Misconceptions of ‘Nations’ and ‘States’


The terms state, nation, and government are often carelessly used interchangeably, leading to a tendency among political groups to be mistakenly for or against all three.

The state is a governing institution with a monopoly on violence over a certain territory. It establishes laws, regulations, and public institutions within this territory.

The nation consists of a community of people with shared language, customs, traditions, and values. Though a single state can contain a single nation, this is not always the case. There are many autonomous regions throughout the world that can be considered nations, but are in the territory of a greater state. Other nations, like the Kurds, do not have their own state but exist in the territories of many states.

Though it is the state that typically governs, this is not necessarily the case. To govern is to establish and maintain the rules and affairs of a people. Private businesses and clubs do this within the scope of their own organization, though this is different from government through state power.

In addressing the differences between these terms, it becomes easier to understand the nuances between different political ideologies.

To be an advocate for liberty tends to mean freedom from the constraints of government. But what kind of government? Progressive activists advocate the use of the state to establish and maintain positive liberty, while also advocating freedom from social constraints. Through these actions they could be considered opposed to a certain kind of government, while being in favor of a different type of government through the state.

Activists that champion the need to do away with the constraints of borders, customs, and cultural constraints are not merely opposed to the state, but also the nation and all forms of government.

Many conservatives are defenders of the state, the nation, and government, and mistakenly assume (like their ideological opposites) that being in favor of one means being in favor of all three.

And then there is another perspective, popular among some libertarians, and some conservatives. This perspective is not opposed to the nation, and favors bottom-up government over top-down state government whenever possible. According to this view, private institutions consisting of freely associating individuals establish a natural, self-governing order. It is these institutions that make up the nation and protect it from both tyrannical government and violent anarchy.

When libertarians argue against the welfare state, they are not saying that an institution helping those in need is unnecessary or unimportant, but rather that these local institutions will fulfill this need better than the state. Libertarians argue against state education in the same way. Institutions of education are necessary and important, but they can be better provided in a non-state manner.

Thus when Burkean conservative Roger Scruton argued that “government and freedom have a single source,” he was not defending the state, but community. In Governing Rightly he clarifies:

“Americans, faced with a local emergency, combine with their neighbours to address it, while Europeans sit around helplessly until the servants of the state arrive. That is the kind of thing we have in mind, when we describe America as the ‘land of the free.’ We don’t mean a land without government; we mean a land with this kind of government – the kind that springs up spontaneously between responsible individuals.”

Everyone that considers his or herself to be an opponent of the state must understand the difference between state, nation, and government. Government in some form is ultimately necessary. If freely-associating individuals do not self-govern through private institutions and personal responsibility, the state will be quick to assert its place. This is why the state does not simply invent new responsibilities, but rather inserts itself in society where private institutions once stood.

Therefore, anti-statism cannot simply be opposition to state control, but also a promotion of non-state solutions to the troubles in society.

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Nathan A. Kreider is author of the Misconceptions column for Being Libertarian, and has written for the Austrian Economics Center, the Foundation for Economic Education, and the Liberalists. He also occasionally publishes a blog and video content, including short book reviews, which can be found on his website, nkreider.com. He can be contacted by email via [email protected]