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Nationalism and Classical Liberalism


For forty-five years, Europe enjoyed peace. But it was in the form of an “armed truce” called the Cold War. On the one side of the Iron Curtain, the Soviet Union maintained its through the threat — and occasional use — of force, as in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. On the other side of the lron Curtain, the nations of Western Europe set aside their age-old conflicts and animosities out of fear of the Soviet Union — with America’s armed presence and political paternalism serving to “keep the peace.”

Yet Europe’s peace on the basis of a divided continent was artificial. Consequently, it required rectification at some point in time. That point arrived in November 1989, when the Berlin Wall came tumbling down. In less than two years, every one of the communist regimes in Eastern Europe was gone. Every one of the republics making up the USSR declared either its independence or its sovereignty. And within the Russian Federated Republic, various regions populated by ethnic non-Russians also called for their autonomy or independence from Moscow.

But having seen the demise of communism, the political wounds across the middle of Europe have not even begun to heal. The Western Europeans seem determined to isolate themselves from the people and the commodities of Eastern Europe. Fearing a massive wave of Eastern Europeans desiring to move west for economic improvement, the Western Europeans have started to reinforce their border controls and immigration restrictions. And the appeal of the Eastern Europeans to be allowed to freely trade and exchange in the Western European market has been met with either refusal or silence.

Within Eastern Europe, the freed “captive nations” regained their political independence from the Soviets, but they are now in the process of tearing themselves apart. Yugoslavia has become the battleground of a savage civil war between the Serbians and the Croatians. Czechoslovakia may divide into separate Czech and Slovak nations. Ethnic Hungarians object to their treatment in Romania. A Turkish minority reasserts its right to its own language in Bulgaria.

In newly independent Estonia, a Russian minority feels threatened. In Lithuania, it is Polish and Russian minorities that worry about Lithuanian oppression. The Armenians and Azerbaijanis fight over Nagorno-Karabakh, a territory in Azerbaijan that is populated predominantly by Armenians. The Georgians declared their independence from Moscow, but when a people called the Ossetians, who live in a northern portion of Georgia, express their own desire for autonomy, the Georgian government responds with machine guns. The list of actual or potential disputes among these various ethnic and national groups in the former Soviet Union appears almost endless.

Having been freed from one collectivist ideology — communism — Europe is floundering under the weight of another one — political and economic nationalism.

Like modern communism, modern nationalism was also a creation of the 19th century. But unlike communism, nationalism was a concept espoused by a number of the classical liberals of the last century. The liberals of the 19th century considered human liberty to be the guiding principle in all public-policy matters. They believed that men could not be politically secure in their freedom unless the government under which they lived was freely chosen by the people. Representative government with constitutional restraints on what the political authorities could do was their ideal.

Under the old system of monarchy, political borders had nothing to do with the wishes of the people. A king conquered or traded away land and people as he saw fit. There were dozens of different peoples in Europe who spoke different languages, had different customs, traditions and cultures, and who had been separated from their cultural and linguistic kin by kings and princes who divided up Europe for their own purposes. Furthermore, these cultural and linguistic groups would often find their language and customs threatened by the domination of larger ethnic groups in a king’s domain.

The classical liberal’s starting premise was that only individuals have rights. If individuals who happened to share a common language and cultural background wished to form a common political community, then that was merely an extension of their individual right of freedom of association. Within the boundaries of these national political entities, governments would be limited to the protection of life, liberty and property. If there were any ethnic minorities residing in these democratically created nation-states, they might remain at a linguistic and cultural disadvantage, but they would be secure in their civil and economic liberties, with the state prohibited from using its power to benefit one group at the expense of another. Or if they chose, these ethnic minorities could vote to form their own political state or to join some other state.

But instead of remaining an idea of the right of individuals in a geographical area to determine their own political fate, in the 19th and 20th centuries, self-determination increasingly was transformed into a collectivist concept. National self-determination came to mean the political unification of all those speaking the same language — regardless of whether all those speaking the same language wished to belong to the same state. It came to mean the political incorporation of all lands and territories on which a particular ethnic or national group had once resided — no matter how long ago and regardless of the wishes of those presently occupying those lands and territories. It came to mean the responsibility of the state to enforce the use of a particular language and to inculcate various cultural customs and traditions through mandatory public education, propaganda and resistance to the “invasion” of alien cultural influences — regardless of the wishes of individual citizens of that nation-state, including those who happened to comprise linguistic and cultural minorities in that country.

The consequences of this collectivist notion of “national” self-determination and independence are what we are again seeing all around us. Croatians and Serbians each speak of their “historical” boundaries, and neither side is willing to let boundaries be set by the free vote of the peoples living in the disputed areas. Estonians point to the attempt at forced “Russification” under Soviet rule, but they now are trying to impose “Estonianization” on the Russian minority as a lever to get the Russians to leave the country. The Ukranian and Byelorussian governments speak about how Moscow controlled their people and their resources, while at the same time, they are setting up controls and regulations over their own people in the name of Ukranian and Byelorussian “national independence.”

And the Western Europeans are no better. French farmers demonstrate against the “invasion” of “our French markets” by alien agricultural goods from Eastern Europe. Germans debate changing their very liberal refugee-status laws because Poles and Russians move in and take away “our jobs” that rightfully belong to Germans. People in Spain and Portugal fear that “our national financial capital” may soon be invested in creating jobs for Hungarians or Latvians.

To what state shall the individual belong? How may he use his property and with whom is he permitted to trade? Who is to be allowed to live in a particular geographical location? In what language will he be pressured to converse and do business? What will his children team in school? What cultural heritage shall be subsidized and supported?

Not one of these questions is left in the hands of the individual. They are determined for him by those in political authority who define his nationality and then use the power at their disposal to make him conform to their view of national interest and independence.

The classical liberal idea of national self-determination, which was meant to serve as one of the means to the ultimate political end of individual human liberty, was sidetracked onto a collectivist path — like so many other ideas of our age. And all the nationalist tensions and conflicts that are emerging and spreading around Europe today are a result of that perversion.

Nor is there a cure for what ails Europe today other than a return to classical liberalism — with its emphasis on individual self-determination and freedom of association. But this is a shift in thinking for which neither Europe nor the world is ready. The collectivist bias is just too deeply embedded. And that is why we must reconcile ourselves to the fact that we shall be the unwilling witnesses to more death and destruction in the coming years.

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    Dr. Richard M. Ebeling is the BB&T Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Free Enterprise Leadership at The Citadel. He was formerly professor of Economics at Northwood University, president of The Foundation for Economic Education (2003–2008), was the Ludwig von Mises Professor of Economics at Hillsdale College (1988–2003) in Hillsdale, Michigan, and served as vice president of academic affairs for The Future of Freedom Foundation (1989–2003).