Edited and written by David Gordon, senior fellow of the Mises Institute and author of four books and thousands of essays.

Liberty and (Rightly Understood) Nationalism


In Defence of the Realm: The Place of Nations in Classical Liberalism

David Conway

Ashgate, 2004

viii + 210 pgs.


Arthur Moeller van den Bruck, a theorist much admired by Hitler, claimed in his book The Third Reich (1923) that liberalism and nationalism are necessarily at odds. According to him, "Liberalism has undermined civilization, has destroyed religions. . . . Liberalism is the death of nations" (p. 79). David Conway, a distinguished philosopher and defender of classical liberalism, rejects this claim.1 He maintains that classical liberalism and British and American nationalism support each other. Nationalism rests on tradition; and, so long as the tradition is one of freedom, liberalism and nationalism are compatible. More than this, attempts to undermine nationalism, in particular plans to merge Britain in a European Union, pose grave threats to liberty and must be rejected.

I am about to do Conway a serious injustice. His arguments about nationalism merit close consideration, and I shall not ignore them. But I confess what interests me most about the book is his defense of classical liberalism against various rival conceptions. He here offers a brilliant survey of contemporary political philosophy.

Classical liberals maintain that people have negative rights, chief among them the rights to life, liberty, and property. These rights forbid aggression, but they do not require people to provide goods or services to others. To many, classical liberal rights are not enough, and Conway subjects to devastating criticism the main theories that so argue.

According to John Rawls, the right to acquire private property is not fundamental. It is limited by the famous difference principle, which allows inequalities only to the extent that they benefit the least well off class in society.

Conway notes an inconsistency in Rawls’s system. When he deals with justice between nations, he has a much less expansive concept of equality. "When deciding on fair terms of cooperation, different peoples have no reason to ‘pool’ their respective territories, or to ‘pool’ the values of the natural assets contained within them, as Rawls insists must be the case when individual members of the same society decide on fair terms of cooperation" (p. 25).

Why should the difference principle be limited to the citizens of one nation? If he cannot adequately respond, Rawls must face pressure either to extend the difference principle or to limit its application within single societies as well as between them.

Conway of course wishes Rawls to move in the latter direction; is not the classical-liberal view, he asks, supported by convincing natural law arguments? To this, Rawls adduces his notion of political justice: in defending proposals for public action, one cannot appeal to particular metaphysical doctrines that are not universally held within a society. Conway asks, why not? Suppose that natural law is rationally demonstrable: how then can we ignore what it dictates? Conway thinks that Rawls has wrongly assumed that natural law rests on faith rather than reason.

I do not think that Conway has addressed the precise point of Rawls’s political justice, though his criticism can readily be reformulated. Rawls thinks that to appeal to a controversial moral theory in political argument is to manifest a lack of respect for those who do not hold the theory. His complaint against reliance on natural law is not that it is based on faith, but that many people do not accept it.

But here Conway’s point is decisive. If natural law can be established by reason, why does it show lack of respect to appeal to it? One might as well say that appealing to Austrian economics shows lack of respect, since many people hold other views about economics. But this is nonsense: to appeal to reason is a prime way to show respect for others.

Though his treatment of Rawls is penetrating, it is not his main target. He will have nothing to do with the liberal culturalism defended by Will Kymlicka. In this increasingly influential view, minority cultures in a nation merit special protection by the state. Members of these cultures will suffer severe deprivation if they cannot preserve intact their cultural heritage. The state must then take special measures, such as affirmative action programs, to enable these cultures to survive.

Conway maintains that this view rests on a false philosophical anthropology. Individuals, so long as they are free to adopt the majority culture, do not suffer deprivation if their native minority culture cannot flourish unaided. "The argument from cultural autonomy . . . exaggerate[s] how dependent human fulfillment is on people being able to remain identified with and to continue to engage in whatever practices and traditions were those in which they were initially acculturated. It may correspondingly be said to underestimate the capacity of people to undergo and benefit from radical changes of cultural identity. . . . In sum, there is no reason to suppose that present-day liberal democracies owe their cultural minorities anything more than that same degree of tolerance and respect that they owe their cultural majorities" (pp. 51–52).

Conway has vindicated classical liberalism in triumphant fashion against its statist rivals; but his analysis at one point is open to question. Conway rejects the libertarianism of Murray Rothbard; he thinks that a state, confined to its proper functions, is perfectly compatible with liberty and essential to its preservation.

Rothbard argues that the state rests on coercive interference with individuals’ rights; but Conway thinks that this need not be so. "Suppose the vast majority of members of a society wish to affiliate politically with one another and have their rights protected and good advanced by the same agency. Then, it would seem that part of the terms of membership of that society include a willingness on the part of its members to accept the political obligations attendant upon being a member of that society. Among those political obligations were law-abidingness and payment of tax demands" (p. 65). Those who renounce allegiance to the state but do not leave its territory, Conway holds, invade the rights of the majority.

I cannot think that this is a good argument against Rothbard. Why cannot people who have joined an agency change their minds and establish a competing agency? Why must they be bound forever, on pain of exile, to the agency that commands the adherence of the majority? This does not seem to me more plausible than to claim that in a society in which nearly everyone, including you, always eats at McDonald’s, you cannot switch to another restaurant.

Conway’s demolition of liberal culturalism may have conveyed the impression that for him culture is unimportant. This would be the very reverse of the truth. To Conway, there are good cultures and bad ones: the good ones are essential for the preservation and development of a classical-liberal order. In particular, Britain and America are nations with cultural traditions it is vital to preserve.

Conway draws attention to a neglected but important thinker, the psychologist William McDougall. He argued that a nation consists of much more than a group of people who live in the same territory. "In his groundbreaking classic work on social psychology, The Group Mind, William McDougall has provided a useful account of how much affinity a people needs to be a nation" (p. 82). To form a nation, individuals must satisfy seven conditions, among which are that they "must share a similar outlook and sensibility" and have "some form of national self-consciousness—that is, some awareness of themselves as forming a distinct people" (pp. 82–83, emphasis in original). They must, in addition, view certain events in their past as manifestations of a common purpose to which they remain devoted. (McDougall’s account resembles the "consciousness of kind" favored by his contemporary, the Columbia sociologist Franklin Giddings. This concept strongly influenced Eric Voegelin.)

At last we are in a position to state the essence of Conway’s argument. Nationalism, as thus characterized, is a powerful force. If the traditions that enable a people to live harmoniously and thus form a nation in McDougall’s sense are ones of devotion to liberty, then the potent power of nationalism has been enlisted in support of classical liberalism. This, further, is more than a bare possibility: Britain and America are prime cases of the partnership of liberty with nationalism.

In support of his view, Conway places great stress on the fact that the British people have over a long period rejected absolute monarchy. Parliamentary opponents of the Stuarts appealed to the tradition of the Ancient Constitution, according to which even hereditary monarchs ruled with popular sanction and needed to observe strict limits to their power.

Most modern historians dismiss as mythical the actual existence of the Ancient Constitution in Anglo-Saxon times, though Conway is careful to note that a few, such as Alan Macfarlane, do not. But to him the crucial point is that Locke and his successors accepted the notion. "Locke was fully conversant with the idea of England’s Ancient Constitution, as he was of the use to which appeal to it had been made in support of parliamentary opposition to the Stuarts. Locke himself was in no doubt as to how vital it was to the political health of the nation that its more politically active members be made fully conversant with it" (p. 120).

Conway uses the idea of the Ancient Constitution to support a remarkable thesis. Richard Price and Edmund Burke are usually pictured as sharp political antagonists: it was, after all, a sermon by Price in support of the French Revolution that aroused Burke to write his anti-revolutionary Reflections. Conway argues that Price remained fully within the British tradition of ordered liberty. In fact, by his stress on the power of the people to remove the king for misconduct, Price more accurately than Burke applied the idea of the Ancient Constitution. Contrary to Burke’s fears, Price did not advocate the overthrow of the contemporary British monarchy and its replacement by a revolutionary regime in the style of France. "Price’s Discourse displayed no trace of any such subversive intent, despite having borne the brunt of Burke’s ire" (p. 143).

Burke and Price, in Conway’s view, both supported a popularly controlled monarchy. He finds the point important to emphasize since it lends support to his thesis that a consistent British national tradition supports classical liberal principles. He makes a strong case, although one wonders whether this tradition provided adequate safeguards against the despotism of Parliament, as well as that of the monarch.

Conway has written his book with a measure of alarm. He fears that British liberal nationalism may be undone by surrender of sovereignty to the European Union. This he holds would be a grave mistake. The European Union rests not on a tradition of liberty but on bureaucratic plans that had their origin in the Third Reich: "The measures that [Nazi Minister of Economics Walter] Funk mentions . . . [in a 1940 speech] bear an uncanny resemblance to many of the measures that have come to be adopted by the European Union. . . . Now, it does not follow simply from the fact that the Nazis envisaged and favoured the creation after the war of a European Economic Community that the present European Economic Community is simply a continuation of the Nazi project. . . . However, it is difficult not to be reminded of the rhetoric the Nazis resorted to in selling their idea of economic and monetary union to the nations whom they conquered. . . . Even if it is no more than coincidence how closely postwar Europe has come to resemble what the Nazis wanted for it, it remains unmistakably true that . . . the principal architects of European union have been uniformly animated by collectivist objectives that are deeply anti-liberal in spirit and form" (pp. 103–05).

Readers of Mises’s Omnipotent Government and Hayek’s Road to Serfdom will recognize Conway’s keen insight. Collectivist planning can quickly lead to totalitarianism. Conway has done well in this outstanding book to advise us not to abandon patriotic traditions that support liberty for the dubious concoctions of planners ignorant of history and hostile to liberty. Even those less sympathetic to nationalism than Conway will benefit greatly from his penetrating analysis of political philosophy. n MR

1See my review of Conway’s Classical Liberalism: The Unvanquished Ideal in the Mises Review, Winter 1996.


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