Mises Wire

Just Boundaries and National Self-Determination

What national boundaries can be considered as just? In the first place, it must be recognized that there are no just national boundaries per se; that real justice can only be founded on the property rights of individuals. If fifty people decided voluntarily to set up an organization for common services or self-defense of their persons and properties in a certain geographical area, then the boundaries of that association, based on the just property rights of the members, will also be just.

National boundaries are only just insofar as they are based on voluntary consent and the property rights of their members or citizens. Just national boundaries are, then, at best derivative and not primary: How much more is this true of existing State boundaries which are, in greater or lesser degree, based on coercive expropriation of private property; or on a mixture of that with voluntary consent! In practice, the way to have such national boundaries as just as possible is to preserve and cherish the right of secession, the right of different regions, groups, or ethnic nationalities to get the blazes out of the larger entity; to set up their own independent nation. Only by boldly asserting the right of secession can the concept of national self-determination be anything more than a sham and a hoax.

But wasn’t the Wilsonian attempt to impose national self-determination and draw the map of Europe a disaster? And how! But the disaster was inevitable even assuming (incorrectly) good will on the part of Wilson and the Allies and ignoring the fact that national self-determination was a mask for their imperial ambitions. For by its nature, national self-determination cannot be imposed from without, by a foreign government entity be it the United States or some world League.

The whole point of national self-determination is to get top-down coercive power out of the picture and, for the use of force to devolve from the larger entity to more genuine natural and voluntary national entities. In short, to devolve power from the top downward. Imposing national self-determination from the outside makes matters worse and more coercive than ever. Moreover, getting the U.S. or other governments involved in every ethnic conflict throughout the globe maximizes, rather than minimizes, coercion, conflict, war, and mass murder. It drags the United States, as the great isolationist scholar Charles A. Beard once put it, into “perpetual war for perpetual peace.”

Referring back to political theory; since the nation-state has a monopoly of force in its territorial area, the one thing it must not do is ever try to exercise its force beyond its area, where it has no monopoly; because then a relatively peaceful “international anarchy” (where each State confines its power to its own geographical boundary) is replaced by an international Hobbesian chaos of war of all (governments) against all. In short, given the existence of nation-states, they should (a) never exercise their power beyond their territorial area (a foreign policy of “isolationism”), and (b) maintain the right of secession of groups or entities within their territorial area.

The right of secession, if fearlessly upheld, implies also the right of one or more villages to secede even from its own ethnic nation, or, even, as Ludwig von Mises affirmed in his Nation, State, and Economy, the right of secession by each individual.

If one deep flaw in the Wilsonian enterprise was its imposition of national self-determination from the outside, another was his total botch of redrawing the European map. It is difficult to believe that they could have done a worse job if the Versailles rulers had blindfolded themselves and put pins arbitrarily in a map of Europe to create new nations. 

Instead of self-determination for each nation, three officially designated Good Guy peoples (Poles, Czechs, and Serbs) were made masters over other nationalities who had hated their guts for centuries, often with good reason. That is, these three favored nationalities were not simply given ethnic national independence; instead, their boundaries were arbitrarily swollen so as to dominate other peoples officially designated as Bad Guys (or at best Who Cares Guys): the Poles ruling over Germans, Lithuanians (in the Lithuanian city of Vilnius/Vilna), Byelorussians, and Ukrainians; the Czechs ruling over Slovaks and Ukrainians (called “Carpatho-Ruthenians”); and the Serbs tyrannizing over Croats, Slovenes, Albanians, Hungarians, and Macedonians, in a geographical abortion called “Yugoslavia” (now at least in the process of falling apart).

In addition, the Romanians were aggrandized at the expense of the Hungarians and Bulgarians. These three (or four if we include Romania) lopsided countries were also given the absurd and impossible task by the U.S. and the Western allies ofkeeping down permanently the two neighboring great “revisionist” powers and losers at Versailles: Germany and Russia. This imposed task led straight to World War II.

In short, national self-determination must remain a moral principle and a beacon-light for all nations, and not be something to be imposed by outside governmental coercion.

[Excerpted from The Irrepressible Rothbard]

Image Source: Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/tambako/4598642399
Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
What is the Mises Institute?

The Mises Institute is a non-profit organization that exists to promote teaching and research in the Austrian School of economics, individual freedom, honest history, and international peace, in the tradition of Ludwig von Mises and Murray N. Rothbard. 

Non-political, non-partisan, and non-PC, we advocate a radical shift in the intellectual climate, away from statism and toward a private property order. We believe that our foundational ideas are of permanent value, and oppose all efforts at compromise, sellout, and amalgamation of these ideas with fashionable political, cultural, and social doctrines inimical to their spirit.

Become a Member
Mises Institute