Do Not Confuse Liberal Nationalism With Libertarianism

The recent global refugee crisis has sparked an international debate not only about refugees, but about immigration. In America, presidential candidate Donald Trump’s popularity rests on his intention to implement a strict immigration policy, going as far as to suggest a wall separating Mexico and...

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The recent global refugee crisis has sparked an international debate not only about refugees, but about immigration.

In America, presidential candidate Donald Trump’s popularity rests on his intention to implement a strict immigration policy, going as far as to suggest a wall separating Mexico and the United States and abolishing the concept of birthright citizenship. In Europe, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán says much of Europe’s troubles are due to the massive influx of Muslim refugees, who also threaten Christianity. Indeed, in South Africa we have recently had a spate of violent xenophobic attacks on foreign nationals by South Africans who believe they are ‘stealing our jobs’. Cross-border travel in general is now a point of controversy throughout the world.

I am not a lifelong libertarian. In fact, I have only been a libertarian for two years now. I had been politically conscious during my entire high school career as a moderate social democrat and during my first year at university merely as a moderate modern liberal. During that year – 2013 – I was sitting in the Law Library computer room (the same one I find myself in right now as I am typing this piece) bored out of my mind. I opened my Google Drive and browsed through some of the free ebooks I had collected over the preceding months and noticed one with an inviting title: The Ethics of Liberty by Murray Rothbard.

I knew of libertarianism before then but had criticized it for being childishly ignorant and naive. After all, I asked, who would put out the fires? Who would ensure the poor had opportunities to be educated? Reading Rothbard’s book immediately answered, logically and through simple reasoning, most of these questions for me. I did not gradually grow into libertarianism. No. One day I was a modern liberal, and the next day I was a libertarian. Most of my cultural (‘social’) views have remained the same but I have since become an outspoken market capitalist.

From the start, notwithstanding Rothbard’s later view to the contrary, I regarded immigration as a non-issue. Obviously, I thought, libertarianism was fundamentally and irrefutably pro-open borders. As proprietarians, the only borders we regard as relevant are the borders separating my justly acquired property from yours. It was Robert Nozick, relying on John Locke, who formulated the libertarian position (at least the one I subscribe to) of legitimately acquiring property. Firstly, if you mix your labor with something originally (i.e. you find something which is previously unowned or abandoned), and secondly, if something is transferred to you consensually from the previous legitimate owner.

Flowing from that, most state property can be regarded as illegitimate. That is not to say I am an anarchist. As a limited government minarchist (as was Nozick) I believe the government does have a role to play in society. This role is absolutely limited to 1) maintaining a defense force – police or otherwise – to defend the person and property of its citizens and 2) maintaining a judicial system to resolve disputes and enforce consensual agreements. Therefore the government can at most own military bases, police stations and courthouses. I am generous, and will allow them perhaps a small office complex as well.

With that in mind, we should ask ourselves: what is a ‘border’? What makes that straight line running through the Kalahari Desert between South Africa and Namibia relevant? What distinguishes the sand on this side, and the sand on that side? What about the border separating Port Nolloth from Oranjemund? Are the people of Oranjemund to be considered an alien species from those in Port Nolloth? What is the distinguishing factor?

The border between South Africa and Namibia is irrelevant. The people of Oranjemund and Port Nolloth are not alien to one another. The people of Vancouver are not alien to the people of Seattle.

A border is a line that separates nations and national interests. It has no regard to that which is important to libertarians, being individuals and individual interests – which includes individuals in association. Why is it that I must jump through various hoops if I want to run over to Maputo to try some Luso-Mozambican cuisine? Why must a colleague of mine be denied entry to South Africa to spread the message of liberty and freedom? Because we are subjects of a particular nation, and like cattle to a rancher, the nation wants to keep track of us and micromanage our movement. What distinguishes the people of Oranjemund and Port Nolloth, and those of Vancouver and Seattle, is their citizenship.

This anti-border libertarianism remained obvious to me for quite a while until I came into contact with various ‘libertarians’ who seemed passionately opposed to the fact that several million Muslims were now living in cherished Europe. Upon inquiry I was greeted with worrying responses qua libertarian. I was told that allowing massive waves of immigrants is detrimental to national identity, preservation of culture, and that Muslims were freedom-hating statists who were making the European welfare state worse. These arguments can easily be dismissed:

  • National Identity: Libertarianism is intrinsically individualistic. With the non-aggression principle at its core, the philosophy of liberty concerns itself only with the legitimate use of force in society between individuals. Therefore any argument concerning national identity is irrelevant to libertarianism. Your national identity does not have a right of existence.
  • Preservation of Culture: Much like national identity, a given culture does not have an independent right of existence. A culture is not a rights-bearing individual. Every individual, however, does have the right to exercise his own culture, alone or in association with other individuals. Indeed, a Muslim moving into the neighborhood, or fifty Muslims moving into the neighborhood, is not going to get in the way of you exercising your culture unless they initiate force against you. If you feel a Mosque being erected next to your church is a problem – then at least divorce it from libertarianism. If that Mosque sits on legitimately acquired property then the libertarian answer is the exact same as when a competing barber shops opens up opposite yours: get over it – it’s their right to do so.
  • Muslims are Freedom Hating Statists: I have never been one to shy away from expressing my distaste of Islamism. Islamism is politicized Islam. The extent to which Islamism disregards individual rights is shocking indeed and wholly incompatible with the libertarian perception of a free society. However, it is not the Muslims who created European statism, nor was it the Mexicans who created American statism. It was white men. White men also created and developed communism; it was a white man who was named Marx and it was a white man named Mussolini. It was white men who created Frankfurtian Critical Theory and gave us radical African postcolonialism. I am not assigning blame here. I am simply showing that the source of the issue is at home, and not coming in from abroad.

From this, it should be clear that people like Orbán are incorrect in saying that the influx of refugees and immigrants are causing Europe’s troubles. In fact, it is Europe’s own systems which allow this kind of exploitation. If it’s not the Muslims today, then it will surely be another ideological group – likely a whiter one – which will cause the problems tomorrow. A resurgence of communism perhaps? What about a radical brand of cultural Marxism where free speech at university campuses are curtailed? Oh wait, that has already happened in the United States – and not due to pesky Mexican immigrants, but due to local ‘privileged’ white men and women who adopted the Frankfurtian Critical Theory (a European philosophy by other white men) I spoke of above.

If we enable exploitation of our systems by providing ‘backdoors’, then we cannot blame the eventual exploitor. This backdoor we have created is known as democracy. Democracy being the notion that our rights are debatable, our liberties are up for discussion, and our property is not inviolable. This backdoor is exploitable through a further, inherently nationalist creation: citizenship. The political message being relayed to people is that “if you are a citizen, you are allowed to make decisions for other individuals without their consent, through the ballot”. Citizenship and democracy are quite magical in that respect, for they violate a cardinal rule of logic: you cannot give something you don’t have. Stated differently, you cannot delegate a right or obligation to an agent without you having the right or obligation in the first place.

Democracy and citizenship, not movement and dissenting cultures, are the problem. How will a Muslim oppress you if he cannot impose his authoritarian religion on you? If the law does not allow it for citizens then surely it won’t allow it for immigrants.

This brings us to the argument I am making in this text: there is a difference between liberal nationalism and libertarianism. A liberal nationalist believes in democracy and citizenship. He believes in freedom, equality and prosperity for himself and his nation. A libertarian on the other hand, believes in liberty over all else, and that democracy and citizenship are only relevant to the extent that they are compatible with liberty. But the defining characteristic of libertarianism in this context is that it is universal. It concerns individuals from wherever they may be, not citizens of a specific nation. It is possible, but may be confusing, to refer to liberal nationalism as national individualism. Libertarianism simply takes any kind of individualism to its logical and only legitimate conclusion, being international, or universal, individualism.

The liberal nationalist opposes collectivism only to the extent that such collectivism is foreign to him. A libertarian opposes collectivism per se. Unfortunately this makes it easy for Western liberal nationalists to masquerade as libertarians. As I have written elsewhere, American libertarianism in various circumstances has an unfortunate tendency to be nationalistic. There is great national pride surrounding the American Founding Fathers and the Bill of Rights. American liberal nationalists (these are those who are often called ‘conservatarians’, not ‘progressives’) do not favor an open immigration system because they understand their cherished American democracy will allow the newcomers, who flock to the Democratic Party, to vote away their liberties. Actual libertarians share this concern but we don’t fault the immigrants, rather the system itself. We do not want to stop the immigrants, but want to change the system.

“But changing the system is a purely academic dream – this is reality!”

That is what I am often told in response to the argument above. But the liberal nationalist misses the fact that both changing the system and stopping the immigrants and refugees are equally unlikely in the current political climate. Ronald Reagan, a liberal nationalist hero, did not close the American borders shut. Neither did the two Bush presidencies. No recent European government, conservative or not, has substantially closed their nations to foreign immigration in the style of building a wall. There is about as much of a chance to reform the statist system as there is to bring immigration and the refugee crisis to an end.

A further problem I have experienced with these supposed ‘libertarians’ who say pro-open border individualists are detached from reality is that they abandon libertarian principles completely when doing so. I have even had someone say, in not so many words, that the rules surrounding the non-aggression principle and individual rights do not apply in the context of mass foreign immigration. Is it suddenly acceptable to sacrifice principle in the face of a hard case?

Pragmatism is a philosophy without principle. There’s a very real difference between being a practical libertarian and being a pragmatist – a liberal nationalist. The liberal nationalist will only allow the immigrant to become one of us if the immigrant has been ‘assimilated’; as if assimilation is somehow a requirement for individual rights to accrue to an individual. He is being pragmatic: he wants to keep his cherished democracy and citizenship regime, but also not abandon classical liberal principles by too wide a margin. But he already abandoned the principle. An individual is born with rights. Indeed Locke did not stutter when he used specifically the term ‘natural rights’.

The no true Scotsman fallacy occurs when someone asserts without reasoning that his opponent is no true Scotsman. I have reasoned and will continue to reason why liberal nationalists are not true libertarians. In conclusion, I will go over those reasons why once more:

  • Democracy or Another Cherished Value: A libertarian regards liberty as the primary value. A liberal nationalist regards another ideal as his primary value. Especially in the West, that value will be democracy, but can also be national identity or national culture. His devotion to this national ideal is only tempered classical liberal principles, but not overruled or substituted. Libertarianism does not oppose democracy per se, but allows it only inasfar as it respects the boundary separating individual interest and ‘public interest’.
  • Citizens vs. Individuals: The only role players in society from the libertarian perspective are ‘individuals’ and ‘the State’. Individuals may operate in association with one another but can never alienate or lose their individuality as such. Liberal nationalists – alternatively national individualists – believe the rules of individualism apply only to ‘their’ individuals, their citizens. This is why American ‘libertarians’ shouted louder than ever before when Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, an American citizen, was killed by a drone strike in Yemen. It was his citizenship, not his individuality, which was the concern.
  • Nationalcentrism: Libertarians are not overly concerned with the interests or occurrences in any specific nation. The philosophy of liberty transcends boundaries, including the boundary between the West and ‘the rest’. The liberal nationalist applies his ‘libertarianism’ within the confines of the nation. His ‘libertarianism’ extends right up to the border and then ends. The Western world, and ‘libertarians’, were outraged when several journalists were brutally murdered by Islamic terrorists in France earlier this year. Frenchmen marched in the millions and vigils were held worldwide. American ‘libertarians’ also have a special place in their hearts for the 11 September 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and also hold annual remembrances.

Both of these events were horrific – but not more so than similar occurrences elsewhere. When a Students For Liberty activist was arrested for days on end in The Gambia last year for seemingly political motives, liberal nationalists in the Western world mostly shrugged their shoulders. The liberal nationalist ‘outrage’ (if we can call it that) over an ISIS attack in July this year which killed over 100 Iraqis was mostly generic. American ‘progressives’ appeared to be more outraged than liberal nationalists when hundreds of schoolgirls were abducted by terror group Boko Haram in Nigeria.

Finally, don’t perceive this piece as a fierce criticism of liberal nationalists. My intention here is to bring light to the difference between libertarians and liberal nationalists. We are so often grouped together and thus forced to bear the associative burdens of one another’s philosophies. I am not saying, even though I believe it to be true, that libertarianism is automatically superior to liberal nationalism. Liberal nationalists, quite in line with the theory of the division of labor, have been doing and continue to do excellent work in their respective countries for furthering the cause of at least a kind of liberty. When the time comes, libertarians will be able to build upon this infrastructure and extend it to its logical conclusion: freedom for everyone, everywhere, always.

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  1. Ross McDaniel Reply

    This article is a disservice to libertarians and curious inquirers.
    “With that in mind, we should ask ourselves: what is a ‘border’? What makes that straight line running through the Kalahari Desert between South Africa and Namibia relevant? What distinguishes the sand on this side, and the sand on that side? What about the border separating Port Nolloth from Oranjemund? Are the people of Oranjemund to be considered an alien species from those in Port Nolloth? What is the distinguishing factor?The border between South Africa and Namibia is irrelevant. The people of Oranjemund and Port Nolloth are not alien to one another. The people of Vancouver are not alien to the people of Seattle.
    A border is a line that separates nations and national interests. It has no regard to that which is important to libertarians, being individuals and individual interests….” –Martin van Staden
    Martin van Staden proclaims that national borders are not important to libertarians. I doubt that he would claim that the people on the Angola side of the border are not distinguishable from the South Africa side, or even that Zulus are not distinguishable from Xosas.
    But more importantly van Staden claims that libertarianism requires open borders and that opposing arguments are easily knocked down. I believe that claim can easily be disposed with. That issue has already been covered by Hans Hermann-Hoppe (HH-H) to which I provide a short link (15 minutes) and a longer link from a lecture he gave (1 hr 5 min) that the open borders issue is covered starting at 42 minutes. One can fast forward the tape : Open Borders? Highly Destructive Anti-Libertarian Notion Right Libertarianism as Realistic Libertarianism (1 hr 5 min)
    Keeping it short, HH-H makes the point that all land is claimed by someone at present, be it individuals, organizations, or state governments. Governments hold their land in trust for their citizens. Therefore, all immigration can/must take place by invitation… I would add, or with permission.
    That makes it feasible that would-be immigrants can be screened as to their desirability as residents, and turned away if not wanted for a variety of reasons. HH-H explains in detail what considerations are in play, but that would require much time and space here. Watch/listen to the videos, for those who care.
    But also, Martin has come up with an arbitrary and unjustified term for libertarians who want secure borders that would read them out of the libertarian movement, “Liberal Nationalists,” although I doubt strongly that his notion will catch on.
    Finally, Martin says that he has been a libertarian 2 years, as well as a law student. That is not enough time to learn and be writing about the nuances of libertarianism as an authority. It is arrogance to proclaim who is not a libertarian, unless they violate the “non aggression principle.”
    Below, you may find taking the “Political Compass Quiz” worthwhile.

    1. Martin van Staden Reply

      Hello Ross. Thank you for your contribution!

      I apologize if you believe my attempt to assist others – especially the South African public which remains very unlibertarian – in identifying libertarians is a disservice. My work here is based entirely on libertarian theory, which I conclude you believe is also a disservice.

      You quoted a series of questions I asked in the text which touches on the relevance of borders and you failed to attempt an answer. You also do not attempt to rebut my conclusion that borders are the affairs of nations, not individuals. Libertarianism, consistently, is an individualist philosophy – to this there can be no argument. The individual, not an individual or a specific group of individuals, but ‘the’ individual, is the primary consideration in any form of public policy.

      You mistakenly believe that Angola and South Africa share a border, thus in fact confirming my statement that little separates the people of Namibia (the country which does separate us) and South Africa. I am well aware of the history at play here, so we don’t need to get into that for the purposes of this work. You further highlight apparent differences between Zulus and Xhosas, omitting the fact that they are not separated by any national border. Do you propose that they be separated? I am unsure of where you think the ‘national state’ falls within libertarian theory. Of course, I am willing to discuss it with you in terms of political science, but that would be departing from the matter at hand.

      I did not merely claim that arguments in favor of closed borders are knocked down. In fact, I proceeded to reason that statement and show why they are incompatible with libertarian theory. Allow me to run you through them once more:

      – The protection/advancement/support of culture is outside of the legitimate purview of the State. From Locke to Bastiat to Nozick, there is a nearly unanimous consensus that where the State is allowed to play a role is limited to the protection of person and property, and the enforcement of voluntary agreements.
      – Libertarianism is not a national ideology. It is not about the interests of ‘the people as a whole’ of any particular nation. Once more, the theory is concerned with individuals, wherever and whoever they may be. I will not be the one to tell an Iraqi that he is not entitled to the same level of freedom I enjoy, because by virtue of his individuality and existence, he is.
      – Libertarianism is, as the name suggests, about liberty. It is not about preserving Christian values (I say this as a Christian myself). It is not about defending the culture of any particular segment, be it a majority or minority, of any population. As Rothbard states in The Ethics of Liberty, “the key to the theory of liberty is the establishment of the rights of private property …” Stated differently, libertarianism is merely the notion that initiatory force is illegitimate.

      I am quite amused that Hermann-Hoppe makes those claims. Governments hold land in trust for citizens? This is a democratic argument, not a libertarian argument. Robert Nozick, relying on John Locke, outlines how property is legitimately claimed. I have discussed this with you before. No claimed property is legitimate unless it was originally claimed (by mixture of labor, or dominium) by the entity in question, or it was legitimately transferred from such legitimate owner (i.e. selling stolen property cannot be said to be a-ok). I thus believe Hermann-Hoppe’s argument can be done away with quite quickly in this case. His argument is quite statist in nature, with nothing separating the theory you ascribe to him from an ordinary democratic centrist.

      Again, I am not saying this is wrong or evil – I am merely saying this has little if anything to do with libertarian theory. I am sure you’ll agree that there needs to be /something/ that separates libertarianism from other mainstream political philosophies.

      Once more you talk about screening without enough elaboration. I am quite aware of the ordinary reasons and justifications, but you wrote this as a rebuttal to my text above, so I would expect you to elaborate on your own view on the matter rather than simply referring to Hermann-Hoppe. Thus, as I have asked in the past, how is ‘desirability’ determined? Are Muslims automatically rejected? If yes, then why? The answer should as a matter of course take into account the fact that libertarianism is an individualist philosophy. The State does not have an unlimited discretion, by democratic basis or not, to develop its own procedures. This would negate the use of having the philosophy of liberty in the first place.

      Lastly, you say that I ‘came up with an arbitrary and unjustified term’ – liberal nationalism. Neither ‘arbitrary’ nor ‘unjustified’ fit in this context since the entire text above is aimed at explaining the distinction. I invite you to read my concluding paragraph once again to gain an understanding of the motivation and tone of this text. I am not bad-mouthing or condescending against ‘libertarians of a nationalist character’. I am attempting to illustrate the difference between libertarianism according to libertarian theory, and what I believe is adequately called liberal nationalism: liberal values of private property, individual freedom, and free markets, for a specified nation or people, to the exclusion of those on the other side of a border.

      Your last statement is the most worrying, indeed. I am not sure why you wish to patronize me, especially on this forum. I am open about my experience and knowledge because I want readers to gain a contextual understanding of my position. You are attempting to dismiss my arguments merely because I am a young libertarian. This violates the time tested custom of libertarians to reject fallacies, most notably the ad hominem. You are appealing to your own authority per se, which essentially means there is no argument: you are by default right and I am by default wrong. This, obviously, cannot be.

      I have taken the Political Compass test and I assure you, I fall comfortably within the bottom-right cluster (the purple one).

      Thank you again for your contribution. I encourage you to engage more! However, please do so in more detail if you wish this discussion to be constructive. I would also encourage you to please skip over the ad hominems and references to my youth. If you regard me as an idiot amateur who is speaking garbled nonsense, then there is no reason to engage such an intellectual inferior such as I. But if not, then please afford me the necessary respect.

  2. Nicholas Woode-Smith Reply


    Martin has rebutted your Ad Hominem attack quite effectively. While I appreciate your contribution to the site, I ask that you please refrain from attacking the personal traits of our writers. It is immature and unnecessary. Age is not at all a factor when it comes to knowledge. There are old idiots and young geniuses. As Libertarians, we recognise the potential for individuals to hold different traits regardless of their demographic.

    In response to the general question of border control, I have a simple observation.

    I am the sovereign owner of my justly earned property. Thus, I can do with it as I will without violating the property rights of others (I’m not allowed to build a tower of doom or anything like that). If there are refugees or immigrants outside the nation, I should be allowed to house them. It is my property. They haven’t committed any crimes. They haven’t shown a disposition to do so. As a property owner, I should be allowed to house them.

    If it so happens that they commit crimes while in my property, then they can face justice. But until such time, I have the right to do with my property as I will.

    Libertarianism may have different interpretations, but there are set principles: Individualism and Liberty. A generalisation of a particular group based on demographics goes contrary to Libertarianism. Anyone who does this is NOT a Libertarian.

    The idea of Liberty is universal. Anyone who doesn’t believe that all individuals have a right to Liberty until revoked by their own crimes is not a Libertarian.

    To conclude: Please refrain from Ad Hominems and a dogmatic (and incorrect) approach to Libertarianism.

  3. Harald Sitta Reply

    A very interesting article.The issues are still burning. I write a comment to it !

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