Classical Liberalism, Cosmopolitanism and Nationalism

In another thought-provoking post on Facebook (does the guy ever write mediocre stuff, I wonder?) Barry raised the question of the relation between classical liberalism, nationalism and cosmopolitanism. He wrote the following:

“On the capture of classical liberal/libertarianism by anti-cosmopolitans. This is very influential at the heart of the ‘leave’ ‘elite’ in the UK, and can only be destructive of classical liberalism/libertarianism. The immediate political consequence of Leave is the elevation of Theresa May to Tory leadership/Prime Minister’s office on a much more ‘Red Tory’, communitarian, corporatist foundation than existed under Cameron. ’To the extent to which the current wave of populism maps into a conflict over national versus transnational identity (Dan Drezner is unconvinced), the problem is not an excess of cosmopolitanism but rather its absence, especially on the conservative, free-market right.”

He seems to take a positive relation between classical liberalism and cosmopolitanism as the default position. Of course Barry did not provide definitions in a FB post, but here I take cosmopolitanism to mean “the idea that all human beings, regardless of their political affiliations, belong to a common moral community. Cosmopolitans often believe that all individuals have the same basic moral status, and tend to downplay the importance or desirability of national political institutions. [They are] opposed to nationalism” (source: Matt Zwolinski (editor), Arguing About Political Philosophy, Routledge, 2009).

I argue that Barry overlooks that classical liberalism combines a cosmopolitan side, with a strong defense of national political institutions (e.g. the state). The cosmopolitan side is perhaps easiest to see, if one takes the idea of free trade as the guiding principle. Free trade is by nature morally neutral for the individuals involved, and has numerous positive economic effects; it fosters cultural exchange as well as innovation and knowledge sharing. In that sense classical liberalism is indeed related to cosmopolitanism.

Yet this stops where the national state comes into play. Classical liberals never predicted any positive political effects of trade (see my earlier notes on this topic) and, just as importantly, they actually favor a strong state, with a limited number of tasks. At the same time, from Hume and Smith onwards to Mises and Hayek, they strongly dislike the idea of transnational political institutions, because these lack any substantial emotional basis which nations do posses. Also, these large political institutions easily become a threat to individual liberty, even more so than national states with too many tasks. So, there is no really no relations between political cosmopolitanism and classical liberalism at all.

There is also no relation between nationalism and classical liberalism. A preference for the national state does not lead to nationalism, which is the vicious and poisonous belief in the superiority of one’s country, often accompanied with a dislike of allegedly inferior neighboring countries or peoples or groups. This is collectivism turned even worse, which is a double ‘no’ from a classical liberal perspective. This said, if patriotism is defined as national pride, then classical liberalism and patriotism can and will go together. There is a fine line between the two sometimes, but patriotism is not violent and dividing, but a binding force between individuals sharing a national state.

The last point is on the European Union. Hayek and Mises have been on record with strong support for a European Federation, primarily as a remedy to war-torn and nationalism-infected Europe. In these circumstances the default position of an international order as a society of states no longer functioned, so there was a need to seek an alternative. Needless to say their federation had little resemblance with the current super state we know as the European Union, which has become a classical liberal nightmare in terms of liberty and property rights violations it commits on a daily basis.

The current EU has some classical liberal traits (the imperfect common market is the single most important one), which is of tremendous use to all European individuals. It is, however, way too cosmopolitan in the bad political way. A likely consequence of Brexit is that this will become even worse, now that the French and their allies will get more room for their collectivist fallacies.

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4 thoughts on “Classical Liberalism, Cosmopolitanism and Nationalism

  1. […] I have been debating classical liberalism and the European Union with Edwin van de Haar. For the moment at least, I think the debate should end or we will risk repetition of previously made points. I would like to thank Edwin for a constructive debate and to invited readers to read through it themselves. Now is the time to move onto a more concrete discussions of the UK referendum vote to leave the European Union. […]

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