Nationalism keeps us all in equilibrium. It could be worse.

If international politics is a global Mexican standoff, being nervous is better than being dead.

August 15, 2019
By Anthony C. Patton

Globalists and nationalists around the world continue to lock horns over the best way forward. The rise of President Trump, Brexit, and other nationalist or anti-globalist movements (depending on your perspective) should not surprise anyone with a basic understanding of human nature and history. Contrary to what the globalists would have us believe, nationalism is not the enemy.
Nash equilibrium describes a stable state for a game or system in which players with competing strategies cannot gain by changing their own strategy unless the other players change as well. Consider a three-way Mexican standoff, with each person pointing revolvers at the other two. As long as no one shoots, the situation remains in Nash equilibrium. Each player prefers to get out alive, but making a false move or setting down the revolvers might result in death. They are trapped, which is why Nash equilibrium is usually suboptimal.
Globalists correctly describe our system of nation states as suboptimal Nash equilibrium, but they are wrong to conclude that the world would be a better place without nations or borders. Although globalists correctly recognize that the system is suboptimal — the three men could holster their revolvers and enjoy a shot of rye whiskey — they conveniently gloss over the fact that the situation could also be much worse — they could all die. Nash equilibrium prevents us from achieving an optimal system, but it also protects us from many worst-case scenarios.
Consider a corporation with strict rules and controls for handling money, such as requiring travel receipts. Bureaucratic rules and controls can be frustrating, but an even more frustrating scenario would be operating without them and facing bankruptcy or a loss of jobs. Likewise, as societies grow in size and complexity and strangers are forced to interact with each other, we have to create rules and controls to promote trust and cooperation. This merits repeating: rules and controls do not stifle trust and cooperation among strangers; they make these benefits possible.
In many ways, the political divide boils down to how we view Nash equilibrium. On the right, with more support for nationalism, bad conservatives worship tradition to the point of social ossification. Good conservatives keep us anchored to reality every careful step of the way, mindful that humans are not infinitely elastic. On the left, with more support for globalism, bad progressives with Utopian dreams dismiss tradition to the point of social chaos. Good progressives analyze society and identify areas for improvement, mindful that many people often have to be nudged beyond their comfort zones.

Nations are Nash equilibrium systems with rules and controls that are the result of centuries of social dialectic. They cannot turn on a dime. As a result, social progress is possible, but each stage is resistant to change. For example, it is difficult for us today to understand why the 13th Amendment caused so much friction, but it did. Conservatives understand that although leaping from 2G to 4G in mobile technology is possible, skipping the necessary steps from tribalism to modern democracy in one generation is not possible.
Conservatives focus on sustaining our Nash equilibrium system of institutions and traditions to avoid social decay, even at the expense of individual freedom. Progressives focus on unleashing individual freedom, even at the expense of institutions and traditions. Both goals are achievable, to a point, but the process has a natural end (consider Fukuyama's "End of History"), where a nation can no longer bear the high costs of the marginal gains for individuals.
The good news is that individual flourishing is possible in a Nash equilibrium system.
Globalists aspire to jettison nation-states, but this would require the creation of a global nation with Nash equilibrium rules and controls to regulate the behavior of everyone on the planet. Which system would we adopt? Who would decide? How would we handle enforcement? What would happen to the nations that opt out? In other words, globalism merely kicks the can down the road for the same challenges we face today, but on a much larger scale and with vastly different nations that might have no interest in changing the way they live.
The Nash equilibrium of each nation has an internal logic that reflects its own history, geography, language, and culture, which means that it is often better to decentralize power and move in the opposite direction of globalism. Nationalism will not save us from war or conflict, but it will save us from other scenarios, such as the potential chaos or tyranny of a one-world government. The stability of Nash equilibrium nationalism, combined with thoughtful international cooperation, offers the best hope for the future.

Anthony C. Patton studied mathematics and philosophy at Augsburg University and earned an MBA from Thunderbird School of Global Management.
Image: Martin SoulStealer via Flickr.

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