Front Page Titles (by Subject) 3.: Liberalism and the Principle of Nationality - Omnipotent Government: The Rise of the Total State and Total War
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
3.: Liberalism and the Principle of Nationality - Ludwig von Mises, Omnipotent Government: The Rise of the Total State and Total War 
Omnipotent Government: The Rise of the Total State and Total War, edited with a Foreword by Bettina Bien Greaves (Indianapolis: Indiana, 2011).
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The copyright to this edition, in both print and electronic forms, is held by Liberty Fund, Inc.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
Liberalism and the Principle of Nationality
The foes of liberalism have failed in their endeavors to disprove liberalism’s teachings concerning the value of capitalism and democratic government. Have they succeeded better in criticizing the third part of the liberal program—namely, the proposals for peaceful coöperation among different nations and states? In answering this question we must emphasize again that the principle of nationality does not represent the liberal solution of the international problem. The liberals urged self-determination. The principle of nationality is an outcome of the interpretation which people in Central and Eastern Europe, who never fully grasped the meaning of liberal ideas, gave to the principle of self-determination. It is a distortion, not a perfection, of liberal thought.
We have already shown that the Anglo-Saxon and the French fathers of liberal ideas did not recognize the problems involved. When these problems became visible, the old liberalism’s creative period had already been brought to an end. The great champions were gone. Epigones, unable successfully to combat the growing socialist and interventionist tendencies, filled the stage. These men lacked the strength to deal with new problems.
Yet, the Indian summer of the old classical liberalism produced one document worthy of the great tradition of French liberalism. Ernest Renan, it is true, cannot really be considered a liberal. He made concessions to socialism, because his grasp of economic theories was rather poor; he was consequently too accommodating to the antidemocratic prejudices of his age. But his famous lecture, Qu’est-ce qu’une nation?, delivered in the Sorbonne on March 11, 1882, is thoroughly inspired by liberal thought.* It was the last word spoken by the older Western liberalism on the problems of state and nation.
For a correct understanding of Renan’s ideas it is necessary to remember that for the French—as for the English—the terms nation and state are synonymous. When Renan asks: What is a nation? he means: What should determine the boundaries of the various states? And his answer is: Not the linguistic community, not the racial kinship founded on parentage from common ancestors, not religious congeniality, not the harmony of economic interests, not geographical or strategical considerations, but—the right of the population to determine its own destiny.† The nation is the outcome of the will of human beings to live together in one state.‡ The greater part of the lecture is devoted to showing how this spirit of nationality originates.
The nation is a soul, a moral principle (“une âme, un principe spirituel”).§ A nation, says Renan, daily confirms its existence by manifesting its will to political coöperation within the same state; a daily repeated plebiscite, as it were. A nation, therefore, has no right to say to a province: You belong to me, I want to take you. A province consists of its inhabitants. If anybody has a right to be heard in this case it is these inhabitants. Boundary disputes should be settled by plebiscite.‖
It is important to realize how this interpretation of the right of self-determination differs from the principle of nationality. The right of self-determination which Renan has in mind is not a right of linguistic groups but of individual men. It is derived from the rights of man. “Man belongs neither to his language nor to his race; he belongs to himself.”¶
Seen from the point of view of the principle of nationality the existence of states like Switzerland, composed of people of different languages, is as anomalous as the fact that the Anglo-Saxons and the French are not eager to unite into one state all the people speaking their own language. For Renan there is nothing irregular in these facts.
More noteworthy than what Renan says is what he does not say. Renan sees neither the fact of linguistic minorities nor that of linguistic changes. Consult the people; let them decide. All right. But what if a conspicuous minority dissents from the will of the majority? To that objection Renan does not make a satisfactory answer. He declares—with regard to the scruple that plebiscites could result in the disintegration of old nations and in a system of small states (we say today Balkanization)—that the principle of self-determination should not be abused but only employed in a general way (d’une façon très générale).*
Renan’s brilliant exposition proves that the threatening problems of Eastern Europe were unfamiliar to the West. He prefaced his pamphlet with a prophecy: We are rushing into wars of destruction and extermination, because the world has abandoned the principle of free union and has granted to the nations, as it once did to the dynasties, the right to annex provinces contrary to their desires.† But Renan saw only half the problem involved and therefore his solution could be but a half-way one.
Yet it would be wrong to say that liberalism has failed in this field. Liberalism’s proposals for the coexistence and coöperation of nations and states are only a part of the total liberal program. They can be realized, they can be made to work only within a liberal world. The main excellence of the liberal scheme of social, economic, and political organization is precisely this—that it makes the peaceful coöperation of nations possible. It is not a shortcoming of the liberal program for international peace that it cannot be realized within an antiliberal world and that it must fail in an age of interventionism and socialism.
In order to grasp the meaning of this liberal program we need to imagine a world order in which liberalism is supreme. Either all the states in it are liberal, or enough are so that when united they are able to repulse an attack of militarist aggressors. In this liberal world, or liberal part of the world, there is private property in the means of production. The working of the market is not hampered by government interference. There are no trade barriers; men can live and work where they want. Frontiers are drawn on the maps but they do not hinder the migrations of men and shipping of commodities. Natives do not enjoy rights that are denied to aliens. Governments and their servants restrict their activities to the protection of life, health, and property against fraudulent or violent aggression. They do not discriminate against foreigners. The courts are independent and effectively protect everybody against the encroachments of officialdom. Everyone is permitted to say, to write, and to print what he likes. Education is not subject to government interference. Governments are like night-watchmen whom the citizens have entrusted with the task of handling the police power. The men in office are regarded as mortal men, not as superhuman beings or as paternal authorities who have the right and duty to hold the people in tutelage. Governments do not have the power to dictate to the citizens what language they must use in their daily speech or in what language they must bring up and educate their children. Administrative organs and tribunals are bound to use each man’s language in dealing with him, provided this language is spoken in the district by a reasonable number of residents.
In such a world it makes no difference where the frontiers of a country are drawn. Nobody has a special material interest in enlarging the territory of the state in which he lives; nobody suffers loss if a part of this area is separated from the state. It is also immaterial whether all parts of the state’s territory are in direct geographical connection, or whether they are separated by a piece of land belonging to another state. It is of no economic importance whether the country has a frontage on the ocean or not. In such a world the people of every village or district could decide by plebiscite to which state they wanted to belong. There would be no more wars because there would be no incentive for aggression. War would not pay. Armies and navies would be superfluous. Policemen would suffice for the fight against crime. In such a world the state is not a metaphysical entity but simply the producer of security and peace. It is the night-watchman, as Lassalle contemptuously dubbed it. But it fulfills this task in a satisfactory way. The citizen’s sleep is not disturbed, bombs do not destroy his home, and if somebody knocks at his door late at night it is certainly neither the Gestapo nor the O.G.P.U.
The reality in which we have to live differs very much from this perfect world of ideal liberalism. But this is due only to the fact that men have rejected liberalism for etatism. They have burdened the state, which could be a more or less efficient night-watchman, with a multitude of other duties. Neither nature, nor the working of forces beyond human control, nor inevitable necessity has led to etatism, but the acts of men. Entangled by dialectic fallacies and fantastic illusions, blindly believing in erroneous doctrines, biased by envy and insatiable greed, men have derided capitalism and have substituted for it an order engendering conflicts for which no peaceful solution can be found.
[* ]Renan, Qu’est-ce qu’une nation? (ed. Paris, 1934).
[† ]Ibid., p. xi.
[‡ ]Ibid., pp. 84, 88.
[§ ]Ibid., p. 83.
[‖ ]Ibid., pp. viii ff., 89–90, 95 ff.
[¶ ]“L’homme n’appartient ni à sa langue, ni à sa race; il n’appartient qu’à lui-même.” Ibid., p. ix.
[* ]Ibid., p. 91.
[† ]Ibid., p. viii.