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Can a Nation Be Built?

Steven Horwitz

In the wake of both the collapse of the Soviet empire and the U.S. interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, we have seen a lively debate on the topic of nation-building.  In particular, many people who are ordinarily skeptical about the benevolent power of the U.S. government at home have come to believe it can accomplish what they see as the noble task of nation-building in areas of the world that have been plunged into some degree of chaos by political upheaval and/or war.

Although the phrase nation-building sounds much more constructive and well-intentioned than the destruction and death that has normally accompanied the use of American military power around the world, attempts to build nations are just as likely to fail.  What the nation-builders overlook is a distinction made by Ludwig von Mises almost 100 years ago:  A nation is not necessarily the same as “the State.”  In his much under-appreciated little book Nation, State, and Economy, Mises argued that “nations” are defined not by geography or by political institutions, but most fundamentally by language and other similar cultural institutions that provide a basis for “mutual understanding.”

Therefore the nation, Mises argues, cannot be understood as a static object that we can manipulate as we wish: “Nations and languages are not unchangeable categories but, rather, provisional results of a process in constant flux;  they change from day to day, and so we see before us a wealth of intermediate forms whose classification requires some pondering.”  Put in the language of F. A. Hayek, nations are spontaneous orders that emerge from the daily choices of people about the language they use and the other ways in which they participate in or withdraw from a variety of cultural forms.  Only the people themselves constitute a “nation” by their own individual choices.

And it is nations constituted this way that make the decision to create a State.  States imposed on nations by princes, Mises argues, are doomed to fail because they normally attempt to eliminate all forms of community that lie between the prince and the people.  If it doesn’t come from the State, it is to be dissolved.  In other words, imposed States dislike and destroy the delicate, complex, and evolved connections that comprise a true nation.

By engaging in nation-building, governments take on a task that is no different in principle from the attempt to plan an economy domestically.  Once we understand that true nations are the unintended consequence of decentralized cultural processes involving the millions of choices of millions of people, the absurdity of trying to build a nation as if it were a child’s toy or even a skyscraper becomes clear.  Once we start to muck around in processes that are complex and whose relevant causal connections are beyond our ability to understand, we are certain to produce unintended and undesirable consequences precisely because we act from the hubris of the planner.

Knowledge Problem

As the economist Chris Coyne points out in his wonderful book, After War, postwar reconstruction (which is one form nation-building has taken) suffers from the same sort of knowledge problem as domestic economic planning.  If Mises and Hayek were right about the impossibility of socialist planning because economies are simply too complex to be surveyed by one mind, then nation-building is equally impossible since the social connections that form shared language and culture are no less daunting in their complexity.  Just as the intervention of economic planners inevitably produces results that run counter to their stated goals, leading them to intervene again to solve those problems, so will nation-building create resistance and new forms of culture and community that frustrate the designs of the builders.  The quagmires of Iraq and Afghanistan are clear evidence for this argument.

Perhaps because of the accidental alliances created by the Cold War, many have forgotten that the classical-liberal tradition is anti-imperialist and cosmopolitan.  Classical liberals have always believed that the best way to encourage national development is through trade in goods, services, and ideas, and not through intervention in the name of helping others.  Nations and cultures cannot be built by even the best-intentioned outsiders – those things emerge and evolve just like the markets that are part of them.  It is but another “fatal conceit” to think that nations were ever built by anyone or that we can today rebuild them.

The spontaneous orders of language and culture that are the defining characteristics of nationhood work best when left to evolve in the directions their citizens take them.  The best we can do to support the emergence of “good” nations is to encourage unhampered social evolution within those nations and to refrain from thinking we can build something better.