hundred years ago H.G. Wells published his 40-chapter "Outline of History," which begins with the origins of Earth and ends with post-World War I global uncertainty. 

“Europe is bankrupt,” Wells wrote, “and people’s pockets rustle with paper money whose purchasing power dwindles as they walk about with it.” Yet Wells derided Brits who reacted to global devastation by rallying for a stronger Britain. “Nationalism as a God must follow the tribal gods to limbo,” he wrote. “Our true nationality is mankind.” 

Now the world is once again in a dilapidated state — and once again there are those among us who think nationalism is our answer. 

ADVERTISEMENT

American Compass, the new conservative think tank launched by Oren Cass, is pushing for stronger government direction over the U.S. economy. “The nation is awakening to a set of problems that existed long before coronavirus and will persist long after,” Cass writes in the launch announcement. Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) have joined American Compass in calling for the government to bring supply chains back home. We can guard against future global uncertainty and chaos, nationalists seem to be saying if we build trade walls around us and let government direct industrial and economic activity within.

I understand why some find this argument appealing. In a moment of crisis, strength is a virtue we seek within ourselves and others. But we err when we transfer this impulse to the state and seek strongman solutions to social and economic problems. We err when we think that resilience stems from top-down control.

The search for strongman solutions is common enough. Even H.G. Wells, for all his contempt for nationalism, dreamed of a single world state with a common world law, religion, education, and organization of scientific research. Only with “adequate world control” would peace be possible, Wells wrote in "The Outline of History.: One of his arguments was “the need, because of increasing mobility of peoples, of effectual controls of health everywhere.”

Wells, of course, had lived through the 1918 influenza outbreak — an outbreak that a new paper suggests may have contributed to the rise of the Nazi Party. German regions that had higher influenza mortalities were more likely to support the Nazi Party or other extremists in 1932 and 1933, according to Federal Reserve Bank of New York economist Kristian Blickle.

Pandemics impose a special kind of psychological pain. The devastation wrought by war is the result of humanity’s worst tendencies — violence, tribalism, and xenophobia. But the level of the devastation wrought by COVID-19 seems to be the tragic and incomprehensible result of humanity’s best tendencies — our capacity for connection and cooperation; our eagerness to do business with each other and travel to see each other. Our celebrations. Our families. Human touch itself. 

ADVERTISEMENT

But we cannot let the fear of the uncontrollable push us toward a permanent state of increased control. Current chaos need not compel us to romanticize top-down order. Covid-19 is not proof that our liberty needs stricter permanent limits. 

We cannot give up on the liberal experiment, which in all its imperfection is still the greatest engine of human progress, empowerment, and well-being the world has ever known. 

“Let’s not suppose that occasionally necessary coercion justifies a future of coercionism,” writes economist Deirdre McCloskey. 

Yet that is precisely what Harvard law professor Jack Goldsmith and University of Arizona law professor Andrew Keane Woods seem to suppose when they argue in The Atlantic that China is right about speech on the internet and the United States is wrong. “Significant monitoring and speech control are inevitable components of a mature and flourishing internet,” Goldsmith and Woods write, “and governments must play a large role in these practices to ensure that the internet is compatible with a society’s norms and values.” That’s an astonishing conclusion to draw from the COVID-19 crisis given Chinese authorities’ efforts to quash vital information about the pandemic from their own citizens and the world. 

Do national governments and international institutions have roles to play during an urgent global crisis? Yes. But we should not inflate the government permanently to avoid the terrifying uncertainties inherent to this pandemic. We should not throw up a wall around the United States and nationalize manufacturers in an effort to anticipate the next crisis. 

If, as Wells said, our true nationality is mankind, then we owe it to mankind not to burrow into nation enclaves nor attempt Wells’ fantasy of a world government. Instead, we should protect and expand what history has proven to be our most reliable source of creativity, well-being, and resilience: Liberty.

Emily Chamlee-Wright is the president of the Institute for Humane Studies, which supports university professors who explore ideas within the classical liberal tradition.