09 July 2009


The Objectivist
Why Do You Love Your Country?
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
July 7, 2009

July 4th saw the usual outpouring of flags and patriotism. Patriotism is the love and devotion to one’s own country. Americans are very patriotic. In one 1995-1997 survey, U.S. residents were the fourth most patriotic country.

Patriotism differs from love of one’s group. This love focuses on things such as the group’s shared ethnicity, religion, culture, history, etc. One can love his group even when it doesn’t have a country. Examples include the Kurds, Sioux, and Tutsis. There can also be countries that contain vastly different groups. Examples include multi-ethnic and religious countries such as the United States and Indonesia.

Nor should patriotism be confused with love of small groups. These might include one’s neighbors, childhood friends, or platoon members. In these cases one knows and cares about particular people. Patriotism is nothing like that.

It is worth considering whether Americans should be patriotic. The United States is better than most of the other countries. Its citizens are one of the richest. Its per capita income is usually ranked between 4th and 20th in the world, with the specific ranking depending on what is measured (nominal dollars or purchasing power) and who does the study (International Monetary Fund versus Central Intelligence Agency). It typically ranks behind small countries such as Luxembourg, Norway, and Singapore. Its citizens are also one of the happiest, ranking 15th on one study of how people view their own lives as going. On some accounts, it is also one of the freest. It ranks 6th on the Heritage Foundation’s index of economic freedom. It should be noted that this index has received significant criticism.

It should be noted that even if the United States is freer than some of its peers, it still is run by people who hate liberty and who trample on our founders’ vision. For example, every year the United States takes more than 40% of many people’s income. That is, for every five days someone works, the government at all levels takes everything he makes on Monday and Tuesday. In the U.S., we currently incarcerate 1% of the adult population and keep 3% of the population under control of the criminal justice system (incarcerated or under probation or parole). To put this in perspective, the U.S. has 25% of the world’s prisoners, despite having less than 5% of the world’s population, and imprisons people much more often than do our peers (5 times the rate of Britain, 9 times the rate of Germany, and 12 times the rate of Japan). Given these facts, no reasonable person could be patriotic based on his love of freedom.

Even if you are a big fan of the various nanny laws, such as ones concerning seatbelts, drinking age, marijuana, guns, cigarette and alcohol sin taxes, etc., the above tax and criminal-justice facts are still disturbing. In addition, the country’s fathers (for example, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin) would undoubtedly be disturbed by them.

Others claim that patriotism is not based on one’s country’s performance but rather on the fact that he has a special connection to it. On these other accounts, a citizen should love his own country regardless of whether it is the U.S. or Haiti, Iran, or Burundi. On this theory, patriotism doesn’t rest on how well one’s country stacks up against others. Rather, it should flow from gratitude, pride in the country’s history, or some other feature. The other feature might be that one’s nationality is central to his identity or the fact that his country is like an extended family.

None of these theories is very convincing. As philosopher Igor Primoratz points out, you owe gratitude to those who freely confer benefits on you. That is, you owe gratitude when someone gives you a gift. You need not be grateful to people who trade you certain things (for example, cable channels) for another (for example, money). The benefits that countries have given their citizens (for example, protection and roads) were paid for in full via taxes and citizens’ law-abiding behavior. You don’t owe your country gratitude any more than you owe your cable company gratitude.

History is even less of a ground for patriotism. Some governments have long and arguably glorious histories (for example, Britain and France). If patriotism rests on a country’s history, it has to be a good history, not just any history. But many governments have at best mixed histories (for example, various governments in China, Russia, Germany, and Cambodia were terrible) and others have a short and unimpressive history (for example, Zimbabwe). It is hard to understand why people in these latter cases should love their countries based on these histories. Even for countries with long and glorious histories, it is hard to know why previous good works should produce loyalty for a government that has lost its way. After all, the past is gone.

The notion that patriotism follows because one’s country is central to his identity is implausible. Central to a person’s identity might be his ethnicity, religion, or culture, but these are all distinct from his country. For example, the Romani (Gypsy) people are an ethnic group who take pride in their identity but lack a country. Even if this were not the case, merely because something is central to your identity does not mean you should love it or be devoted to it. For example, even if your identity is centrally linked to Maoist China, Third Reich, or Khmer Rouge, it’s still hard to understand why you should love those states, unless you’re in the funeral business. The same principle holds true for countries with mediocre governments.

A country is also nothing like an extended family. Families are constituted by people who are either closely genetically related to each other or who know and love each other and have a shared personal history. None of this is true of the millions of people who comprise modern nations. The talk of an extended family is a mysterious analogy and in any case not one that illuminates patriotism.

The July 4th style patriotism is a mistake. The United States is not a free enough country to warrant love or devotion. It is better than most, but that’s unimpressive. Patriotism also does not receive support from arguments based on gratitude, history, identity, or family. One might love the American people, but this is not patriotism. In any case, one can’t love the American people because one can’t love millions of people whom he has not and never will meet.


The Objectivist said...

Note resting patriotism in the U.S. on the basis of U.S. history is a mixed bag. This depends on whether you think the U.S.'s history is positive and, if so, how positive. Here are a few of the foreign policy factors.

Positives: arguably WWII, Korea (?), Vietnam (?), Cold War

Negatives: Indian Wars, WWI, Civil War (U.S. vs. the South)

I don't know whether the balance is good and, if so, how good.

The Objectivist said...

People might love their country like they love their ethnic group. ews love the Jewish people, Mexicans take pride in Mexican heritage, etc. The problem here is that it is hard to see why one person should take pride in what others have done. After all, he hasn't done anything to bring these accomplishments about.

Even if we waive this consideration, it is hard to see that all groups warrant pride. Couldn't some groups have been below average (Prairie Home Companion notwithstanding) and hence not warrant pride?

In any case, love or pride in one's group is not patriotism.

The Objectivist said...

The John McCain "Country First" and John Kerry "Reporting for Duty" underscores what a joke patriotism is when applied to politics. Both are clowns.