Boundaries and the Right of Self-Determination

Boundaries and the Right of Self-Determination
Profile photo of Ludwig von Mises

[This article is excerpted from Liberalism, Chapter 3]

1. The Boundaries of the State

For the liberal, there is no opposition between domestic policy and foreign policy, and the question so often raised and exhaustively discussed, whether considerations of foreign policy take precedence over those of domestic policy or vice versa, is, in his eyes, an idle one. For liberalism is, from the very outset, a world-embracing political concept, and the same ideas that it seeks to realize within a limited area it holds to be valid also for the larger sphere of world politics. If the liberal makes a distinction between domestic and foreign policy, he does so solely for purposes of convenience and classification, to subdivide the vast domain of political problems into major types, and not because he is of the opinion that different principles are valid for each.

The goal of the domestic policy of liberalism is the same as that of its foreign policy: peace. It aims at peaceful cooperation just as much between nations as within each nation. The starting point of liberal thought is the recognition of the value and importance of human cooperation, and the whole policy and program of liberalism is designed to serve the purpose of maintaining the existing state of mutual cooperation among the members of the human race and of extending it still further. The ultimate ideal envisioned by liberalism is the perfect cooperation of all mankind, taking place peacefully and without friction. Liberal thinking always has the whole of humanity in view and not just parts. It does not stop at limited groups; it does not end at the border of the village, of the province, of the nation, or of the continent. Its thinking is cosmopolitan and ecumenical: it takes in all men and the whole world. Liberalism is, in this sense, humanism; and the liberal, a citizen of the world, a cosmopolite.

Today, when the world is dominated by antiliberal ideas, cosmopolitanism is suspect in the eyes of the masses. In Germany there are overzealous patriots who cannot forgive the great German poets, especially Goethe, whose thinking and feeling, instead of being confined by national bounds, had a cosmopolitan orientation. It is thought that an irreconcilable conflict exists between the interests of the nation and those of mankind and that one who directs his aspirations and endeavors toward the welfare of the whole of humanity thereby disregards the interests of his own nation. No belief could be more deeply mistaken. The German who works for the good of all mankind no more injures the particular interests of his compatriots?i.e., those of his fellow men with whom he shares a common land and language and with whom he often forms an ethnic and spiritual community as well-than one who works for the good of the whole German nation injures the interests of his own home town. For the individual has just as much of an interest in the prosperity of the whole world as he has in the blooming and flourishing of the local community in which he lives.

The chauvinistic nationalists, who maintain that irreconcilable conflicts of interests exist among the various nations and who seek the adoption of a policy aimed at securing, by force if need be, the supremacy of their own nation over all others, are generally most emphatic in insisting on the necessity and utility of internal national unity. The greater the stress they place on the necessity of war against foreign, nations, the more urgently do they call for peace and concord among the members of their own nation. Now this demand for domestic unity the liberal by no means opposes. On the contrary: the demand for peace within each nation was itself an outcome of liberal thinking and attained to prominence only as the liberal ideas of the eighteenth century came to be more widely accepted. Before the liberal philosophy, with its unconditional extolment of peace, gained ascendancy over men’s minds, the waging of war was not confined to conflicts between one country and another. Nations were themselves torn by continual civil strife and sanguinary internal struggles. In the eighteenth century Briton still stood arrayed in battle against Briton at Culloden, and even as late as the nineteenth century, in Germany, while Prussia waged war against Austria, other German states joined in the fighting, on both sides. At that time Prussia saw nothing wrong in fighting on the side of Italy against German Austria, and, in 1870, only the rapid progress of events prevented Austria from joining the French in the war against Prussia and its allies. Many of the victories of which the Prussian army is so proud were won by Prussian troops over those of other German states. It was liberalism that first taught the nations to preserve in their internal conduct of affairs the peace that it desires to teach them to keep also in their relations with other countries.

It is from the fact of the international division of labor that liberalism derives the decisive, irrefutable argument against war. The division of labor has for a long time now gone beyond the boundaries of any one nation. No civilized nation today satisfies its need as a self-sufficient community directly from its own production. All are obliged to obtain goods from abroad and to pay for them by exporting domestic products. Anything that would have the effect of preventing or stopping the international exchange of goods would do immense damage to the whole of human civilization and undermine the well-being, indeed, the very basis of existence, of millions upon millions of people. In an age in which nations are mutually dependent on products of foreign provenance, wars can no longer be waged. Since any stoppage in the flow of imports could have a decisive effect on the outcome of a war waged by a nation involved in the international division of labor, a policy that wishes to take into consideration the possibility of a war must endeavor to make the national economy self-sufficient, i.e., it must, even in time of peace, aim at making the international division of labor come to an end at its own borders. If Germany wished to withdraw from the international division of labor and attempted to satisfy all its needs directly through domestic production, the total annual product of German labor would diminish, and thus the well-being, the standard of living, and the cultural level of the German people would decline considerably.

2. The Right of Self-Determination

It has already been pointed out that a country can enjoy domestic peace only when a democratic constitution provides the guarantee that the adjustment of the government to the will of the citizens can take place without friction. Nothing else is required than the consistent application of the same principle in order to assure international peace as well.

The liberals of an earlier age thought that the peoples of the world were peaceable by nature and that only monarchs desire war in order to increase their power and wealth by the conquest of provinces. They believed, therefore, that to assure lasting peace it was sufficient to replace the rule of dynastic princes by governments dependent on the people. If a democratic republic finds that its existing boundaries, as shaped by the course of history before the transition to liberalism, no longer correspond to the political wishes of the people, they must be peacefully changed to conform to the results of a plebiscite expressing the people’s will. It must always be possible to shift the boundaries of the state if the will of the inhabitants of an area to attach themselves to a state other than the one to which they presently belong has made itself clearly known, In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Russian Czars incorporated into their empire large areas whose population had never felt the desire to belong to the Russian state. Even if the Russian Empire had adopted a completely democratic constitution, the wishes of the inhabitants of these territories would not have been satisfied, because they simply did not desire to associate themselves in any bond of political union with the Russians. Their democratic demand was: freedom from the Russian Empire; the formation of an independent Poland, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, etc. The fact that these demands and similar ones on the part of other peoples (e.g., the Italians, the Germans in Schleswig-Holstein, the Slavs in the Hapsburg Empire) could be satisfied only by recourse to arms was the most important cause of all the wars that have been fought in Europe since the Congress of Vienna.

The right of self-determination in regard to the question of membership in a state thus means: whenever the inhabitants of a particular territory, whether it be a single village, a whole district, or a series of adjacent districts, make it known, by a freely conducted plebiscite, that they no longer wish to remain united to the state to which they belong at the time, but wish either to form an independent state or to attach themselves to some other state, their wishes are to be respected and complied with. This is the only feasible and effective way of preventing revolutions and civil and international wars.

To call this right of self-determination the “right of self-determination of nations” is to misunderstand it. It is not the right of self-determination of a delimited national unit, but the right of the inhabitants of every territory to decide on the state to which they wish to belong. This misunderstanding is even more grievous when the expression “self-determination of nations” is taken to mean that a national state has the right to detach and incorporate into itself against the will of the inhabitants parts of the nation that belong to the territory of another state. It is in terms of the right of self-determination of nations understood in this sense that the Italian Fascists seek to justify their demand that the canton Tessin and parts of other cantons be detached from Switzerland and united to Italy, even though the inhabitants of these cantons have no such desire. A similar position is taken by some of the advocates of Pan-Germanism in regard to German Switzerland and the Netherlands.

However, the right of self-determination of which we speak is not the right of self-determination of nations, but rather the right of self-determination of the inhabitants of every territory large enough to form an independent administrative unit. If it were in any way possible to grant this right of self-determination to every individual person, it would have to be done. This is impracticable only because of compelling technical considerations, which make it necessary that a region be governed as a single administrative unit and that the right of self-determination be restricted to the will of the majority of the inhabitants of areas large enough to count as territorial units in the administration of the country.

So far as the right of self-determination was given effect at all, and wherever it would have been permitted to take effect, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it led or would have led to the formation of states composed of a single nationality (i.e., people speaking the same language) and to the dissolution of states composed of several nationalities, but only as a consequence of the free choice of those entitled to participate in the plebiscite. The formation of states comprising all the members of a national group was the result of the exercise of the right of self-determination, not its purpose. If some members of a nation feel happier politically independent than as a part of a state composed of all the members of the same linguistic group, one may, of course, attempt to change their political ideas by persuasion in order to win them over to the principle of nationality, according to which all members of the same linguistic group should form a single, independent state. If, however, one seeks to determine their political fate against their will by appealing to an alleged higher right of the nation, one violates the right of self-determination no less effectively than by practicing any other form of oppression. A partition of Switzerland among Germany, France, and Italy, even if it were performed exactly according to linguistic boundaries, would be just as gross a violation of the right of self-determination as was the partition of Poland.

Profile photo of Ludwig von Mises

Ludwig von Mises was one of the most notable economists and social philosophers of the twentieth century. In the course of a long and highly productive life, developed an integrated, deduct­ive science of economics based on the fundamental axiom that in­dividual human beings act purposively to achieve desired goals. Even though his economic analysis itself was "value-free" — in the sense of being irrelevant to values held by economists — Mises concluded that the only viable economic policy for the human race was a policy of unrestricted laissez-faire, of free markets and the unhampered exercise of the right of private property, with government strictly limited to the defense of person and property within its territorial area.

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