The global, liberal elite are increasingly transcending any lingering commitment to patriotism and national identity, setting them on a collision course with the small-c conservative majority
Michael Lind has an unmissable essay in the National Review this week, entitled “The Open-Borders ‘Liberaltarianism’ of the New Urban Elite“, which manages to explain so much about the rise of Donald Trump and the growing inability of political elites in America and Britain to speak to whole swathes of the country they supposedly control.
The crux of Lind’s argument seems to be that the educated, liberal (to use American parlance) inhabitants of the large cities have increasingly taken on what were always fringe libertarian ideas about open borders and the irrelevance or undesirability of the nation state, leading them to pursue policies and espouse values which alienate the more suburban and rural population.
To date, the public conversation on both sides of the Atlantic has been dominated almost entirely by the elite inhabitants of Densitaria, interrupted only by occasional populist revolts such as the Trump phenomenon or the Brexit vote. In a relatively short period of time, a new elite ideology has emerged that contrasts the dynamic, multicultural, libertarian city-state with the allegedly anachronistic and immoral nation-state. This ascendant worldview unites the open-borders economics and cosmopolitan, utilitarian morality of old-fashioned libertarianism with an idealization of the largest cities and their denizens.
In the 1970s and 1980s, libertarians made all of the major arguments heard from globalists since the 1990s: Favoring citizens over foreign nationals is the equivalent of racism; national borders impeding the free flow of labor and goods are both immoral and inefficient; the goal of trade and immigration policy should not be the relative security or relative wealth of particular countries, but the absolute economic well-being of all human beings.
Until the 1990s, this was an eccentric minority perspective in the U.S. and other democracies, encountered only in small-circulation libertarian journals or in the work of the occasional unworldly academic theorist of cosmopolitan ethics. But in the 2000s, as affluent whites from the professional class and their Latino, immigrant, and black allies displaced working-class whites as the base of the Democratic party, the traditional labor-liberal opposition to low-wage immigration and offshoring of industry was replaced by a new open-borders progressivism distinguishable from traditional libertarianism only by its unworkable combination of support for unrestricted immigration with a generous national welfare state.
This certainly accounts for one of the main reasons behind the Labour Party’s civil war in Britain – from the Blair era onward, Labour has been entirely captured by the open-borders progressives and increasingly turned its back on its former working class voter base. Even under the current Labour leadership election, both candidates hold open borders convictions to their core, even if only Owen Smith is stupid enough to rant about overturning the EU referendum result in public.
It also accounts for the increasing public rage (among non-progressives) about immigration in America, where the Democrats are proud and unrepentant in their support for illegal immigration while the Republicans have talked a tough talk for decades yet done nothing, precisely because the Republican political elites benefit from the current immigration status quo as much as anyone. Enter Donald Trump to an arena where nobody else is even seriously talking about the impact of mass immigration on wages and cultural cohesion, and one cannot be surprised when his crude, simplistic solutions gain political traction.
The combination of open-borders “liberaltarianism” and trendy urbanist hype might lead one to wonder whether leagues of dynamic city-states should replace moribund modern nation-states. Benjamin Barber has published a book titled If Mayors Ruled the World: Dysfunctional Nations, Rising Cities. Barber is one of the founders of the Global Parliament of Mayors, which, according to his website, can help “fill the void left by nation states who [sic] are increasingly dysfunctional.” The economist Paul Romer has proposed boosting Third World development by means of semi-autonomous “charter cities,” which to his critics look remarkably like Western colonial enclaves.
Not even Barber and Romer propose actual urban independence. While cities may teach one another best practices, there is not the slightest chance that leading American cities will secede from the United States, link up with other city-states around the world, and form a new, global version of the Hanseatic League or the Delian League.
We saw the same loose talk after the EU referendum vote, with many Londoners (most of whom have no conception of what the EU really is or how it works) furious at having part of their cosmopolitan identity ripped away from them (as they see it) suggesting that London should somehow secede from the rest of the “backward” United Kingdom and become its own independent city state.
Of course this would never actually happen, but it shows just how disconnected the metropolitan elites are becoming from the country as a whole, and the sheer contempt with which they regard other regions which dared to express their patriotism and belief in self-determination by voting for Brexit. It is also misplaced arrogance of the worst sort – the lights would go out and people would begin to starve in London within days were it not for the arterial links of people and goods from the supposedly terrible and backward rural and suburban regions.
And it is this continual feeling of disrespect, I think, which does so much to drive populist insurgencies like the rise of Donald Trump, and (if I am honest) even those populist causes that I actually agree with, like Brexit. People in the industrial and commuter heartlands, as well as rural folk, are getting increasingly sick of being told that they are too backward, too intolerant, too racist, that their own priorities and concerns do not matter and that they should be led in all regards by an urban elite who don’t even seem terribly attached to the country that gives them life and liberty, and who find the slightest display of national pride or patriotism almost painfully embarrassing.
I’m fortunate. I got into a good university and managed to embark on a career which has seen me work in numerous countries across three continents. But if this had not been the case – if, like many of my peers, an international business career was either never on the cards or simply not what I wanted to do – then I would probably be quite put out by people whose interest and commitment to any one country seems transitory at best telling me what I should think about immigration, global governance and democracy.
Now living in remain-voting West Hampstead, I am surrounded by the kind of people who are aghast at the Brexit vote and who consider it a calamity brought down upon the heads by the kind of ignorant, unwashed oiks whom they would never normally speak to unless they were fixing their car or serving them a burger. I can see how it must grate with Middle England, because it grates with me.
Lind goes on to touch on this point:
What appears to be a debate among globalists and nationalists, then, is really a debate about the structure of the 21st-century nation-state. There are real dangers associated with the coalescing elite ideology of post-national globalism or, to be precise, national-elite pseudo-globalism.
One danger is groupthink resulting from the attempt by the new globalists to equate even enlightened and civic nationalism with racism. When the economist Larry Summers, nobody’s idea of a pitchfork-waving populist, tentatively called for “responsible nationalism,” he was criticized by The Economist, whose open-borders libertarianism, once eccentric, has become near-orthodoxy among the trans-Atlantic elite.
And closes with this stark warning:
The most significant threat is the possibility that the abandonment of national patriotism by many elite citizens of the nation-state for make-believe cosmopolitanism will weaken national unity, to the benefit of sub-national racism, ethnocentrism, and regionalism. The loyalties that succeed national solidarity are likely to be narrower, not broader. If history is any guide, the victims of tribalism and illiberal populism are likely to include would-be citizens of the world who despise the nation-states that make possible not only their wealth but also their security.
Absolutely. This blog has been banging on for years about the continued importance of the nation state as the final guarantor of most of our most precious rights and freedoms. But the nation state is also, in the democratic age, a relatively harmless way of allowing people to feel and express a sense of belonging and community pride without tipping over into other, much darker expressions of identity.
Those weepy europhiles mourning Britain’s imminent departure from the EU because they consider themselves “European citizens” might want to pause and think through the consequences of further undermining the nation state, which is the primary aim of their beloved project. Because enlightened, one-world government is a few centuries away yet, and whatever crops up to replace the nation state that they so eagerly undermine will likely be unpleasant, even violent.
And while it may not be purely libertarian, this blog would much rather live in a world of moderate, familiar nationalist rivalry than descend into the known horrors of ethnic or religious sectarianism. We already see the early fruits of this blinkered commitment to “multiculturalism” in self-segregated and un-policed communities here in Britain among certain immigrant populations. We don’t need to extend those delights to the entire population.
What is the solution? Michael Lind does not offer one, and this blog does not see an easy fix either. But when global elites (Davos Man and the like) and the next tier down (those with international lives and careers) have more in common with each other than with those of other socio-economic groups and communities in their own countries, it is a recipe for political alienation and the eventual fracturing of our civic life.
To avoid disaster and a true crisis of democracy, our ruling elites in the political and commercial sphere must somehow learn to be patriotic again – for if the nation state has no champions it will go on being relentlessly undermined on all fronts. But right now there is little evidence that they are remotely interested in bridging the growing chasm between their own interests and those of the people they supposedly “serve”.
This leaves the field wide open for the likes of Donald Trump and UKIP 3.0 to make inroads with voters left cold by the other options available to them. And the time may soon come when the political elites sorely regret ceding this territory.
Bottom Image: Stefan Molyneux, Globalism versus Culture
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A genuinely libertarian polity would combine open borders with a number of other features that would deter or protect against hostile intruders. There would be no welfare state, so immigrants would have to get a job or rely on the assistance of private charities that would not be sympathetic to spongers. This would promote integration and deter any potential immigrants who were only looking for an easy ride. There would be complete freedom of speech and freedom of association, so immigrants who were hostile to the local culture would face vocal criticism and would find that few people were willing to do business with them in any way. There would be a right to bear arms and a willingness to defend one’s life and property by any means necessary. Any acts of violence or aggression from hostile incomers would meet with an immediate response from the existing population. This society would be able to survive without border controls because it had defence in depth and an “ornery” culture in which people took a pride in their strength and independence.
Therefore the belief system that Lind describes as “liberaltarianism” does not represent anything like a genuinely libertarian position. Nor is it a liberal society in the proper sense of the word, because it is one in which a small elite decide what is best for everyone else and take it for granted that the ignorant peasants don’t know what is best for them. It is a system in which the elite selectively adopt parts of the language of libertarianism, liberalism and socialism as a cover for the pursuit of their own interests. So I agree that Lind is describing a real and important phenomenon, but I think that he puts too much emphasis on the influence of libertarian thinking when it is really a case of these ideas being co-opted by the powerful for entirely selfish reasons.
It is an aristocratic system in which the clerisy arrange the rest of society for their own convenience and cast anathema on anybody who doubts their fitness to rule. But since it is driven by the short-term interests of an elite class it does not have a coherent structure that is capable of resisting internal or external threats. It combines open borders with a generous welfare system and a mushy idea of multiculturalism that discourages integration. It is hostile to free speech and free association because the elite assume that the masses cannot be trusted to make decisions for themselves. It opposes the right to bear arms because the patricians fear the plebs. It’s a system in which the elite remove the traditional defence mechanisms of a nation-state with a defended perimeter and also disable the decentralised defence mechanisms of a truly libertarian society.
It is a fundamentally unstable system so the question is not whether it will be overthrown but by whom and with what degree of violence.
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Thanks for this perspective… On reflection, I’m inclined to agree. Though on a superficial level the parallels Lind draws with libertarianism seem to stand up, when you dig deeper (as you did so well) then it becomes clearer that he is comparing against a kind of two-dimensional strawman libertarianism. As you say, the real deal (with its total commitment to freedom of expression and self defence) could itself be an effective check and balance against overly high levels of net migration.
I quite agree with your diagnosis of the “liberaltarian” society we live in – which is neither liberal nor libertarian – and am inclined to your pessimistic view as to the eventual, inevitable outcome.
“and one cannot be surprised when his crude, simplistic solutions gain political traction”
Has someone got some sophisticated, complex solutions to this problem? I wish they’d tell us what they are…
When the Western world succumbed to the idea of universal suffrage, the way was paved to irresponsible left wing governments to come to power on promises to look after everyone from cradle to grave no matter what they did with their lives. We have to start looking at the fundamental faults in our democracy if we are to have a chance of reversing Western decline:
“Universal Suffrage Was A Mistake”
“Universal Suffrage – Alternatives”
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Interesting pieces on voting rights and universal suffrage, thanks for sharing. While in some respects you go much further than I would, I have also toyed with the idea of raising the voting age to 21 (based on an idea posited by Glenn Reynolds in the wake of some or other college social justice protest):
I too would resist any efforts to grant prisoners the vote, but would restore voting rights as soon as the sentence is served. I find the system in some US states where voting rights are lost permanently to be greatly excessive.
When it comes to welfare recipients I’d have to disagree with you. While the problem you identify of one party (the welfare party) effectively creating a client set of voters and distorting our democracy – something evident in the way Gordon Brown ran the Treasury and 10 Downing Street – I think the “medicine” of disenfranchisement is harsher than the ailment. The moment that one puts the first dent in universal suffrage by applying conditions or restrictions, we end up on the famous slippery slope. Especially in a country like Britain with no written constitution, if we move away from universal suffrage what is to stop future governments from placing restrictions based on wealth, property ownership, IQ, political “awareness” (as you hinted at), race, gender or the contents of one’s Twitter stream? I am more concerned that authoritarian British politicians would abuse this precedent than I am that Labour effectively buys votes by ratcheting up the welfare state, but I can see how others would come to the opposite conclusion.
Well your concern about the slippery slope is shared by those who would give prisoners the vote, so we could argue that we’re already on such a slippery slope :-). The age limitation of 21 would meet the same resistance as well, as people can be working full time for years before that age. By instead taking the vote away from those fully dependent on the state (including students) the line would at least be clear-cut, of course yes only as long as they are so dependent however.
Interestingly back in 1909 William Beveridge apparently advocated something similar to what I propose but went much further:
“He argued in 1909 that ‘those men who through general defects are unable to fill such a whole place in industry, are to be recognised as “unemployable”. They must become the acknowledged dependents of the State… but with complete and permanent loss of all citizen rights — including not only the franchise but civil freedom and fatherhood.’”
From this Spectator article:
This article shows how much our thinking today is clouded by the fallout from twentieth century eugenics programs and the Nazis. Its time for a more rational debate. We need to study the problem of long term unemployment in detail.
Of course another way forward, perhaps the better way, would be to get the economy thriving through reducing red-tape and then force people off welfare through benefit time limits – sanctions already exist but do not seem to be enforced consistently. If the numbers of people on welfare were small enough it wouldn’t really matter if they had the vote. Nothing changes attitudes like that large sum of money being taken away from your hard earned income.
What we are ignoring at our great peril is the fact that whole generations are born in the welfare state today. We are storing great problems for the future. We are £1,500,000,000,000 in debt, around £75,000 per tax payer, according to my very rough calculations.