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Nations and liberalism?

By Steven Grosby


Nationalism and nations have understandably been associated with the most illiberal treatment of human beings. History is replete with well-known examples of the murder of innocents in the cause of some nation. It continues today, for example, in Syria, Kurdistan, the Kashmir, and other places. But is there an additional consideration here that should complicate, or at least qualify, the otherwise understandable outrage over the illiberal discrimination of one human by another?

One of the principles of liberalism is the unhampered ability of individuals to govern themselves. This liberal hallmark of  the right of self-determination or self-government, promulgated in 1918 by the politically progressive American President Woodrow Wilson in his “Fourteen Points”, is today one of the guiding principles of The United Nations (see Article 1.2 of the 1945 United Nations Charter and the UN’s Resolution 1514 of 1960). Although liberalism may be a confusing and shifting combination of ideas, if it means anything then it surely means that individuals are entitled to determine their own affairs in contrast to being ordered what to do, how to behave, and what to think.

But here is the rub: just what or who is the “self” in the liberal idea of self-determination and self-government? Whatever the group of individuals to which this “self” in self-determination and self-government refers, however it is understood and however it has been formed, it necessarily implies a boundary that distinguishes a member of the group from someone who is not a member of the group. More often than not, we understand this “self” to be a nation.

We thus appear to have something of a paradox. On the one hand, the liberal principle of self-government usually requires the existence of the “self” of a nation that asserts or seeks to assert its right to determine its own affairs, for example, the Kurds today. On the other hand, the existence of the nation implies a boundary that distinguishes one human from another, a member of the nation from someone who is not. Moreover, that distinction may not be in accord with the liberal principles of human equality or recognition of merit through achievement, for example, the location of one’s birth as the determining factor of whether or not one is a member of the “self” in the term “self-government”. So, we seem to have a paradox of a liberal principle resting upon an illiberal foundation; and it seems intractable.

One possible way to break through this paradox is to eliminate all such boundaries in the name of equality. However, in this case, we would have the principles of liberalism resulting in an imperial, world government with, needless to say, a truly monstrous bureaucracy that would, in turn, make impossible any meaningful self-government. Thus, seen in this light, is it the case that nations, however formed, may be necessary for the realization of the liberal principle of self-government?

Steven Grosby is Professor of Religion at Clemson University and author of Nationalism: A Very Short Introduction.

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Image credit: Kurdistan. By Ferhates (Own work). CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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