Is the UK a “Nation by Consent”? by Murray N. Rothbard, Ludwig von Mises Institute
From the Editors:
Today Scotland votes on a referendum concerning political independence from the United Kingdom (UK).
For libertarians, the politics surrounding both sides of the vote are suspicious. The globalist banking class, ever fearful of decentralization of power, warns that Scotland needs Westminster’s economic assistance (read: welfare), Westminster’s military might, and Westminster’s currency. The largely socialist Scots, meanwhile, argue for a more “egalitarian” society administered by Holyrood and a new alliance with their more enlightened fellow travelers in Brussels — leaving one master for another.
As always, libertarians should focus on first principles. Murray Rothbard’s 1993 essay,“Nations by Consent: Decomposing the Nation-State,” does just that.
Rothbard asks the correct questions: What is a nation? What makes a nation legitimate? Are nation-states needed for collective security? When is secession allowed? Should open borders and open immigration be allowed? How should citizenship and voting rights be conferred? How would a completely private, anarcho-capitalist country operate?
These are the questions we must ask and answer as we argue against the state, against central banks, and against an increasingly global crony political class.
UK – Nations By Consent: Decomposing the Nation-Sate
by Murray N. Rothbard
Libertarians tend to focus on two important units of analysis: the individual and the state. And yet, one of the most dramatic and significant events of our time has been the re-emergence — with a bang — in the last five years of a third and much-neglected aspect of the real world, the “nation.” When the “nation” has been thought of at all, it usually comes attached to the state, as in the common word, “the nation-state,” but this concept takes a particular development of recent centuries and elaborates it into a universal maxim. In the last five years, however, we have seen, as a corollary of the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and in Eastern Europe, a vivid and startlingly swift decomposition of the centralized State or alleged nation-State into its constituent nationalities. The genuine nation, or nationality, has made a dramatic reappearance on the world stage.
UK – I. The Re-Emergence of the Nation
The “nation,” of course, is not the same thing as the state, a difference that earlier libertarians and classical liberals such as Ludwig von Mises and Albert Jay Nock understood full well. 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.
The modern European nation-state, the typical “major power,” began not as a nation at all, but as an “imperial” conquest of one nationality — usually at the “center” of the resulting country, and based in the capital city — over other nationalities at the periphery. Since a “nation” is a complex of subjective feelings of nationality based on objective realities, the imperial central states have had varying degrees of success in forging among their subject nationalities at the periphery a sense of national unity incorporating submission to the imperial center. In Great Britain, the English have never truly eradicated national aspirations among the submerged Celtic nationalities, the Scots and the Welsh, although Cornish nationalism seems to have been mostly stamped out. In Spain, the conquering Castilians, based in Madrid, have never managed — as the world saw at the Barcelona Olympics — to erase nationalism among the Catalans, the Basques, or even the Galicians or Andalusians. The French, moving out from their base in Paris, have never totally tamed the Bretons, the Basques, or the people of the Languedoc.
It is now well known that the collapse of the centralizing and imperial Russian Soviet Union has lifted the lid on the dozens of previously suppressed nationalisms within the former U.S.S.R., and it is now becoming clear that Russia itself, or rather “the Russian Federated Republic,” is simply a slightly older imperial formation in which the Russians, moving out from their Moscow center, forcibly incorporated many nationalities including the Tartars, the Yakuts, the Chechens, and many others. Much of the U.S.S.R. stemmed from imperial Russian conquest in the nineteenth century, during which the clashing Russians and British managed to carve up much of central Asia.
The “nation” cannot be precisely defined; it is a complex and varying constellation of different forms of communities, languages, ethnic groups, or religions. Some nations or nationalities, such as the Slovenes, are both a separate ethnic group and a language; others, such as the warring groups in Bosnia, are the same ethnic group whose language is the same but who differ in the form of alphabet, and who clash fiercely on religion (the Eastern Orthodox Serbs, the Catholic Croats, and the Bosnian Muslims, who, to make matters more complicated, were originally champions of the Manichaean Bogomil heresy).
The question of nationality is made more complex by the interplay of objectively existing reality and subjective perceptions. In some cases, such as Eastern European nationalities under the Habsburgs or the Irish under the British, nationalisms, including submerged and sometimes dying languages, had to be consciously preserved, generated, and expanded. In the nineteenth century this was done by a determined intellectual elite, struggling to revive peripheries living under, and partially absorbed by, the imperial center.
UK – II. The Fallacy of “Collective Security”
The problem of the nation has been aggravated in the twentieth century by the overriding influence of Wilsonianism on U.S. and world-wide foreign policy. I refer not to the idea of “national self-determination,” observed mainly in the breach after World War I, but to the concept of “collective security against aggression.” The fatal flaw in this seductive concept is that it treats nation-states by an analogy with individual aggressors, with the “world community” in the guise of a cop-on-the corner. The cop, for example, sees A aggressing against, or stealing the property of, B; the cop naturally rushes to defend B’s private property, in his person or possessions. In the same way, wars between two nations or states are assumed to have a similar aspect: State A invades, or “aggresses against,” State B; State A is promptly designated “the aggressor” by the “international policeman” or his presumptive surrogate, be it the League of Nations, the United Nations, the U.S. President or Secretary of State, or the editorial writer of the august New York Times. Then the world police force, whatever it may be, is supposed to swing promptly into action to stop the “principle of aggression,” or to prevent the “aggressor,” be it Saddam Hussein or the Serbian guerrillas in Bosnia, from fulfilling their presumed goals of swimming across the Atlantic and murdering every resident of New York or Washington, D.C.
A crucial flaw in this popular line of argument goes deeper than the usual discussion of whether or not American air power or troops can really eradicate Iraqis or Serbs without too much difficulty. The crucial flaw is the implicit assumption of the entire analysis: that every nation-stare “owns” its entire geographical area in the same just and proper way that every individual property owner owns his person and the property that he has inherited, worked for, or gained in voluntary exchange. Is the boundary of the typical nation-state really as just or as beyond cavil as your or my house, estate, or factory!
It seems to me that not only the classical liberal or the libertarian, but anyone of good sense who thinks about this problem, must answer a resounding “No.” 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.
Take, for example, the current mess in Bosnia. Only a couple of years ago, Establishment opinion, Received Opinion of Left, Right, or Center, loudly proclaimed the importance of maintaining “the territorial integrity” of Yugoslavia, and bitterly denounced all secession movements. Now, only a short time later, the same Establishment, only recently defending the Serbs as champions of “the Yugoslav nation” against vicious secessionist movements trying to destroy that “integrity,” now reviles and wishes to crush the Serbs for “aggression” against the “territorial integrity” of “Bosnia” or “Bosnia-Herzegovina,” a trumped-up “nation” that had no more existence than the “nation of Nebraska” before 1991. 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 time t 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.
To adopt an excellent strategem of Ludwig von Mises in abstracting from contemporary emotions: Let us postulate two contiguous nation-States, “Ruritania” and “Fredonia.” Let us assume that Ruritania has suddenly invaded eastern Fredonia, and claims it as its own. Must we automatically condemn Ruritania for its evil “act of aggression” against Fredonia, and send troops, either literally or metaphorically, against the brutal Ruritanians and in behalf of “brave, little” Fredonia? By no means. For it is very possible that, say, two years ago, eastern Fredonia had been part and parcel of Ruritania, was indeed western Ruritania, and that the Rurs, ethnic and national denizens of the land, have been crying out for the past two years against Fredonian oppression. In short, in international disputes in particular, in the immortal words of W. S. Gilbert:
Things are seldom what they seem,
Skim milk masquerades as cream.
The Beloved international cop, whether it be Boutros Boutros-Ghali or U.S. troops or the New York Times editorialist had best think more than twice before leaping into the fray. Americans are especially unsuited for their self-proclaimed Wilsonian role as world moralists and policemen. Nationalism in the U.S. is peculiarly recent, and is more of an idea than it is rooted in long-standing ethnic or nationality groups or struggles. Add to that deadly mix the fact that Americans have virtually no historical memory, and this makes Americans peculiarly unsuited to barreling in to intervene in the Balkans, where who took what side at what place in the war against the Turkish invaders in the fifteenth century is far more intensely real to most of the contenders than is yesterday’s dinner.
Libertarians and classical liberals, who are particularly well-equipped to rethink the entire muddled area of the nation-state and foreign affairs, have been too wrapped up in the Cold War against communism and the Soviet Union to engage in fundamental thinking on these issues. Now that the Soviet Union has collapsed and the Cold War is over, perhaps classical liberals will feel free to think anew about these critically important problems.
UK – III. Rethinking Secession
First, we can conclude that not all state boundaries are just. One goal for libertarians should be to transform existing nation-states into national entities whose boundaries could be called just, in the same sense that private property boundaries are just; that is, to decompose existing coercive nation-states into genuine nations, or nations by consent.
In the case, for example, of the eastern Fredonians, the inhabitants should be able to secede voluntarily from Fredonia and join their comrades in Ruritania. Again, classical liberals should resist the impulse to say that national boundaries “don’t make any difference.” It’s true, of course, as classical liberals have long proclaimed, that the less the degree of government intervention in either Fredonia or Ruritania, the less difference such a boundary will make. But even under a minimal state, national boundaries would still make a difference, often a big one to the inhabitants of the area. For in what language — Ruritanian or Fredonian or both? — will be the street signs, telephone books, court proceedings, or school classes of the area?
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. The Scots, if they want to, should be allowed by the English to leave the UK, and to become independent, and even to join a Gaelic Confederation, if the constituents so desire.
A common response to a world of proliferating nations is to worry about the multitude of trade barriers that might be erected. But, other things being equal, the greater the number of new nations, and the smaller the size of each, the better. For it would be far more difficult to sow the illusion of self-sufficiency if the slogan were “Buy North Dakotan” or even “Buy 56th Street” than it now is to convince the public to “Buy American.” Similarly, “Down with South Dakota,” or a fortiori, “Down with 55th Street,” would be a more difficult sell than spreading fear or hatred of the Japanese. Similarly, the absurdities and the unfortunate consequences of fiat paper money would be far more evident if each province or each neighborhood or street block were to print its own currency. A more decentralized world would be far more likely to turn to sound market commodities, such as gold or silver, for its money.