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.
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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.
First, we can conclude that nor 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 United Kingdom, 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.
One obvious problem with the secession of nationalities from centralized states concerns mixed areas, or enclaves and exclaves. Decomposing the swollen central nation-state of Yugoslavia into constituent parts has solved many conflicts by providing independent nationhood for Slovenes, Serbs, and Croats, but what about Bosnia, where many towns and villages are mixed? One solution is to encourage more of the same, through still more decentralization. If, for example, eastern Sarajevo is Serb and western Sarajevo is Muslim, then they become parts of their respective separate nations. But this of course will result in a large number of enclaves, parts of nations surrounded by other nations. How can this be solved? In the first place, the enclave/exclave problem exists right now. One of the most vicious existing conflicts, in which the US has not yet meddled because
it has not yet been shown on CNN, is the problem of Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian exclave totally surrounded by, and therefore formally within, Azerbaijan. Nagorno-Karabakh should clearly be part of Armenia. But, how then, will Armenians of Karabakh avoid their present fate of blockade by Azeris, and how will they avoid military battles in trying to keep open a land corridor to Armenia?
Under total privatization, of course, these problems would disappear. Nowadays, no one in the U.S. buys land without making sure that his title to the land is clear; in the same way, in a fully privatized world, access rights would obviously be a crucial part of land ownership. In such a world, then, Karabakh property owners would make sure that they had purchased access rights through an Azeri land corridor.
Decentralization also provides a workable solution for the seemingly insoluble permanent conflict in Northern Ireland. When the British partitioned Ireland in the early 1920s, they agreed to perform a second, a more micro-managed, partition. They never carried through on this promise. If the British would permit a detailed, parish by parish, partition vote in Northern Ireland, however, most of the land area, which is majority Catholic, would probably hive off and join the Republic: such counties as Tyrone and Fermanagh, southern Down, and southern Armagh, for example. The Protestants would probably be left with Belfast, county Antrim, and other areas north of Belfast. The major remaining problem would be the Catholic enclave within the city of Belfast, but again, an approach to the anarcho-capitalist model could be attained by permitting the purchase of access rights to the enclave.
Pending total privatization, it is clear that our model could be approached, and conflicts minimized, by permitting secessions and local control, down to the micro-neighborhood level, and by developing contractual access rights for enclaves and exclaves.
In the U.S., it becomes important, in moving toward such radical decentralization, for libertarians and classical liberals-indeed, for many other minority or dissident groups-to begin to lay the greatest stress on the forgotten Tenth Amend- ment and to try to decompose the role and power of the centralizing Supreme Court. Rather than trying to get people of one’s own ideological persuasion on the Supreme Court, its power should be rolled back and minimized as far as possible, and its power decomposed into state, or even local, judicial bodies.
By Murray Rothbard
[Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared on Wednesday, March 5th, 2014 in Mises Updates and is a Selection from “Nations by Consent: Decomposing the Nation-State”]