Nationalism hinges on a clear definition of the word nation, about which sociologists and political philosophers have often disagreed. A nation is neither a race nor a culture because there are multiracial and multicultural nations, as is the United States. Nor is a nation synonymous with a particular geographic territory, for an American living in Europe will probably still feel himself a member of the American nation and indeed may be more conscious of his Americanism there than at home. Nor, finally, can a nation be equated with specific allegiance to a state because many national identities lack independent states, as is the case today with the Kurds and Tibetans. A better definition than these, therefore, must be found.
Perhaps the best definition of nation comes from political theorist Benedict Anderson, who defines a nation as an “imagined community” of people that can transcend race, language, geography, and political distinctions and that understands itself, in some sense, to be traveling through history together. Anderson’s imagined community is limited by the further understanding that by no means all people are, or may aspire to be, part of the nation. A nation is an in-group defined by the general agreement of those within it; also, by custom and consent, the members of a nation may select or alter the criteria for membership over time. Thus, some nationalities, in some times and places, may be based on race, language, or religion; others may be based on a shared set of political or ethical values or on common cultural practices regarding food, dress, and manners. A nation may, over time, move from one set of criteria to another, and this change may occasionally be quite radical. Whereas in the medieval era, the Cornish were not considered members of the English nation, nowadays they generally are. The French Protestants following the revocation of the Edict of Nantes officially did not exist within the nation of France and were generally regarded as aliens, whereas today French national identity certainly encompasses the Protestant religion.
However its boundaries may be constituted, a nation also is a presumptive locus of sovereignty, and it has functioned in this way for much of world history, particularly during the modern era. Nations are said to have the “right” to secure their own borders, the “right” to govern themselves as they see fit, and even—rather mystically—the “right” to determine their own destinies, as philosopher G. W. F. Hegel contended. Hegel’s tremendously influential Philosophy of Right argued that a nation was morally obliged to consummate its own destiny through the creation of a nation-state—that is, a state that encompassed all of the members of a nation and the territory that they traditionally occupied. Hegel argued that such an entity embodies the collective will of the nation and, hence, would be authorized to act on its behalf. The nation-state, he maintained, was a manifestation of both national will and the impersonal workings of history, and it thus would necessarily command obedience from its members.
The nation-state, Hegel argued, both would and should make war against its fellows for the sake of its own greatness: “The state in and by itself is the ethical whole, the actualisation of freedom… . The march of God in the world, that is what the state is.” Or, in his usual and impenetrable style, “The nation to which is ascribed a moment of the Idea in the form of a natural principle is entrusted with giving complete effect to it in the advance of the self-developing self-consciousness of the world mind.” Thus, in the final analysis, nationalism is the belief that our own imagined community, our own nation, is the one that occupies a special place in history, and that a state must be established—and armed—to achieve it. Nationalism declares that one’s particular nation has rights and interests superior to those of other nations and that these rights are to be attained by force.
Yet the sovereignty of a nation—that is, of a collective—raises profound problems for libertarians, who overwhelmingly regard the individual as the only morally salient element of society and who place individual rights ahead of group rights or group obligations. Indeed, libertarians tend strongly to deny that collective rights or obligations exist at all. Thus, many libertarians regard nationalism as a profound curse on humanity. Although libertarians are by no means immune to national self-identification, and although many may feel patriotic or even nationalistic allegiance to various nations, they also recognize that nationalism can be a profoundly dangerous force and that individual rights are universal, not national.
The pernicious consequences of nationalism have ranged from something as comparatively benign as tariffs against foreign products all the way to genocide, and they are far too extensive to summarize in one essay. When the members of a nation have determined that their national identity—that is, their national group membership—is consequent on religion, then religious persecution has often followed. Likewise, persecutions based on language, custom, and race have repeatedly arisen through essentially nationalist impulses. Because the state has so often been seen as the achiever of national greatness, state agents have been particularly apt to disregard limits to their authority whenever nationalism has so impelled them. Almost inevitably, states have been the agents of nationalist-inspired persecution.
Those who administer actual states also have done much to encourage nationalism. This proclivity is perhaps because, under the logic of nationalism, it quickly becomes difficult to determine precisely whose will constitutes the national will—but the state, as a well-organized entity with force readily to hand, typically gets there first. As Ludwig von Mises put it, “Unfortunately there are, say the Nazis, Germans who do not think in a correct German way… . This would suggest the infallibility of a majority vote. However, the Nazis rejected decision by majority vote as manifestly un-German.” The only way for one to assert one’s proper Germanness was never to assert anything at all, but only to wait for a state directive.
Nor has the United States been immune to nationalist sentiments. Throughout its history, one may observe that nationalism has tended to corrode even the strongest limits on state power. The Alien and Sedition Acts, passed in 1798 during the quasi-war with France, are early examples; these set strong restrictions on foreigners living within the country and made it a crime to speak or write critically of the president. To offer a more recent example, the USA-PATRIOT Act of 2001 was clearly motivated by a desire for national self-preservation, even at the expense of liberty. Similar measures have almost always been implemented whenever the United States has gone to war; to this list we might add wartime censorship, military conscription, and constraints on civil liberties of all sorts—most notoriously the internment of Japanese-American citizens during World War II.
Such measures raise a puzzling question: If the United States is a nation conceived in liberty, then American nationalism would seem to entail more liberty, not less, as the path toward the American nation’s particular historical destiny. Opponents of expanded state power have indeed raised this challenge, and it is worth noting that other nationalisms, too, can sometimes serve as forces of liberation. Polish, Czech, and Hungarian nationalisms, for example, were particularly prominent during the cold war as the freedom-loving members of each of these nations struggled to shake off Soviet domination. Yet the desire for national greatness is at root a collectivist desire, and the dangers of even well-intentioned nationalism can perhaps never be fully expunged.
The point is well illustrated by what is arguably the most well-intentioned nationalist enterprise ever undertaken, the 1919 Treaty of Versailles. The treaty was designed to end the First World War, which itself was unquestionably a nationalist undertaking. As a safeguard against future wars, the treaty promised national self-determination to all of the peoples of Europe, and it endeavored to give many of them a national homeland. Moreover, the treaty sought to punish the nations that lost the Great War—a view consistent with the ideology of nationalism, which demands collective winners and losers. Finally, it called for a League of Nations, a supranational governing entity that would formally instantiate the nation as a political actor endowed with rights and prerogatives beyond those of the individual. Historians generally agree that the treaty was a colossal failure: The punitive measures against Germany only embittered the German people and exacerbated German nationalism, leading to the rise of Nazism as the most murderously nationalistic political movement yet known. Impelled by a sense that they had a score to settle, the Nazis soon overran all the fragile new national homelands created by the Versailles Treaty, an act that the League of Nations was completely powerless to stop.
Nationalism, on the whole, represents one of the key forces inimical to liberalism in the modern world. Even those nationalisms that profess liberty or peace as the key to national identity are rooted in ethical collectivism. Thus, individualist philosophies have always been skeptical of nationalism, and libertarianism particularly so, occasional truces or tactical allegiances notwithstanding.
Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. New ed. New York: Verso, 1991.
Hegel, G. W. F. Philosophy of Right. S. W. Dyde, trans. Mineola, NY: Dover, 2005.
Lieven, Anatol. America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Mises, Ludwig von. Human Action. Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1966.
———. Nation, State, and Economy. New York: New York University Press, 1983.
Originally published .