Rabkin On Freedom and the Nation-State

Writing on "Freedom and the Nation-State" for The American Spectator, Professor Jeremy Rabkin makes the statement that "If freedom has a natural home in the modern world, therefore, it is the nation-state: the legal entity that claims sovereignty within a bounded territory, and which can grant freedom within that territory through its law. It is very hard to imagine the survival of freedom in a world that has left the nation-state behind."

Rabkin looks at the concept of world government versus the nation-state and concludes that "just as we still rely on nation-states for international security, we must still rely on national governments to protect individual rights. Your freedom still depends on where you live." He points out that independence means that national governments speak for the actual citizens of their own countries and not for others.

Rabkin also discusses the formation of the European Union (EU) as an alternative to the nation-state, pointing out that European history has given rise to fear of "nationalism" in countries that have be wracked by the conflicts that lead to two world wars in recent history. He notes that the EU is not hostile to the nation-state, relying on its component nations for legitimacy, and cites his belief that the future of freedom in Europe will depend upon the strength of its nation-states.

Freedom and the Nation-State, The American Spectator, November 2008. By Jeremy Rabkin.

"The nation-state, as we think of it today, is a product of modern times, emerging from the breakup of empires and from declarations of independence made by people wishing to claim their familiar territory as a home. In fact, the world's most successful nation-state-certainly its richest and freest-was founded on just such a declaration. The American Declaration of Independence asserted that when subject to intolerable abuses, 'one people may dissolve the political bands which have [previously] connected them with another. The Declaration refers to the people of Britain as 'brethren,' presumably in view of common origins. But it goes on, in its penultimate paragraph, to insist that the American states will henceforth hold the British 'as we hold the rest of mankind, enemies in war, in peace friends.' That is what independence means: national governments speak for the actual citizens of their own countries, not for groups defined without reference to national boundaries.

"The Declaration of Independence is clear that nations are grounded in the consent of their current members rather than in mere ancestry. The Declaration even cites as one of the 'causes' that 'impelled [Americans] to the separation' from Britain that the British government had 'endeavored to prevent the population of these states' by 'obstructing laws for the naturalization of foreigners, refusing to pass others to encourage their migration hither....' So the Declaration envisions the United States as a place of refuge, to which people may come to enjoy the benefits of freedom under law.

"Little more than a decade later, The Federalist Papers urged the necessity of a 'national government.' The very first paper acknowledged that-despite the principles asserted in the Declaration of Independence-governments founded in consent were so rare in the world that 'it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitution on accident and force.'

"In the history of the world, most people, most of the time, had lived in accord with the customs and folkways of their clan, tribe, village, or religion-with lives largely determined by the circumstances into which they happened to be born. Often they were incorporated into larger kingdoms or great empires, though even these larger structures usually ruled through local chiefs, elders, or warlords, with highest honors allocated to the most successful conquerors. When the United States was founded, it was not even generally accepted in Europe that distinct nations should have their own governments. Much of the continent still lived under the rule of multinational empires-most notably the Romanovs and Ottomans in the east, the Habsburgs in central Europe.

"All the more striking, then, that The Federalist argued not just for government by consent but for government on a national basis. The second paper in the series (by John Jay, subsequently first chief justice of the Supreme Court) suggests a kind of divinely appointed destiny for the new nation: 'Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people-a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs....'"