The Volokh Conspiracy

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Why a "Libertarian-Nationalist Alliance" Makes No Sense

Vivek Ramaswamy isn't the first to advocate this badly wrong idea. But there's still no good justification for it.



Earlier today, former GOP presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy made some waves by calling for "a libertarian-nationalist alliance." This is far from a new idea. "Paleo-libertarians" like Lew Rockwell advocated much the same thing for many years. But it remains as wrong as ever. Nationalism is deeply antithetical to libertarianism, and liberal values more generally. An ideology based on liberty, free markets, and universal human rights can't be squared with one based on collectivism, ethnic particularism, and government control over much of the economy. Cato Institute scholar Alex Nowrasteh and I elaborated on this in greater detail in "The Case Against Nationalism," published in National Affairs earlier this year. Here is an excerpt from the introduction:

Nationalism has become a dominant ideology on the American political right and has gained ground in many European countries over the last decade. This has happened without sufficient attention to the dangers inherent in nationalism — dangers evident in theory and in practice in this latest iteration of nationalism as well as prior ones.

Nationalism is particularly dangerous in a diverse nation like the United States, where it is likely to exacerbate conflict. The ideology is virtually impossible to separate from harmful ethnic and racial discrimination of a kind conservatives would readily condemn in other contexts. Like socialism, with which it has important similarities, nationalism encourages harmful government control over the economy. Nationalism also poses a threat to democratic institutions. Finally, nationalist ideology is at odds with America's foundational principles, which are based on universal natural rights, not ethnic particularism.

In crucial ways, nationalism is just socialism with different flags and more ethnic chauvinism. All Americans, but especially traditional conservatives, classical liberals, and libertarians, should recognize nationalism's dangers and recommit instead to the core principles of our founding.

Eric Boehm of Reason offers an additional critique of Ramaswamy's idea:

There are many factions of libertarians, of course, but the one belief that unites the movement is an understanding that individuals are best suited to make their own decisions about how to live. Nationalism, at its root, is a fundamentally collectivist idea that prioritizes the needs of the state over the choices of individuals…

The current wave of nationalism sweeping the right wing of American politics is not about innocent-sounding things like restoring national pride. Its proponents are quite open about the fact that they want to grow the power of the state to pursue things like industrial policy, aggressive deportations, and even very silly stuff like banning lab-grown meat.

That puts the two perspectives very much in tension. In practice, libertarians advocate for decreasing the power of the state to control individual freedom. Nationalists have no qualms about limiting the free movement of people or goods if those restrictions are seen to be—or imagined to be—in the amorphous interests of the country.

Admittedly, "nationalism" and "libertarianism" are relatively vague terms that different people use in different ways. It is theoretically possible to imagine a movement that calls itself nationalist, but actually promotes liberty. But, as Alex Nowrasteh and I explain, that isn't what either today's "national conservatives" or any historically significant nationalist movement advocate.

Similarly, there are certainly people who call themselves "libertarian," but are actually right-wing culture warriors highly sympathetic to nationalism. Sadly, most of the current leadership of the Libertarian Party is like that. But in so far as libertarianism is about free markets and individual liberty, it can't be squared with nationalism, as that ideology is generally understood by the vast majority of its advocates.

There are, obviously, historical examples of alliances between groups with widely disparate ideologies. The World War II alliance between the Soviet Union and the Western allies is an obvious example. For a brief time, they could cooperate because they had a common enemy they feared and hated even more than each other (though that happened only after the Soviets' attempt to instead form an alliance with the Nazis failed, when Hitler decided to attack them).

But there is no comparable basis for an alliance between libertarians and nationalists. In this era, nationalists are themselves the biggest menace to liberty in most Western nations, including the United States. They favor as much or more government spending and government control of industry as most left-liberals do. And, they throw in protectionism, massive immigration restrictions (which themselves are a grave threat to the economic liberty even of natives), and culture war-driven regulations of personal behavior on top of that. On the latter front, they go so far as to advocate escalating the already awful War on Drugs into a real war by attacking Mexico. For these reasons and more, a libertarian-nationalist alliance makes no more sense than a libertarian-socialist alliance would.

One can occasionally find specific narrow issues where libertarian and right-wing nationalist views align; the same is true with libertarians and leftists. For example, both libertarians and nationalists oppose government-imposed racial preferences for minorities (though most nationalists abandon color-blindness when it comes to such issues as racial profiling and immigration). But there is no basis for any wide-ranging alliance.