Mises Wire

A Principled View of Nations and Nationalism

In Nations by Consent Murray Rothbard draws an important distinction between the nation and the state. While he regards the state as predatory, exploitative, parasitic and criminal, he does not view nations formed by consent as coterminous with the state. In his view the concept of the nation and the aspiration to form nations by consent reflect “subjective feelings of nationality based on objective realities” of time and place into which people are born. Rothbard explains that “The "nation" cannot be precisely defined; it is a complex and varying constellation of different forms of communities, languages, ethnic groups, or religions.”

While the concept of nationalism can be and is often used by states to persuade people to support statist goals, for example when warmongering governments claim that their interventions are necessary in “the national interest”, it remains important to distinguish between the state and the nation as a voluntary form of cultural association which expresses human values that are important to many people.

Nationalism True and False

The human desire to express a sense of belonging through language, heritage or culture is an important element of self-determination. The importance of this sense of belonging to a nation has become especially acute in recent years as the Orwellian revision of history seeks to denigrate entire groups of people for the alleged crimes of their ancestors. For example, critical race theories assert that entire races or nations are “oppressors” who are responsible for all the ills of the world. In addition, the sinister machinations of Davos Man have led many to resist being “globalized” by highlighting their sense of belonging to a nation. Nationalism in that context becomes a form of resistance to attempts by the World Economic Forum to dictate how we must live.

Many people wrongly associate nationalism with claims to racial superiority and empire-building and thus for example deride claims by white people to be indigenous to Europe as “the nationalist myth-making of the far right.” They deny that whites can be an indigenous people. This overlooks the cultural component of nationalism. While both Mises and Rothbard were critical of “blood and soil” sloganeering, they both emphasized that liberalism in the classical tradition does not seek to prescribe the importance people should attach to culture, heritage or religion. As Rothbard observes:

Contemporary libertarians often assume, mistakenly, that individuals are bound to each other only by the nexus of market exchange. They forget that everyone is necessarily born into a family, a language, and a culture. Every person is born into one or several overlapping communities, usually including an ethnic group, with specific values, cultures, religious beliefs, and traditions. He is generally born into a "country." He is always born into a specific historical context of time and place, meaning neighborhood and land area.

People seem to have no difficulty recognizing these positive aspects of nationalism in the context of “indigenous peoples.” Nobody accuses indigenous people of being “far right.” On the contrary, they are commended and lauded for expressing nationalistic sentiments, and people are encouraged to recognize their claims to territorial sovereignty. For example, the City of Vancouver has declared itself to be situated on land belonging to indigenous groups:

This place is the unceded and ancestral territory of the hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ and Sḵwx̱wú7mesh speaking peoples, the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), and səlilwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations, and has been stewarded by them since time immemorial. 

Similarly, the UN declares that indigenous people have a right to self-determination and a right to autonomy, self-government, and a “nationality” as members of an “indigenous nation.” They also have a right to retain their “integrity as distinct peoples” and not to be dispossessed of their “lands, territories or resources.”

The UN has no formal definition of indigenous people (“There is no singularly authoritative definition of indigenous peoples under international law and policy, and the Indigenous Declaration does not set out any definition”) but in practice indigenous people are generally understood to be so-called “racialized” ethnic groups. The UK House of Commons, in declining to ratify the UN’s declarations of rights of indigenous people, declared that there are no indigenous people in the UK. This meant, of course, that there are no non-white people indigenous to the UK but was widely perceived to reflect the supposition that white peoples do not constitute “ethnic groups” for purposes of recognizing the right of indigenous people to an ethnic and cultural identity as a nation. On this question, as in so many other issues in the age of identity politics, people’s view of nations and nationalism seems often to be irrational and unprincipled.

One reason why people may seek self-determination through nations is to live according to cultural values that matter to them. But not all cultures are equal, and it therefore becomes necessary to evaluate the idea of nations and nationalism in the political context in which these terms are used and to take a principled view of the claims being made.

Belonging to a national culture, and feeling patriotic towards one’s nation, is undoubtedly important to many people, but it would be economically disastrous to treat patriotism as a justification for statist economic interventions. Mises makes the important point in Omnipotent Government that nationalism cannot offer a substitute for free markets as a path to prosperity:

Patriotism is the zeal for one’s own nation’s welfare, flowering, and freedom. Nationalism is one of the various methods proposed for the attainment of these ends. But [classical] liberals contend that the means recommended by nationalism are inappropriate, and that their application would not only not realize the ends sought but on the contrary must result in disaster for the nation. The liberals too are patriots, but their opinions with regard to the right ways toward national prosperity and greatness radically differ from those of the nationalists. They recommend free trade, international division of labor, good will, and peace among the nations, not for the sake of foreigners but for the promotion of the happiness of their own nation.

Mises also warns of the dangers of a nationalistic fervor which strives for conquest, aggression and dominance. He highlights the dangers of nationalism when seen as “a blueprint for political and military action and the attempt to realize these plans” but distinguishes this from “the striving for popular government, national self-determination and political autonomy” to which free people aspire.

Nationalism and Secession

One of the most important questions that arises in relation to self-determination is the right to secede. Rothbard sees voluntary secession as one way to create genuine nations, meaning nations formed by consent:

In short, every group, every nationality, should be allowed to secede from any nation-state and to join any other nation-state that agrees to have it. That simple reform would go a long way toward establishing nations by consent. 

Debate about secession has been fueled in recent years following the UK’s Brexit from Europe. The idea of secession seems increasingly attractive to people trapped in states where they have little hope of influencing the policies which govern their lives through democratic decision-making. For example, in South Africa the Western Cape has launched an independence movement seeking to secede from a country controlled by an 80 percent black majority who, convinced of their ability to make communism work even as the country continues its catastrophic economic decline, continuously vote for a race-obsessed communist government. In Canada, Alberta’s Sovereignty Within a United Canada Act was seen by critics as “an unconstitutional threat to the basic fabric of the country’s government” amidst concern that this opposition to federal regulations was driven by Wexit secessionists. Wexit is a label associated with various political groups who campaign for self-determination in Western Canada, in particular Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

Those opposed to secession argue that it is wrong to break countries up and wrong to breach a country’s territorial integrity. They argue that established national boundaries should be respected. Rothbard’s argument in relation to national boundaries is that there is no necessary unity between a genuine nation and the parasitic state with which that nation may be associated, so that state boundaries do not necessarily coincide with nations:

It is absurd to designate every nation-state, with its self-proclaimed boundary as it exists at any one time, as somehow right and sacrosanct, each with its "territorial integrity" to remain as spotless and unbreached as your or my bodily person or private property. Invariably, of course, these boundaries have been acquired by force and violence, or by interstate agreement above and beyond the heads of the inhabitants on the spot, and invariably these boundaries shift a great deal over time in ways that make proclamations of "territorial integrity" truly ludicrous.

Moreover, Rothbard points out that boundary disputes between different nations are not analogous to boundary disputes between individual property owners. State boundaries do not reflect a united entity analogous to a private property owner living within fixed boundaries, and we are bound to err if we apply the rules of property acquisition to ascertaining the integrity of national boundaries. Rothbard cautions against this:

But these are the pitfalls in which we are bound to fall if we remain trapped by the mythology of the "nation-state" whose chance boundary at times must be upheld as a property-owning entity with its own sacred and inviolable "rights," in a deeply flawed analogy with the rights of private property.

This is the danger which Rothbard highlighted in War Guilt in the Middle East, namely that in the context of war it is necessary to ascertain who bears the basic responsibility for aggression, rather than treat the matter as a simple boundary dispute between two individual neighbors. The same caution applies to the discourse of nationalism, as it is necessary to distinguish between patriotic sentiment which expresses belonging to a culture or heritage, and that which seeks to promote the Total State that Mises warned against.

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