Autonomy, Culture and Nationality: The Failure of Liberal Nationalism

53 Pages Posted: 5 Aug 2014

Date Written: 2014


Liberal nationalists argue that the principle of national self-determination is consistent with the exercise of personal autonomy, central to liberal thought. Their argument hinges on the claim that culture, and national culture in particular, is necessary for the exercise of personal autonomy. In this paper I argue that the liberal project is unsuccessful because they cannot provide a reason to prefer national cultures over other cultural affiliations. I focus on Will Kymlicka's argument that national self-determination is consistent with individual autonomy and rejects both of its main claims: first, that individual autonomy requires a societal cultures as context of choice; second, that societal cultures are typically national groups and vice versa. Cultural membership is important for individuals as it contributes to their identity and provides context for their choices, yet autonomy does not require a single comprehensive context. Individuals can be, and typically are, members of different cultural groups which provide contexts for different choices as well as distinct forms of meaningful identification. Furthermore, I challenge Kymlicka's equation of national groups with societal cultures: some national groups are not, though they typically aspire to be, comprehensive cultures; many comprehensive cultures are not, and never want to be, national groups. Though I reject liberal nationalism, I accept its analysis of liberalism’s shortcomings. The failure of liberal nationalism urges liberal theorists to provide a theory of demarcation for liberal societies as well as give liberal answers to the questions of membership and immigration. Moreover, liberal theories need an account of a civic culture which expresses local values but respects liberal constraints on state sponsored dissemination of culture. Only then can the liberal society be truly multicultural.

Keywords: Liberalism, nationalism, autonomy, culture, Kymlicka

Suggested Citation

Perry, Tomer, Autonomy, Culture and Nationality: The Failure of Liberal Nationalism (2014). APSA 2014 Annual Meeting Paper, Available at SSRN:

Tomer Perry (Contact Author)

Stanford University ( email )

Stanford, CA 94305
United States

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