The terms nationalism and nation have several, sometimes mutually exclusive, connotations in the United States. For some Americans, nationalism is about waving flags, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools, singing the Star Spangled Banner at sporting events, shooting off fireworks on the Fourth of July, and acknowledging one’s existence as a citizen of a country whose historical legacy is life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Alternatively, the destruction of the Second World War, largely made possible by the Third Reich’s dangerous exploitation of German nationalistic sentiment, has made the entire world uncomfortably conscious of the thin line that divides innocuous displays of pride and perilous chauvinism. Unknown to many, Nationalism is a rather multifaceted construction, and each nation’s anatomy is dependent on countless variables. Contemporary historians, political scientists, social theoreticians, and cultural critics alike continue the attempt to explain the spontaneous phenomenon that is nationalism.
As proponents of liberalism – whether one considers himself to be an Objectivist, Anarcho-Capitalist, classical Liberal, or libertarian – we often find ourselves repulsed by displays of nationalism. This detestation is largely because of its seemingly statist implications. Many of us, however, are unfamiliar with the process in which nations form and what their functions are. The result is a misinterpretation of what nationalism actually is and a failure to acknowledge unrecognized nations that certainly do exist. As previously mentioned, it’s more complex than the generic definitions we devise for the terms through either observation or what we are taught in bureaucratic public schools. Nationalism is not a homogenous manifestation, and because of this, we should not assume future nations would form the same way. A nation, as an “idea,” according to the Nineteenth-century French Historian Ernest Renan, is “simple in appearance, but capable of the most dangerous misunderstanding.” Let’s clear up any misunderstanding, which may exist.
What is a nation and how do they form?
A nation, according to the American political scientist and historian Benedict Anderson, “is an imagined community.” Anderson derives his definition from earlier work provided by British historian Hugh Seton-Watson, who was “driven to the conclusion that no ‘scientific definition’ of a nation can be devised,” as nations are often immeasurable and consist of populations who do not and will not ever meet most of their fellow cohorts. Though there is some contention about when nations began springing into existence – Catholic Priest and Historian Adrian Hastings argues a form of English nationalism first arose in the Fourteenth-century – nationalism is generally regarded as a construct of the Nineteenth-century. The words “state” and “nation” are not synonymous, despite popular belief. Some theoreticians, however, argue that the creation of a state is one of the primary functions of a nation.
It’s essential to understand that nations form for a variety of reasons and not every nation has the same motivations. Most of the continental European nations – with some exceptions – are bound by cultural tradition and/or ethnicity. These nations, which now predominately exist as nation-states due to post-WWI Wilsonian urgings for national sovereignty, typically share vernacular and written languages. Anderson attributes the consolidations of these languages (there were countless dialects and spoken languages all across Europe before the rise of nations) and the resulting national consciousness to the creation of “print capitalism” and the sharing of books and newspapers through private markets. Though this might explain the creation of a German, English, or Spanish nation, it doesn’t explain the European anomaly of the Irish nation. The British systematically worked to eliminate and replace the Gaelic languages centuries before the formation of nations, and if we presume that only a shared language places one within a nation, we should naturally expect Irishmen and women to be members of the English nation. However, given that we know an Irish national mentality existed before the creation of the Independent Irish Republic and a resurgence of the Gaelic language, we can logically conclude that nations can and do form through various other processes.
Nations can form through a connection based on shared ethnicity. Nations can also be bound by shared religious belief. Members of the same religious communities can belong to the same nation, even though they do not necessarily speak the same language. Sometimes nations are the result of a shared “external threat,” as is the case with many previously colonized Northern and Southern American, African, Asian nations and the Irish. If an external threat can create a national consciousness, is it not possible that the commonly shared threat of statism and collectivism could create a form of anti-state libertarian nationalism, which is bound by the shared principles of private property and non-aggression?
Mises’ explanation of Liberal nationalism
Many of the greatest liberal writers have voiced their opinions about nationalism, including Ludwig von Mises. In his seminal work Nation, State, and Economy: Contributions to the Politics and History of Our Time (1919), Mises addresses how European liberals, motivated by the Enlightenment ideals of freedom and equality, adopted “the nationality principle” in order to grant their national contingents the individual right of self-determination and to free them from tyrannical princes. These liberal nations, which eventually became nation-states, are capable of neighboring other nations peacefully by practicing laissez-faire capitalism and promoting genuine free trade. It is only when these “modern principles of the state, in their triumphant march from West to East, reach the territories of mixed population [multiple nationalities under one state],” that “peaceful nationalism” turns into “militaristic nationalism.” Stated simply, Mises argues that only modern states with a homogenous national population are capable of practicing peaceful governance, can avoid aggressive imperialism, and evade the state-legislated oppression of national minorities. Having lived in the Austro-Hungarian Empire himself, Mises understood firsthand the issue of having a state rule over several nationalities (Germans, Czechs, Slavs, Poles, etc.) simultaneously.
Twenty-five years after Nation, State, and Economy was published, Mises wrote Omnipotent Government: The Rise of the Total State & Total War (1944) to explain the rise of the Nazi Regime to the world. Within this work, Mises restates many of his observations about nationalism, but provides a harsher critique of statism and the functions of the state. “The…state must necessarily extend its territory to the utmost,” argues Mises, because the larger the realm of the state, the more the government is capable of protecting the economic aspirations of its favored national group (Mises refers to this act as economic nationalism). Even in the face of the destructiveness of the Second World War, Mises makes it clear that it’s not the existence of nations that is problematic. Rather, it is the presence of states with heterogeneous national populations that are hazardous to liberty.
Anti-state libertarian nationalism
Is there a community of individuals who read the same literature, engage in similar philosophical debates, advocate for strong private property rights, support the work of Austrian economists, believe the state to be the greatest threat to peaceful people, and that all human interaction should be voluntary? Absolutely. Is it possible then that there is an anti-state libertarian nation? Definitely. Unlike other nations, however, its members are not motivated to create or take over a state in order to benefit its fellow associates. It formed, like other nations, due to the sharing of intellectual content through private markets and because of an external threat: the state.
Because a state does exist and most of its citizens support the political factions that compete for control over this violent apparatus while promoting the statist dogma (that the state should have a role in both social and economic affairs), this anti-state libertarian nation is a minority nation. Like all other minority nations, it is subjected to the political will of the comparatively larger nation (statists). Until more statists choose to voluntarily join this libertarian nation (which requires they adopt the economic and ethical justifications for private property rights) anti-state libertarians can expect to have their rights continually trampled. It is of the utmost importance that the ideals which bind this minority nation continue to spread, and the private market is the best tool to ensure this happens. Mises pessimistically suggested, “it would be a fateful mistake to assume that a return to the policies of liberalism abandoned by the civilized nations some decades ago could cure these evils and open the way toward peaceful cooperation of nations and toward prosperity.” He did not, however, live to see this minority nation grow to the size it is today.
 Ernest Renan, The Poetry of the Celtic Races, and Other Studies, trans. William G. Hutchinson (Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press, 1970), 61.
 Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Versa Press, 2006), p. 6.
 Hugh Seton-Watson, Nations and States: An Enquiry into the Origins of Nations and the Politics of Nationalism (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1977), 5.
 Adrian Hastings, The Construction of Nationhood: Ethnicity, Religion, and Nationalism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 5.
 Hastings, The Construction of Nationhood, 3-4.
 Anderson, Imagined Communities, 36.
 Hastings, The Construction of Nationhood, 3.
 Ludwig von Mises, Nation, State, and Economy: Contributions to the Politics and History of Our Time, trans. Leland B. Yeager (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund Inc., 2006), 28.
 Mises, Nation, State, and Economy, 29.
 Ludwig von Mises, Omnipotent Government: The Rise of the Total State & Total War (Grove City, PA: Libertarian Press Inc., 1985), 98.
 Mises, Omnipotent Government, 10.