As committed internationalists, Libertarians often have problems with nationalism. Nation states are often seen as barriers to free movement of people and free exchange of ideas and trade. States are often coterminous with nations, such that, to many libertarians, the nation is in fact the state and thus viewed as the problem. Indeed, national governments erecting barriers at their boundaries, imposing tariffs of trade and, in the most extreme cases, waging war for the nation’s benefit are all factors which confirm many libertarians opposition to nationalism.
However, as Murray Rothbard and others knew :-
“The nation, of course, is not the same thing as the state, a difference that earlier libertarians, such as Ludwig von Mises and Albert Jay Nock understood full well”
Often, through accidents of history, the nation-state has been the recognised form of the state but, through centralisation nations have in many areas been subsumed into bigger groups with more powerful, and more centralised, states. This would be the pattern in the United Kingdom, in the historical empire building of the past, and more recently in Soviet Russia and the eastern block and in the European Union. Now a number of nations could be subsumed under one larger state.
Our nations are not simply our states. Our nations are formed from our ethnic groups, our religious and cultural associations, our shared languages and experience, our traditions, many things which are more important to us as individuals than the state. It is the reason that ideas of nationhood do carry personal significance to many people. When nations have been gathered together to create supranational states then nationalism can help break up these superstates and weaken the power of the state. Nationalism can also make it harder for fixed markets and crony capitalist corporations to line up so effectively with the state to secure large rent payments from the public’s purse. We saw this beneficial effect of nationalism, when the collapse of the communist regime in the east was hastened by the rediscovery and creation of smaller national groupings.
The Benjamin Franklin’s old joke that “Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch” contains an important kernel of truth, which is the danger that John Stuart Mill called the “tyranny of the majority”. Libertarians stress the independence and importance of the individual, and rightly make individual liberty the highest goal, to minimise this problem, However, another factor which reduces this danger of tyranny is to make democratic units increasingly smaller. As the units are smaller the minorities as proportionately larger. To reduce this to the absurd; in an electorate of one there is no minority and the individual’s vote is always successful.
But joking aside, when nationalist groups are able to reduce the power or larger states the libertarian will find themselves on the side of the nationalist. We support those who throw of the yoke of empire and those who reduce the size and power of the state. Smaller states are more visible, the individual is clearer on the powers that are yielded, and the individual’s power in a smaller electorate is improved. Further smaller states hopefully give the option of voting with your feet. In a state the size of Europe or America it is difficult to move to seek life in a state more compatible your views. If our nations were smaller, or even better were we to consider communes, then we could participate effectively in our municipal politics with less imbalance in the power between the state and the individual and, at the same time, the our mobility might allow us to decide where we will participate and which state we might tolerate.
Unfortunately sometimes nationalism has been used as a cloak to gather power for the state, or has been the cloak that has been used to obscure racist and illiberal ends. All too often calls for national greatness are the siren call of the totalitarian and we should be clear about this and reject it. But when nationalist groups threaten to weaken the state and increase the power of the individual, libertarians should support them. Historically this has a great tradition; the American republic, with its liberal outlook and respect for the individual, was born out of nationalist feelings and hopefully Brexit, and the various celtic nationalist struggles, will start the break up the European super state.
I am an internationalist, I see all men as my equal, but when the state has grown larger than nations, I will support national independence struggles which try and reduce the size and scope of the state. Remember the words of Sun Tzu :-
“Know your enemy and know yourself and you can fight a hundred battles without disaster.”