This article from the Summer 2019 edition of the IPA Review is by Director of Research Daniel Wild and IPA Research Fellows Zachary Gorman and Andrew Bushnell. It is an edited extract from ‘Australian Values and The Enduring Importance of the Nation-State’, a research report prepared for the Senate Inquiry.
If Donald Trump has achieved nothing else, he has at least made the terms of politics more honest. In calling for a wall to be built on the United States’ southern border, and in adopting an aggressive America First foreign and trade policy, Trump has exposed a widening rift between those who benefit from globalisation and those who do not. For one group, the nation-state is nothing more than a barrier to progress and justice; for the other, the nation-state is a home and a source of meaning. The two visions are irreconcilable.
The dispute, of course, is bigger than Trump. All the countries of the developed world, and a few more besides, have been affected in some way by the question of how much global integration is too much. The British vote to leave the European Union (‘Brexit’) is often paired with the election of Trump. While these two events were landmarks, it is not true that politics suddenly changed in 2016 when they both happened.
To put these events in context, the surrounding years saw: the establishment of non-liberal governments in European Union member states Hungary (since 2010), Poland (since 2015), and as part of a coalition, until recently, in Group of Seven member state Italy; the greater assertiveness of Japan under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (in office since 2012); and the 2018 election of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil. This environment also helped our centre-right government hold onto power this year, and the same factors will determine whether Scott Morrison succeeds or fails.
What unites these events is a growing realisation that global governance, supranational entities, and large trading blocs sit uncomfortably with the traditional understanding of national identity and its expression in the sovereign state.
Though it would have been unthinkable even a generation ago—amid the flag-waving for Ronald Reagan’s Cold War victory, German reunification, and, here at home, the celebration of Australia’s bicentenary— global politics is now centred on the question of whether the nation-state can or should survive. This has become the signature issue of our time. It goes by various names: populism, nationalism, polarisation. It is present in every political debate, from congested roads to economic competitiveness and red tape to education policy and, naturally, immigration. If we are to address these issues, we need to first remind ourselves of the value of the nation-state, how Australia came to be the nation-state that it is, and the shared national values that have made our country great.
The old saying you should always bet on selfinterest is perhaps even more apt in politics than anywhere else, and so the political class, the target of the angst spun up by global integration, has started to notice the unrest.
In July, the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee announced its ‘Inquiry into Nationhood, National Identity, and Democracy’. The wide-ranging terms of reference include “the changing notions of nationhood”, “the rights and obligations of citizenship”, “globalisation and economic interdependence”, and how to “balance domestic imperatives and sovereignty”. The committee’s short discussion paper motivates the inquiry by reference to “a growing sense that democracy is under threat”. Accordingly, the paper’s main concern is that “the weight of political opinion has shifted away from the political centre”.
It is, however, unclear whether this phenomenon is bad in-and-of-itself. If the political centre, such as it is, represents an equilibrium that no longer serves the interest of constituents, it would be quite sensible for people to seek a new consensus.
And indeed, the discussion paper goes on to outline a number of ways voters around the world have deemed the political centre to have failed. We are told that British vote to leave the European Union was a product of “increasing political divisions in society”, that the proposed constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians “touches on questions of democracy and national identity”, that the size of government is related to a “weakening in the fabric of civil society”, that there is also a weakening “commitment as a culture to fundamental freedoms”, and that “some hold concerns about declining levels of civic engagement”. If some or all of these phenomena are real, then the political centre should not hold.
Across the events of recent years, we can see a broad trend, with three key ideas about the nation-state having become points of contention in politics around the world—and especially in the West:
- National identity: the fellow feeling among a group of people who share values, institutions, and, usually, a home.
- Popular sovereignty: the self-governance of a people, who may or may not all be co-nationals, in a particular place.
- Democratic accountability: the institutions that connect the rulers of a place to those they rule.
These concepts are distinguishable, but connected and mutually reinforcing. The national identity motivates the desire for popular sovereignty, and the exercise of sovereignty by representatives of the people gives rise to the demand for accountability, in the sense that the actions of the rulers ought to be explicable in terms of the values and commonsense understandings of the people. Conversely, through the mechanisms established to make representatives accountable, and through their exercises of sovereignty, the national identity is reinforced and developed.
What we have seen in politics in recent years is a response to this structure becoming destabilised. Around the world, people have lost faith in the ability of their societies’ institutions to faithfully represent their interests, as defined by their national cultures. Moreover, there is a growing suspicion that these interests are being actively discarded by a ruling elite that does not see any need to account for its decisions to people in terms they can understand.
Instead, the ruling class has taken it upon itself to remake the national culture and identity so that it is, allegedly, more just and inclusive. But such a project necessarily disrupts the relationship between the state and the nation, between rulers and ruled, since it substitutes the beliefs and interests of the former for the inherited ways of life of the latter. Populism in politics should therefore be seen as a reassertion of the traditional balance of power within the nation-state.
In Brexit, the Abe administration, and the USChina trade war, we also see the effect of the resurgence of the nation-state on international affairs. This is a response to perceived encroachments on states’ ability to pursue their interests by international institutions, changing geopolitical realities, and economic globalisation. It is important to note these concerns are contiguous with domestic concerns about the disestablishment of national identity and the weakening of popular sovereignty and democratic accountability. The ability of the governments of nation-states to respond to the needs and desires of their populations is, or can be, constrained by the nation-state’s involvement in international institutions and by a weakened position in international affairs. For example, to the extent that the priorities of the European Union conflict with the British government being able to satisfy popular policy preferences regarding, say, immigration, then Brexit is to that same extent perfectly reasonable, all else being equal. Similarly, if the global system of trade agreements reduces the US government’s ability to enable good lives among its middle and working classes, the trade war with China is a reasonable extension of the Trump administration’s populism.
The disruption of domestic politics caused by the inattentiveness of governments to the complex basis of their legitimacy—namely the expression of national identity through shared institutions and values—therefore has international effects, and these effects in turn play into the domestic politics of other nation-states. This is why cooperation between populists in different countries is not contradictory—all have a shared interest in a new modus vivendi that reestablishes the nation-state as the primary actor in international affairs. And all of these cases from around the world, individually and collectively, make plain that post-Cold War hopes of the emerging universality of liberal democratic government were at least misplaced, and, more likely, unfounded. We did not reach the end of history—and we will not, because history is not an arc bending anywhere but just the sum of all the things people have done. We remain free to choose the future for ourselves and our country.
Nation-states have reasserted their autonomy, even as their interests have seemingly become more integrated through supranational institutions and the globalisation of the economy. This suggests the nation-state remains valuable to individuals and peoples, and the future of democratic government will depend on the recognition and preservation of this value.
In the literature on national identity, one prominent theme is the instrumental value that a shared national identity has for individual rights and democracy. Edmund Burke’s point that natural rights become real only within the context of a sovereign state is echoed in the observations of Alexis de Tocqueville about the importance of community for motivating the individual to look beyond his own interest, and in Hannah Arendt’s discussion of how being stateless is to be without rights. The national identity provides a proxy for trust; it communicates who is likely to share fundamental values and habits, and so can be trusted with the autonomy created by the recognition of rights and the exercise of political power. National identity enables power sharing across society by tying people together in a way that is prior to their political engagement.
It is a mistake, though, to limit the value of national identity to only this instrumental role. Doing so implies that were individual rights and democracy and the other goods that in fact have usually ever existed within the nation-state to somehow become available to us without nationality, we would lose nothing by the elimination of national identity. But this is not how people feel about their nations. We need then to recognise that the national identity is itself intrinsically valuable.
This means that having a national identity is good for people in and of itself, and not just because it enables the attainment of other goods. Having a stable national identity that connects you to other people and the place you and they call home is good, not just because that connection gives you the opportunity to better your own circumstances but because, as in the well-known quote from Aristotle, “man is by nature a political animal”, meaning our definition of human flourishing, and our flourishing in fact, depends on our situation within a community of other individuals. This notion descends to us via Burke’s observation that artificial society is man’s natural environment. In our present age, the nationstate gives expression to our nature and talent for political organisation.
The importance of national identity to the proper administration of states and the lives of their citizens can easily be confused with the idea of nationalism. Nationalism is relatively uncontroversial when used to refer to the idea that people are better off if the world is a collection of sovereign nation-states, rather than if they are subject to imperial or even global jurisdictions. However, nationalism is more problematic when it refers to the idea that because the national identity is valuable, the state ought to try to maximise this value.
We have good reason to reject this project, which the philosopher Roger Scruton describes as a “pathology” of national identity. One on hand, there is a kind of progressive nationalism that views the national identity as merely functional towards the goals of whatever ideology is seeking to exploit state power. The national identity is considered to be “imagined” and therefore changeable over time. This is, for example, the view of liberal nationalists who argue for a civic national identity—one tied to mutual participation in shared institutions and therefore shaped by the deliberations of citizens.
On the other hand, by contrast, there is a kind of exclusive nationalism that emphasises the control of the state apparatus by members of a pre-political nation. In much the same way that progressive nationalism seeks to involve everyone in a democratic project of nation-building, exclusive nationalism subordinates the private interests of members and non-members alike to the expression of national interests through the state. This emphasis on the intrinsic value of the national identity reduces its instrumental value by permanently excluding some people from the full enjoyment of various institutions, including individual rights.
Rather than adopting either of these sorts of nationalism, we ought to recognise both ways in which the national identity is valuable. We do this by accepting the national identity as part of the background of everyday life. The national identity is not founded on today’s political involvement or on unbreakable ethnic ties, but on history, place, and custom.
It is patterns of life developed over time and suited to a place and the people who live there. A conservative or traditionalist view of the national identity enables enjoyment of the activities and spaces that actually constitute the national identity without involving individuals in outsized political projects. On this view, the various beneficial institutions of the nation-state, including and especially our fundamental freedoms, are particular products of trial and error over many years, and their adaptiveness to popular needs is evinced by their longevity.
Australia became a nation through an extraordinary act of popular sovereignty. Federation had initially been an example of top-down politics. Henry Parkes was famously prompted to launch his campaign for Federation by the goading of the Governor Lord Carrington. The federal meetings of 1890 and 1891 likewise involved delegates appointed by the various colonial governments with little democratic oversight. The draft constitution that emerged from this process was attacked for being insufficiently democratic and failed to pass the New South Wales Legislative Assembly. In response to this failure, a second round of conventions was organised on the democratic model proposed by John Quick, involving 10 delegates from each colony directly elected by the people. Once these delegates had finished drafting an updated constitution it was then subject to referendums of approval in each of Australia’s six colonies.
The constitution set up our fundamental political framework: parliamentary democracy, responsible government, bicameralism, a governor-general with reserve powers, a commonwealth government with restricted powers, and states with residual authority over everything else. But it also built on the existing and successful colonial democracies. Foundations such as the rule of law, freedom of the press and a bustling civic culture had already been established as part of our British cultural inheritance and through the political battles of the 19th century.
However, the notion of popular sovereignty is broader than how political power is wielded. It refers to the connection between the national identity and the institutions which provide structure to people’s lives. Institutions should be invested with the values and customs of the people, as this creates the bonds of trust necessary for civil peace. If the Australian people are losing faith in their institutions—as the Senate’s discussion paper suggests—this is likely because they are noting the various ways in which those institutions are failing to recognise the values and needs of Australians, and the shared Australian identity.
The underlying problem is that the particular attachments of people to each other, to places, and to shared values and ways of life have been devalued. Instead of recognising the special duties that we owe to our families, to our friends and colleagues, and to our communities, government has increasingly encouraged a flattening, and deadening, standardisation of relationships. From interference with the freedom of religious organisations and other civil society organisations, through the bizarre prominence of aggregate ‘identities’ in our politics, to the regular exhortation to act as a ‘citizen of the world’ that accompanies discussion of issues such as climate change, what gets lost is the necessary situation of individuals in contexts particular to themselves and how this bears upon what they can and should do.
At an even more basic level, the ability of people to set down roots and develop these attachments is being diminished by government policies that make it harder to get a job, buy a house, and start a family. It is almost as though governments around the world have become actively opposed to the formation of meaningful lives.
We need to rediscover the importance of home. The impediments to individuals making a home in the world and to the state properly expressing itself as the home of the nation are connected: individuals without homes become a people without a home, and they feel this loss keenly because it diminishes their autonomy and erases the values to which their autonomy might be directed. Scruton has written of ‘oikophobia’, an irrational fear of home that has overcome the West, described as “the disposition, in any conflict, to side with ‘them’ against ‘us’, and the felt need to denigrate the customs, culture and institutions that are identifiably ‘ours’.”
The recognition of Australia as a home for a particular people living their own particular lives helps us to understand the institutions through which sovereignty is exercised and which exist to make government accountable to the people. The Australian nation-state is founded on values, and expressed in institutions, particular to us as a people and to this place as our home. Among these institutions are our fundamental freedoms: the rights we have against the state and against one another to speak our minds, to found families and organisations, and to practice our religions. These are derived from our history as a colony of the United Kingdom and from the longer history of Western Civilisation, but adapted to our unique circumstances as a plural nation formed by successive waves of immigration built upon the ancient history of the land’s Indigenous people.
This is not to claim Australia’s history is perfect. Rather, it is to claim our values and institutions have proven ability to provide the opportunity for all Australians to live good lives. They stand not on the abstractions of theory, but on the historical success of our country and people.
The complexity and depth of our history has produced a political culture bound by particular values that are adaptive to the way we live and the aspirations we have for our families and communities. Among our values are freedom, egalitarianism, and localism. Australians are blessed to live in a country where we can pursue our own projects, governed by our peers, and with the chance to participate in the exercise of power. The values are manifest in our political institutions and in our customs, like mateship—a word suggesting friendship, loyalty, and an easy going nature with little time for pomp or class. Our values are simple ideas we aspire to live up to. At its best, Australian governments give expression to our values.
To meet the challenges identified by the Committee’s discussion paper, governments must begin by reestablishing what the Australian way of life is known to require: a democracy in which individuals have the opportunity to flourish, supported by institutions that create and sustain meaning, purpose, and dignity. This means reasserting our home as an asset-owning democracy, within which individuals have reason and incentive to pursue their interests to their own benefit and to that of their community and nation.
An asset-owning democracy is a society within which individuals have concrete moorings in the community: home ownership, work and enterprise, and the chance to save for the future. These pillars of the Australian way of life have been weakened by government interventions on both the supply and demand sides of the property market, by red tape that penalises entrepreneurship, and by punitive taxation of superannuation. It should not be controversial to say that in all things, Australian governments should advance the interests of Australians. This means remembering our values and recommitting to the institutions that help individuals realise them in their own lives. It means recognising the value of our national identity and history, and that in Australia, people flourish not merely as individuals, but as Australians.