Classical Liberalism and the Nation State

Barry’s response to my earlier post is another interesting read, yet it is also rather broad brush historical. I think he is erroneous if he claims that ‘it did not occur to classical liberals, on the whole, to question the state system as they knew it’. In fact the founding fathers of classical liberalism, David Hume and Adam Smith, were very much aware of other, often cosmopolitan ideals of world order. Yet they argued that the nation was attached to individual emotion, which could not be the case for entities beyond the nation state. This was also the position of later classical liberals such as Von Mises and Hayek, as I show in Classical Liberalism and International Relations Theory (Palgrave, 2009).  Let me elaborate a little, also in the wider context of international political theory.

Liberalism is the political expression of individualism, yet cooperation of individuals in groups is valued positively. For classical liberals the nation, or the country, is the largest group in society which is the object of human passion, both positive in the sense of national pride and negative in the sense of shame and humiliation. Hume noted that there are few men entirely indifferent to their country, and both he and Adam Smith underlined that humans sympathise more with people to whom they are close than with strangers or foreigners. Feelings for the nation are strong, natural motivational forces for individuals.[i]

This also applies in the age of modern states and nationalism. Despite the atrocities committed in the name of national glory throughout the twentieth century, Mises and Hayek never predicted nor called for the end of the nation state. Mises thought that language was the essence of nationality, and with the fragmentation of the polyglot Austro-Hungarian Empire in mind he argued that multi-language countries were doomed to failure. His solution was an increase in possibilities for individual self-determination and group secession, but not in the expectation that this would lead to a world without sovereign states.[ii] Hayek saw the nation as a prime source of human bonding and individual loyalty, but recognised the negative aspects of nationalism. He valued the nation, but nationalism was a poison,[iii] not least because he saw a strong relation between nationalism and imperialism. After all, it is a small step from thinking good about one’s country to trying to rule and civilise allegedly inferior others. Often, although certainly not in all cases, the nation as a group is politically organised as a sovereign state. In the classical liberal view, states are the most important actors in international relations.

To maximise individual freedom the state should only have a limited number of tasks. The state is an important protector of natural rights, but history has shown that it is also the biggest abuser of these rights. The principle of the rule of law intends to protect the negative liberty of individuals. Classical liberals think the state can best be bound by a combination of constitutions; separation of the legislative, executive and judicial powers; and the limitation of positive law.

In international affairs this means that states should be cautious about concluding and ratifying treaties and other forms of positive law. These are often binding commitments that are very hard to change or to get rid of, with a large possible negative impact on individual freedom. Some international agreements may be useful to smooth the working of the international society of states, or to settle practical matters. But the dangers of overregulation are just as real in world politics as they are in national politics. Besides some specific cross-border issues, the classical liberal rule of thumb is that there is no need for international state action if there is no domestic state task.

Consequently, attempts to build a better world by establishing international organisations and regimes are rejected. Mises and Hayek were strong critics of the League of Nations and its successor the United Nations, and Hayek was a fierce critic of the International Labour Organization. Their main concern was that these and other organisations were taking up tasks they should not perform, just like overactive states in national circumstances. Social constructivism is bad, no matter at what level it is performed.[iv]

In Degrees of Freedom (Transaction, 2015)  I have tried to illuiminate the differences between the different forms of liberalism (and conservatism, also see my earlier post on the differences between them entitled “Let’s clear up the liberal mess”), including their views in international relations. In summary it looks like this:

Liberalism, Conservatism and International Relations

Classical liberalism Social liberalism Libertarianism Conserva


Nation as limit of individual sympathy Yes No No Yes
State as prime actor in world politics Yes No No Yes
International governmental


No Yes No No
Can war be eliminated No Yes Yes No
Does trade foster peace? No Yes Yes No

Source: Edwin van de Haar, Degrees of Freedom. Liberal Political Philosophy and Ideology (Transaction Publishers, 2015).

That also explain partly why Barrry can rightly argue that the ideas of Kant, Mill and to a lesser extent Montesquieu differ from those of Hume, Smith, Mises and Hayek: they are not classical liberals but social liberals.


[i] Hume, Treatise,79, 317; Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1982), 299; also Edwin van de Haar, ‘David Hume and International Political Theory: A Reappraisal,’ Review of International Studies, 34:2 (April 2008), 225–242.

[ii] Ludwig von Mises, Nation, State, and Economy. Contributions to the Politics and History of Our Time (New York and London: Institute for Humane Studies & New York University Press, 1983), 39–40, 82.

[iii] Friedrich Hayek, Studies in Philosophy, Politics and Economics (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1967), 143.

[iv] Mises, Nation, State and Economy, 90–91; Ludwig von Mises, Omnipotent Government. The Rise of the Total State and Total War (Grove City: Libertarian Pres, 1985), 292–294; Friedrich Hayek, The Road to Serfdom (London: Routledge, 1997), 176.


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