I don’t usually respond to the writings of bloggers, but I’ll make an exception to this one. Alex Au’s article is arguably the worst one I’ve seen. Unusually for him, this article is based primarily on appeals to emotion, instead of actual research. His explanation on the origins of nationalism and the nation state, for example, are laughably superficial. He also conflates ‘people’, ‘nation’, ‘state’, and ‘us’. ‘Nation’ is a geopolitical entity, with defined borders and culture. ‘State’ is the institutions that run the nation. ‘People’ in this sense means the inhabitants of the nation. ‘Us’ is a generalisation. So is ‘we’. It’s sad that a man who criticises the government for merging ‘party’ with ‘nation’ and ‘state’ do the same thing. Most critically, he seems to have a mistaken understanding of the relationship between individuals and groups.
I think the common tendency to emphasise the individual over the group is sorely mistaken. I argue instead that both the group and the individual and interdependent. A ‘group’ in the social sense is not just a collection of individuals. A group is a collection of individuals, with common beliefs, behaviours, rules and identity. The relationship between the individual and the group is dynamic, not static. It is in constant flux, depending on the current situation. Both the individual and the group need each other. Their relationship is not a seesaw, or a coin. It’s a yin-yang.
Au wants to maximise individual well-being and happiness, arguing that this leads to collective happiness. This is a valid point, but how do you ensure wellbeing and happiness are truly maximised? Au seems to think the individual is capable of that, though it is not made explicit in his article. Sadly, he is mistaken.
Let’s consider organ donation. Organ donations are essential for the well-being of patients who need replacement organs, but those organs have to come from somewhere. Some people want to donate organs. Many are indifferent. Others disapprove for various reasons. How exactly do you maximise happiness here? The intuitive answer is to make organ donation voluntary. People can donate if they want to. However, this does not mean everyone who wants to donate organs will donate, or that people who are ambivalent will decide to donate too. In Nudge, Thaler and Sunstein describe the organ donation situations of Europe and America, and two key experiments involving consent and organ donation. The conclusion was that a presumed consent model, with the state assuming you will donate organs unless you opt out, tended to lead to higher rates of organ donation (roughly 16% more). Patients get their organs, nobody is harmed against their will, people who don’t want to donate organs are free to opt out, and the wishes of explicit organ donors are carried out. Here we have maximisation of individual and collective welfare, created by a law — i.e. a group rule. This sort of situation would not be possible in an environment that emphasises and maximises individuality, because it would require an explicit consent model and demand that the state keep out of matters of personal choice.
Rules, too, need to be enforced. Emphasising individual happiness cannot come at the cost of others’ happiness, and preventing this requires rules and the enforcement thereof. What makes a sociopathic rapist-murderer happy isn’t the same as what makes a pacifist happy, which isn’t what makes a militant eco-activist happy. Groups aren’t just individuals — they are people bound by a common set of rules and approved behaviours, and in the case of the average state, breaking said rules and doing unapproved actions tend to lead to harm. Think murder, sabotage of research laboratories, or terrorism. Think people dumping waste haphazardly, blocking other people, or making a nuisance of themselves.
How do you enforce these rules? How do you handle extraordinary threats that individuals cannot handle? That’s where the group comes in. Nations, specifically, raise police and military forces to face these threats. But for the security services to be effective, they need manpower, money, materiel, and cooperation from the public. This means recruitment campaigns, taxes, procurement programs, maybe laws to appropriate strategic materials in times of emergencies, and laws to ensure cooperation. All this comes from individuals, Au’s broadly-defined ‘people’. Without support from the individual, the group — nation, social group, whatever — simply cannot function, and therefore cannot support the individual. Without a group, the individual is subject to the depredations of other groups or individuals, and has no other recourse for protection or redress.
The people need the state for essential services. The state needs the people in order to deliver those services. This is the foundation of the social contract. Because the nature of ‘essential services’ depends on the order of the day, the relationship between the people and the state is in a dynamic state of flux. It’s less a seesaw or a coin, and more like a yin-yang. This relationship is defined by laws, which spells out an otherwise assumed social contract, which is subject to negotiation by both the people and the state. Emphasising the state or the citizen over the other is to assume that the relationship between the citizen and the state is forever cast in stone. That is an unnatural state of affairs, and leads to tragedy in the long run.
To be a member of a group, you must be willing and able to support it — or it won’t be able to support you. Being a citizen of a state, therefore, carries with it the duty of supporting the state to meet the needs of the nation. ‘Nation’, meaning the citizen and the state.
There is just one last point I want to highlight. Au quibbles with the term ‘for our nation’, wanting to replace it with ‘for us all’.
But what is the difference between ‘our nation’ and ‘us all’?