David Conway: Nationalism and Liberalism: Friends or Foes?

Extract. From Journal of Libertarian Studies Vol. 16, no. 1


During the course of the twentieth century, eruptions of nationalist ardour and aspiration have resulted in great hardship and depredations being visited on various peoples of the world. Few peoples, if any, have escaped becoming engulfed in major conflicts arising from either their own nationalistic aspirations or those of other peoples.

However, national pride and allegiance, in themselves, can seem not merely innocuous but positively benign. Such forms of attachment also foster a prima facie attractive cultural diversity among the different peoples of the world. Nationalism can also provide a sense of meaning, belonging, and pride which many people might otherwise have been without. In addition, it can serve to foster solidarity and civility among those who look on each other as being of the same nation. What should be the attitude of classical liberals toward nationalist aspiration and sentiment? Should classical liberals value and cultivate these attitudes in themselves and others—at least in their ostensibly less xenophobic and aggressive forms? Or should they look on all forms and manifestations of nationalism as nothing more than atavistic remnants of pre-modemity? That is, should nationalism be viewed as an outmoded form of attachment which, ideally, should be expunged from humanity? Should it be replaced by a cosmopolitan individualism the universal adoption of which will mark the liberation of humanity from all divisive partial allegiances and attachments? Alternatively, should classical liberals regard nationalist sentiment and allegiance as a purely private matter, one that has nothing to do with their political outlook as such?

For a considerable time after the end of World War H, classical liberal and libertarian writers paid comparatively little attention to the phenomenon of nationalism or, indeed, to international relations in general, save those issues directly connected with the Cold War and international trade. However, with the end of the Cold War, a dramatic and somewhat unforeseen recent worldwide resurgence of various forms of nationalist aspiration and particularism has led both classical liberals and libertarians to turn their attention to the phenomenon of nationalism.

At first sight, the prospects for effecting a reconciliation between nationalism and classical liberalism seem bleak. With characteristic acumen, Friedrich Hayek has gone to the heart of the problem:

The advocates of individual freedom have generally sympathised with … aspirations for national freedom [that is, with the desire of peoples to be free from foreign yoke and to determine their own fate], and this has led to the constant but uneasy alliance between the liberal and the national movements during the nineteenth century. But though the conception of national freedom is analogous to that of individual freedom, it is not the same; and the striving for the first has not always enhanced the second. It has sometimes led people to prefer a despot of their own race to the liberal government of the alien majority; and it has often provided the pretext for ruthless restrictions of the individual liberty of minorities.1

Further, in his famous essay explaining why he is not a conservative, Hayek registers a second reservation about nationalism from a classical-liberal perspective.

Nationalistic bias frequently provides the bridge … to collectivism: to think in terms of “our” industry or resource is only a short step away from demanding that these national assets be directed in the national interest.2

In light of Hayek’s concerns, we might feel there is little point in trying to reconcile nationalism and classical liberalism. However, despite the undoubted truths contained in Hayek’s misgivings, it still seems worthwhile to attempt such a reconciliation. For, however enlightened and cosmopolitan classical liberals may rightly consider themselves, and however illiberal and barbaric some manifestations of nationalism have undoubtedly been, there can be few classical liberals who, if honest with themselves, will not admit to harbouring deep within their breasts some form of nationalistic attachment and

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