What Is Self-Determination?

People go on quite a bit about self-determination these days. Some decry the denial of self-determination to “the Palestinians.” Others insist that only “the Jewish people” can have the right to self-determination between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. Israel passed a law declaring that principle in 2018.

Unfortunately, I see too little thought behind the term self-determination. What is it? What self are we talking about? What is determination?

This and the related issue of nationalism are big topics with an unsurprisingly big literature. I will resist talking about nations and nationalism. Karl Deutsch got it right: “A Nation … is a group of persons united by a common error [fiction might have been the better word] about their ancestry and a common dislike of their neighbors.” I also appreciate Ernest Gellner‘s insight: “Nationalism begets nations.” It’s not the other way around. Moreover, individuals, often with power agendas, beget nationalism. Finally, nationalism begets more nationalism because disliked neighbors may feel the need to respond.

Here, I just want to help clarify the terms. If I do my job, I am confident I will offend everyone on some thorny controversies.

Let’s start with self. I know what that usually means. Persons are selves. (Persons don’t have selves.) Everyone knows what it means to be a self and to be self-conscious The self-evident needs no elaboration.

Determination in one sense refers to the process and outcome of human action. We determined what would happen by doing what we did. Or we tried to. A person can determine an outcome for himself (I determined I would get a haircut today) or for someone else (I determined that you would get a haircut today). We’d want to call only the first example of self-determination. We could also call it self-ownership, a felicitous phrase.

What distresses me as an ethical and methodological individualist — a libertarian — is that I don’t see the term being used this way. The priority is the group, the nation, the people, and the like. Where are the persons?

A group has no self; it comprises many selves — as many as it has members. What makes it a group can be a range of common interests or traits and continuing relations; they might have customs, mores, expectations, roles, rules, and more. But none of that keeps the group from being a collection of individuals. When a group decides, we mean that the members decide. The group does not literally decide.

When we say a group is dispossessed of its land or subjected to genocidal aggression, the crimes are against individuals. Individuals should not be reduced to mere members, representatives, or symbols. This is not to minimize genocide. The point is to keep the spotlight where it belongs: on individuals, who can live or die and without whom no group exists. If a group is important, it’s because it is important to the individuals who comprise it. They may regard their association as crucial to the lives they wish to live. But they are still individuals. They decide (unless the state or someone else interferes). They value. They are the group.

If individuals, however many, peacefully, freely, and regularly associate, establishing a culture, customs, and rules of governance, we can say as a matter of convenience that the group exercises self-determination. If they are invaded and then drive the invaders away, we can say the group has restored its self-determination. But we must be careful: a group tyrannized by one of “its own” or by a democratic majority is no more self-determined than a group tyrannized by an outsider or a majority of outsiders. What counts are individuals, their values, and the nature of their associations.

Democracy is not self-determination!

So the principle of self-determination cannot be directly applied to nations or peoples, such as “the Jewish people,” “the Palestinian people,” etc. — only to persons. Woodrow Wilson is best associated with the phrase national self-determination though he did not use it in his Fourteen Points speech during World War I. He didn’t help things. Strictly speaking, there is no right of national self-determination. (And remember, nation is a political, not a metaphysical, concept.) Only persons — not states, nations, or “peoples” as such — have the right to exist.

The need to re-individualize self-determination seems relevant to current controversies. Putting individuals first may produce overlooked approaches to peaceful resolutions.

Methodological individualism seems unassailable — what is there besides persons, their property, and their relationships? Coercive government interference sows problems. Equally unassailable is ethical individualism. Who would oppose societies of thoroughly free and voluntary associations, starting with respect for individuals and their property? Speak up or forever hold your peace.

Sheldon Richman is the executive editor of The Libertarian Institute and a contributing editor at Antiwar.com. He is the former senior editor at the Cato Institute and Institute for Humane Studies; former editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education; and former vice president at the Future of Freedom Foundation. His latest books are Coming to Palestine and What Social Animals Owe to Each Other.