Classical liberals are basically supporting individualism and a small government (Locke, Hayek, Friedman). The small government being there to insure basic services such as the military, the police, avoiding monopolies, maybe doing a very little bit of redistribution of some sort (school vouchers).

On the other hand, IMK, nationalism was born out of events motivated by classical liberal ideas: the American revolution and the French revolution. To Kelly (2015), liberalism and nationalism were interconnected:

Mazzini, Kossuth, O’Connell and Simon Bolivar in South America, were all influenced by liberal political ideas and espoused ambitions for liberal constitutional orders in place of political absolutism. Indeed for much of the early nineteenth century liberalism and nationalism were interconnected. This had an important impact on the subsequent development of liberal political theory and gave rise to the idea of liberal nationalism, an idea that is given its most forceful Anglophone statement in the nineteenth century in the political theory of John Stuart Mill (1806-1873).

Even though we don't adopt a romantic ethnico-cultural kind of nationalism, but a more liberal one (based on the ideas of political liberty, individual freedom, etc.), I don't know how we can reconcile liberalism and nationalism, since nationalism implies necessarily some form of "groupishness" [1] and some form of coercition (in order to protect the group against foreign invaders, as this is basically how nationalism was born).

How do classical liberals reconcile individualism with nationalism?

  • The definition of nationalism by classical liberals

"A considerable quantity of people, who inhabit a certain extent of country, enclosed within certain limits, and who obey the same government." (L'Encyclopédie)

"A nation is nothing but a collection of individuals." (David Hume, "Of nationals characters")

  • The definition of nationalism as provided by Wikipedia:

Nationalism is an idea and movement that holds that the nation should be congruent with the state. As a movement, it tends to promote the interests of a particular nation (as in a group of people), especially with the aim of gaining and maintaining the nation's sovereignty (self-governance) over its homeland to create a nation-state. It holds that each nation should govern itself, free from outside interference (self-determination), that a nation is a natural and ideal basis for a polity, and that the nation is the only rightful source of political power.


Kelly, Paul (2015) Liberalism and nationalism. In: Wall, Steven, (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Liberalism. Cambridge Companions to Philosophy. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK. ISBN 978110743941


3 Answers 3


Look, trying to jam individualism and nationalism together is like cramming cats into a sack - it's just not gonna be pretty! You're taking two feisty ideological alley cats and forcing them into unnatural proximity.

Individualism is the feline hell-bent on personal freedom, roaming wherever it dang well pleases. Meanwhile nationalism is the fat tabby determined to unite everyone under one flag no matter how much they hiss and scratch. Not exactly cuddle buddies.

Mixing these contrary critters into one litterbox is gonna create some rank odors, let me tell you. You'll have individualists yowling for liberty and limited government while nationalists caterwaul for unity and state power. Nothing but fur flying.

Best to let each cat slink down its own path, I say. Individualists can scamper after objectivism, self-reliance and free markets. Nationalists can prowl towards patriotism, tradition and strong borders. No need to force the two breeds into the same cage when their instincts diverge. Now I'm no feline behaviorist, but reconciling these disparate mousers seems improbable. Individualism values personal agency above all. Nationalism purrs for collective identity uber alles. Good luck getting them to share the milk!

In the end, blending contrary creatures often dilutes their essence. Individualism and nationalism have self-contained logic. Sure, compromise is needed in politics, but incoherence helps no one. Instead of hybridizing, better to respect each creed's domain.

Anyways, reconciling individualism and nationalism is fraught business. Best to let each worldview follow its catnip unfettered. Freedom and community don't always cohere - and that creative tension is what keeps democracies humming. Now if you'll excuse me, I need to clean this litterbox. What a mess!

  • 1
    This planet is not big enough for such divergence.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Jun 3 at 2:13

Even before you'd go into the philosophy of these different people it might occur to you that the group "Locke and Hayek, Friedman" is not particularly useful when talking about the relation between "classical" "liberalism" and "nationalism".

Like first of all, what does "classical liberalism" even mean here? Like are we talking early era liberalism so 16th century, 17th century maybe 18th century. Or are we talking about classical economics, national/political economics which have later have been given the retronym "classical liberalism" and which start generously in the 18th century, but more like 19th century and where people like Hayek and Friedman (20th century) would probably no longer fall in the classical period either. Not even going into the distinction between the European and the Anglospheric liberalism which seems to be in general quite chauvinisitic when it comes to who is classical and important... But even within the anglosphere "classical liberals" such as Thomas Hobbes have argued for an absolutism of their Leviathan, so hardly a "small government".

The thing is these people have had a very different social, political and economic contexts.

So in very broad strokes. Hobbes thought that left to their own devices and in the full freedom of the state of nature, humans would end up in a violent free-for-all a fight all-against-all and described humans as "homo hominis lupus est = humans are like a wolf to other humans). So he advocated for a monopoly of violence of an all powerful and absolute state. After that no person has to fear the attacks of other people anymore because the state (the leviathan) would allow no one to use violence other than itself and would punish them for that. So Hobbes argues that to avoid the state of nature people would join into a social treaty whereby they surrender their autonomy to the state and in return receive universal rights and privileges enforced by an absolute state.

So in other words Hobbes preferred tyranny over the state of nature (freedom of the individual). He nonetheless served as inspiration with that idea of a social contract and even that absolute monopoly of violence is still a stable of modern liberal states.

So you might also want to look into how these people describe the "state of nature" or what they think "human nature" is like because at that time that was often used as justification of their "natural laws" and so on.

The other thing is that these people didn't live in a vacuum. Like if they had the time capacity, freedom, money to write about these things, then they likely were upper class, involved in politics themselves or employed and funded by the upper class. So they had plenty of good reason not to write in favor of primitivism and a return to the state of nature (absolute individual freedom), but rather to argue how they could transform the state of society to allow for more freedom. And apparently Locke is also a major source for the ideological justification of British colonialism.

Though when these people complain about a tyranny and absolute state and mention individual liberty, political and economical than this might be much less theoretical and abstract than when people in the 20th and 21th century do it. Like much of what the 21st century people complain about would have been yet utopian to these classical liberals.

Like Hobbes was already an old man (61) when Cromwell rose to power (1649). Locke was an old man (58) leaving the public sphere for health reasons when the glorious revolution (1688/89) and the bill of rights came around (both old within their era and dying <20 years later). Real life republican efforts and nation states would yet take almost another 100 years (1776 USA, 1789 France).

Also what do you mean here by nations and nationalism. Like prior to the 18th and 19th century and the emergence of nation states. "A nation" might have actually just been a kingdom or tribe so this definition that you quoted

A considerable quantity of people, who inhabit a certain extent of country, enclosed within certain limits, and who obey the same government."

is probably very apt. However these people weren't really a nation in the modern sense. At best they were connected to each other by family bonds, shared culture or the inability to move. Other than that "the government" was an external force to whom they had to obey and that country wouldn't be theirs.

So when people prior to the advent of nationalism look at that they probably see a large progress. Like the idea of people forming a group, setting up a social contract and asserting self-governance within a territory of their own sounds pretty much like an implementation of those ideas of social contract and republics.

While when such a construct is established the social contract is considered fixed once and for all with merely minor changes over time when all people join the contract willingly or unwillingly by being part of the territory or become subject to that rule without being part of the contract. Then you much more approach the status of the state beforehand.

Though again due to the combination of democracy and republic, membership to a country is nonetheless more politically meaningful than it was under absolute monarchism where the individual could easily be a means to an end whereas in a democracy people are still able to negotiate their ends.

So it matters a lot who's looking at nationalism and from which perspective they are looking at it.

  • “ Real life republican efforts” what about England? I think Locke who was not a Republican but he accompanied the Revolution and the advent of the Bill of Rights, right? And England history of liberalism (which is not limited to the English Republicans) is the most important inspiration to the US and French revolutions
    – Starckman
    Commented Jun 4 at 9:20
  • @Starckman Apparently "republic" can have many meanings. From elected leaders (which is not-monarchist but could be aristocratic), over aspirations of a common good of it's members (as opposed to despotism and absolutism of a monarch) or which I intended to say "sovereignty of the people" (to which both monarchism and aristocracy are lacking behind). So after Cromwell's dictatorship England apparently shied away from sovereignty, but kept that with a king and instead tried to limit their power. So they to this day are technically not republican, despite de facto being pretty much there.
    – haxor789
    Commented Jun 4 at 10:03
  • So which meaning of “republicans” did you refer to by saying “real life republicans efforts”? And which “real life republicans” for instance?
    – Starckman
    Commented Jun 4 at 12:18
  • 1
    @Starckman As I said that of sovereignty of the people. That it is based on the social contract among a given group that a nation, state and a republic is formed.
    – haxor789
    Commented Jun 4 at 14:40
  • Ok; I like your definition of "republic". Sorry, could you give examples of "real life republicans" (In the (pre-)lockean era)?
    – Starckman
    Commented Jun 4 at 14:44

(Liberal) nationalism and individualism are not necessarily incompatible, especially if we start from a naturalistic understanding of political philosophy.

The desire for membership in a society is natural, and it is from this desire that nation-state emerged (Anhart 2024a):

But I do recognize that there is a natural desire for membership in a society, which arose in the evolutionary state of nature of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, and that this natural desire for social membership can be satisfied in a multiethnic Lockean liberal nation like the United States.

The earliest classical liberals recognized that individuals, although caring for themselves (individualism) also care for greater entities like family and nation (Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments):

The administration of the great system of the universe, however, the care of the universal happiness of all rational and sensible beings, is the business of God and not of man. To man is allotted a much humbler department, but one more suitable to the weakness of his powers, and the narrowness of his comprehension: the care of his own happiness, of that of his family, his friends, his country. That he is occupied in contemplating the sublime can never be an excuse for neglecting the more humble department. . . . The most sublime speculation of the contemplative philosopher can scarce compensate the neglect of the smallest active duty.

That doesn't encompass from being a strong individualist (Anhart 2022):

The new Darwinian social science supports the fundamental idea running through all of Smith's writing--the evolution of unintended order--and in doing that, it supports Smithian liberalism, or what Smith calls "the system of natural liberty," which allows "every man to pursue his own interest his own way, upon the liberal plan of equality, liberty, and justice" (WN, 664, 687).

Taking "individualism" too far, neglecting individuals social nature (needs for social ties like friendship, romantic love, family, society), is irrealistic, and therefore could not make a basis for a good classical liberal political philosophy.

The point is to "make society" around values which protect individual liberty and dignity, and respect the classical liberal "harm principle" with regard to other societies (Anhart 2024b).

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