The Right to Self-Determination (1927, 1944)
DECEMBER 13, 2013 by LUDWIG VON MISES
Editor’s Note: We stand on the shoulders of giants. So we have decided to revisit some of these giants for you to experience anew in our new “Vintage” feature. Some of these writings are great little gems from lesser-known classical liberals, while others are digestible pieces from the greats in our tradition. Think of it as akin to finding a great record in the attic, dusting it off, and letting it spin.
[In a liberal world] the working of the market is not hampered by government interference. There are no trade barriers; men can live and work where they want. Frontiers are drawn on the maps but they do not hinder the migrations of men and shipping of commodities. Natives do not enjoy rights that are denied to aliens. Governments and their servants restrict their activities to the protection of life, health, and property against fraudulent or violent aggression. They do not discriminate against foreigners. The courts are independent and effectively protect everybody against the encroachments of officialdom. Everyone is permitted to say, to write, and to print what he likes. Education is not subject to government interference. Governments are like night-watchmen whom the citizens have entrusted with the task of handling the police power. The men in office are regarded as mortal men, not as superhuman beings or as paternal authorities who have the right and duty to hold the people in tutelage. Governments do not have the power to dictate to the citizens what language they must use in their daily speech or in what language they must bring up and educate their children. Administrative organs and tribunals are bound to use each man's language in dealing with him, provided this language is spoken in the district by a reasonable number of residents.
In such a world it makes no difference where the frontiers of a country are drawn. Nobody has a special material interest in enlarging the territory of the state in which he lives; nobody suffers loss if a part of this area is separated from the state. It is also immaterial whether all parts of the state's territory are in direct geographical connection, or whether they are separated by a piece of land belonging to another state. It is of no economic importance whether the country has a frontage on the ocean or not. In such a world the people of every village or district could decide by plebiscite to which state they wanted to belong.
(from Omnipotent Government, 1944)
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.
(from Liberalism, 1927)
The principle of nationality was derived from the liberal principle of self-determination. But the Poles, the Czechs, and the Magyars substituted for this democratic principle an aggressive nationalism aiming at the domination of people speaking other languages. Very soon German and Italian nationalists and many other linguistic groups adopted the same attitude.
It would be a mistake to ascribe the ascendancy of modern nationalism to human wickedness. The nationalists are not innately aggressive men; they become aggressive through their conception of nationalism. They are confronted with conditions which were unknown to the champions of the old principle of self-determination. And their etatist prejudices prevent them from finding a solution for the problems they have to face other than that provided by aggressive nationalism.
What the Western liberals have failed to recognize is that there are large territories inhabited by people of different idioms. This important fact could once be neglected in Western Europe but it could not be overlooked in Eastern Europe. The principle of nationality cannot work in a country where linguistic groups are inextricably mixed. Here you cannot draw boundaries which clearly segregate linguistic groups. Every territorial division necessarily leaves minorities under foreign rule.
The problem becomes especially fateful because of the changeability of linguistic structures. Men do not necessarily stay in the place of their birth. They have always migrated from comparatively overpopulated into comparatively underpopulated areas. In our age of rapid economic change brought about by capitalism, the propensity to migrate has increased to an unprecedented extent. Millions move from the agricultural districts into the centers of mining, trade, and industry. Millions move from countries where the soil is poor to those offering more favorable conditions for agriculture. These migrations transform minorities into majorities and vice versa. They bring alien minorities into countries formerly linguistically homogeneous.
The principle of nationality was based on the assumption that every individual clings throughout his life to the language of his parents, which he has learned in early childhood. This too is an error. Men can change their language in the course of their life; they can daily and habitually speak a language other than that of their parents. Linguistic assimilation is not always the spontaneous outcome of the conditions under which the individual lives. It is caused not only by environment and cultural factors; governments can encourage it or even achieve it by compulsion. It is an illusion to believe that language is a nonarbitrary criterion for an impartial delimitation of boundaries. The state can, under certain conditions, influence the linguistic character of its citizens.
(from Omnipotent Government, 1944)