The Deficiencies of a National Object

Brian Brown: National goals are precisely what keep people feeling lost and apathetic.

Zachary Crippen’s article yesterday made a case for the value of national goals. As it happens, I’m currently reading Eric Hoffer’s “The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements,” and just on Sunday I was sitting in Starbucks reading Hoffer break down why national goals are appealing to certain people. (For more on Hoffer, read Bryan Wandel’s look from a couple years ago.) So since I was all warmed up, I thought I’d add some thoughts, because I disagree with Mr. Crippen’s argument.

Let me first acknowledge a few things. First, Mr. Crippen’s case for national goals was a qualified case. He acknowledged the tendency of America’s national goals (at least in practice) to foster bigger, more expensive, and more intrusive government programs. Second, he pointed out that national goals tend to lead to great advances in technology. I’ve had the privilege of attending the Space Foundation’s annual conference a couple times, so I won’t dispute the excitement of private companies pursuing incredible technologies thanks to Kennedy’s starting gun.

What I’m most interested in are Mr. Crippen’s first and last points:

“What followed wasn’t simply characterized as a “Space Endeavor;” it was a “Space Race” because we had to beat the Soviets.” …

“But perhaps the strongest reason to possess and gloriously pursue a national object is one that is not yet obvious in retrospect: the pursuit of a national object gives us confidence and pride in our own abilities. Every American watching that live broadcast of the lunar landing felt proud to be an American. Everyone who had a hand in making it happen found the inconceivable to be possible. The goal did indeed “organize the best of our energies and skills,” and we were all the better for it.”

Crippen accurately points out that, when we’re talking about peacetime goals, we pretty much have to be competing with somebody in order to get the people excited. That’s why most people yawned (even if they approved) when President Obama tried to get them excited about alternative energy, and why they’ve sooner or later done the same with every major national project or national service program since the institutionalization of administrative government in the New Deal (after which, as the University of Virginia’s Sid Milkis has demonstrated, voter turnout declined sharply and never recovered). The “moral equivalent of war” only works when there’s a bad guy; when we’re defining ourselves in opposition to somebody.

And that’s nationalism, not patriotism. It doesn’t just happen to lead to the centralized state, it requires it. The Germans developed it in the 19th century, the Americans borrowed it a few years later, and it’s always led to public apathy when the latest national goal has faded.

But this leads to Mr. Crippen’s second point, which is that we need the pursuit of a national object to give us pride in our own abilities. I would qualify that statement: pride in our collective abilities. Only in a centralized state, where we have (or think we have) little power over our circumstances, does this matter (read on).

But what about a state in which people do think they have control over their circumstances? One in which entrepreneurs thrive, as they had in America for centuries before anybody decided we needed a government-set National Object? In which people are largely satisfied with their lives? In which people, full of self-confidence, invent new things and try new ideas; not in the irrevocable all-or-nothing sphere of The Nation but in the many “laboratories of democracy” in cities and states across the country? Does a country like that need a National Object?

Hoffer argues no. He thinks that mass ideologies appeal precisely to the kind of people in the Centralized State, who see their lives as “irredeemably spoiled” through the fault of a system that’s too big for them, and need causes or leaders to inspire “hope and change.” He writes:

“Faith in a holy cause is to a considerable extent a substitute for the lost faith in ourselves. The less justified a man is in claiming excellence for his own self, the more ready he is to claim all excellence for his nation, his religion, his race or his holy cause. A man is likely to mind his own business when it is worth minding. When it is not, he takes his mind off his own meaningless affairs by minding other people’s business. …One of the most potent attractions of a mass movement is its offering of a substitute for individual hope.” [emphasis added]

Mr. Crippen cites Niall Ferguson, who argues that competition, work, and consumption are what once put the West ahead. Regardless of their positions on “big” or “small” government, on the welfare state, or on “free markets,” I think most people would agree that a world where people (accurately) felt they had some control over their immediate environment; and had a sense of hope that motivated them to work hard, try new things, and help those less fortunate…well, that would be a better world. This is what Ferguson, and Mr. Crippen, thinks we need to rediscover. But as Hoffer keenly observes, a national object is precisely the kind of thing that stunts this kind of development on a broad scale, by allowing people to leech onto the national hope rather than gain a sense of their own (either as individuals or “little platoons”).

If you want to see what happens to people who choose that route, talk to the poor people who voted for Obama in 2008 thinking their lives would never be the same.

1 Comment

  • April 23, 2012

    Jay-Michael Baker

    Mr Brown, I agree with your argument about national goals. But I would qualify that there is a level of absurdity in a goal that serves as a tipping point that cannot be achieved merely by entrepreneurship and the spirit of a free people. I’m not arguing for a national goal, but certain unique situations, like Kennedy’s weighty goal of landing a man on the moon and returning him home safely by the end of the decade, are so absurd, that they need the budget and centralized leadership of a nation to achieve. Simply the free pursuit of individuals or individual companies would not and probably could not have achieved such a feat in the same timeframe as was achieved by the orchestrated effort led by the federal government of the United States. I would simply say the Space Race was a unique situation in American history, and an anomaly in the concept of national goals that feats requiring similar national “thrust,” will never be repeated. Like you, I have attended several Space Foundation annual conferences. I have had the opportunity to meet Apollo astronauts, NASA administrators, and shuttle commanders. I have read about the experiences of space pioneers as they achieved the near impossible, and I cannot believe that it is not an ingrained part of human nature to explore, push our limits, and seek to understand the unknown. Personally, I am grateful for the effort and achievements of that particular anomaly in American history, because it has served as a base of creativity, imagination, and inspiration for my own personal goals. Not to mention, I can fry an egg without it sticking, thanks to Teflon.