the 1920s, then, the emerging individualists and libertarians –
the Menckens, the Nocks, the Villards, and their followers –
were generally considered Men of the Left; like the Left generally,
they bitterly opposed the emergence of Big Government in twentieth-century
America, a government allied with Big Business in a network of special
privilege, a government dictating the personal drinking habits of
the citizenry and repressing civil liberties, a government that
had enlisted as a junior partner to British imperialism to push
around nations across the globe. The individualists were opposed
to this burgeoning of State monopoly, opposed to imperialism and
militarism and foreign wars, opposed to the Western-imposed Versailles
Treaty and League of Nations, and they were generally allied with
socialists and progressives in this opposition.
All this changed,
and changed drastically, however, with the advent of the New Deal.
For the individualists saw the New Deal quite clearly as merely
the logical extension of Hooverism and World War I: as the imposition
of a fascistic government upon the economy and society, with a Bigness
far worse than Theodore Roosevelt ("Roosevelt I" in Mencken's
label) or Wilson or Hoover had ever been able to achieve. The New
Deal, with its burgeoning corporate state, run by Big Business and
Big Unions as its junior partner, allied with corporate liberal
intellectuals and using welfarist rhetoric, was perceived by these
libertarians as fascism come to America. And so their astonishment
and bitterness were great when they discovered that their former,
and supposedly knowledgeable, allies, the socialists and progressives,
instead of joining in with this insight, had rushed to embrace and
even deify the New Deal, and to form its vanguard of intellectual
apologists. This embrace by the Left was rapidly made unanimous
when the Communist Party and its allies joined the parade with the
advent of the Popular Front in 1935. And the younger generation
of intellectuals, many of whom had been followers of Mencken and
Villard, cast aside their individualism to join the "working
class" and to take their part as Brain Trusters and planners
of the seemingly new Utopia taking shape in America. The spirit
of technocratic dictation over the American citizen was best expressed
in the famous poem of Rex Tugwell, whose words were to be engraved
in horror on all "right-wing" hearts throughout the country:
I have gathered
my tools and my charts,
My plans are finished and practical.
I shall roll up my sleeves – make America over.
Only the few
laissez-faire liberals saw the direct filiation between Hoover's
cartelist program and the fascistic cartelization imposed by the
New Deal's NRA and AAA, and few realized that the origin of these
programs was specifically such Big Business collectivist plans as
the famous Swope Plan, spawned by Gerard Swope, head of General
Electric in late 1931, and adopted by most big business groups in
the following year. It was, in fact, when Hoover refused to go this
far, denouncing the plan as "fascism" even though he had
himself been tending in that direction for years, that Henry I.
Harriman, head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, warned Hoover that
Big Business would throw its weight to Roosevelt, who had agreed
to enact the plan, and indeed was to carry out his agreement. Swope
himself, Harriman, and their powerful mentor, the financier Bernard
M. Baruch, were indeed heavily involved both in drafting and administering
the NRA and AAA.1
and laissez-faire liberals were stunned and embittered, not
just by the mass desertion of their former allies, but also by the
abuse these allies now heaped upon them as "reactionaries"
"fascists," and "Neanderthals." For decades
Men of the Left, the individualists, without changing their position
or perspectives one iota, now found themselves bitterly attacked
by their erstwhile allies as benighted "extreme right-wingers."
Thus, in December 1933, Nock wrote angrily to Canon Bernard Iddings
Bell: "I see I am now rated as a Tory. So are you – ain't
it? What an ignorant blatherskite FDR must be! We have been called
many bad names, you and I, but that one takes the prize." Nock's
biographer adds that "Nock thought it odd that an announced
radical, anarchist, individualist, single-taxer and apostle of Spencer
should be called conservative."2
the leading intellectual of his day, Mencken was rapidly discarded
by his readership as reactionary and passé, unequipped
to deal with the era of the Depression. Retiring from the Mercury,
and thereby deprived of a national forum, Mencken could only see
his creation fall into New Deal-liberal hands. Nock, once the toast
of the monthlies and reviews, virtually dropped from sight. Villard
succumbed to the lure of the New Deal, and at any rate he retired
as editor of the Nation in 1933, leaving that journal too
in solidly New Deal-liberal hands. Only isolated cases remained:
thus John T. Flynn, a muckraking economic journalist, writing for
Harper's and the New Republic, criticized the Big
Business and monopolizing origins of such crucial New Deal measures
as the RFC and the NRA.
abused, treated by the New Dispensation as Men of the Right, the
individualists had no alternative but to become, in effect,
right-wingers, and to ally themselves with the conservatives, monopolists,
Hooverites, etc., whom they had previously despised.
It was thus
that the modern right wing, the "Old Right" in our terminology,
came into being: in a coalition of fury and despair against the
enormous acceleration of Big Government brought about by the New
Deal. But the intriguing point is that, as the far larger and more
respectable conservative groups took up the cudgels against the
New Deal, the only rhetoric, the only ideas available for them to
use were precisely the libertarian and individualist views which
they had previously scorned or ignored. Hence the sudden if highly
superficial accession of these conservative Republicans and Democrats
to the libertarian ranks.
were Herbert Hoover and the conservative Republicans, they who had
done so much in the twenties and earlier to pave the way for New
Deal corporatism, but who now balked strongly at going the whole
way. Herbert Hoover himself suddenly jumped into the libertarian
ranks with his anti-New Deal book of 1934, Challenge to Liberty,
which moved the bemused and wondering Nock to exclaim: "Think
of a book on such a subject, by such a man!" A prescient Nock
mentions liberty for the next two years will be supposed to be
somehow beholden to the Republican party, just as anyone who mentioned
it since 1917 was supposed to be a mouthpiece of the distillers
Democrats as the former anti-Prohibitionists Jouett Shouse, John
W. Davis, and Dupont's John J. Raskob formed the American Liberty
League as an anti-New Deal organization, but this was only slightly
less distasteful. While Nock wrote in his journal of his distrust
at the dishonest origins of the League, he already showed willingness
to consider an alliance:
may open the way occasionally for something . . . a little more
intelligent and objective than the dreary run of propagandist
outpouring. . . . I shall look into it . . . and if a proper chance
is open, I shall lend a hand.4
In fact, the
individualists were in a bind at this sudden accession of old enemies
as allies. On the positive side, it meant a rapid acceleration of
libertarian rhetoric on the part of numerous influential politicians.
And, furthermore, there were no other conceivable political allies
available. But, on the negative side, the acceptance of libertarian
ideas by Hoover, the Liberty League, et al., was clearly
superficial and in the realm of general rhetoric only; given their
true preferences, not one of them would have accepted the Spencerian
laissez-faire model for America. This meant that libertarianism,
as spread throughout the land, would remain on a superficial and
rhetorical level, and, furthermore, would tar all libertarians,
in the eyes of intellectuals, with the charge of duplicity and special
In any case,
however, the individualists had no place to go but an alliance with
the conservative opponents of the New Deal. And so H.L. Mencken,
formerly the most hated single person in the Right Left of the 1920s,
now wrote for the conservative Liberty magazine, and concentrated
his energies on opposition to the New Deal and on agitation for
the Landon ticket in the 1936 campaign. And when the young libertarian
Paul Palmer assumed the editorship of the American Mercury in
1936, Mencken and Nock cheerfully signed on as regular columnists
in opposition to the New Deal regime, with Nock as virtual coeditor.
Fresh from the publication of Our Enemy, the State, Nock,
in his first column for the new Mercury, very astutely pointed
out that the New Deal was a continuation of the very two things
that the entire Left had hated in the statism of the 1920s: Prohibition
and government aid to business. It was like Prohibition because
in both cases a determined minority of men "wished to do something
to America for its own good," and "both relied on force
to achieve their ends"; it was like the 1920s economically
had done his best to use the government to help business, and
Roosevelt was doing exactly the same thing. . . . In other words,
most Americans wanted government to help only them; this was the
"American tradition" of rugged individualism.5
But the attempt
was hopeless; in the eyes of the bulk of the intellectuals and of
the general public, Nock, Mencken, and the individualists were,
simply, "conservatives," and "extreme rightists,"
and the label stuck. In one sense, the "conservative"
label for Nock and Mencken was, and had been, correct, as it is
for all individualists, in the sense that the individualist believes
in human differences and therefore in inequalities. These are, to
be sure, "natural" inequalities, which, in the Jeffersonian
sense, would arise out of a free society as "natural aristocracies";
and these contrast sharply with the "artificial" inequalities
that statist policies of caste and special privilege impose on society.
But the individualist must always be antiegalitarian. Mencken had
always been a frank and joyous "elitist" in this sense,
and at least as strongly opposed to democratic egalitarian government
as to all other forms of government. But Mencken emphasized that,
as in the free market, "an aristocracy must constantly justify
its existence. In other words, there must be no artificial conversion
of its present strength into perpetual rights."6 Nock
came by this elitism gradually over the years, and it reached its
full flowering by the late 1920s. Out of this developed position
came Nock's brilliant and prophetic, though completely forgotten,
Theory of Education in the United States,7 which
had grown out of 1931 lectures at the University of Virginia.
of the older, classical education, Nock chided the typical conservative
detractors of John Dewey's progressive educational innovations for
missing the entire point. These conservatives attacked modern education
for following Dewey's views in shifting from the classical education
to a proliferating kitchen-midden of vocational and what would now
be called "relevant" courses, courses in driver-education,
basket-weaving, etc. Nock pointed out that the problem was not with
vocational courses per se, but with the accelerating commitment
in America to the concept of mass education. The classical
education confined itself to a small minority, an elite, of the
youth population. And only a small minority, according to Nock,
is really "educable," and thus suitable for this sort
of curriculum. Spread the idea that everyone must have a
higher education, however, bring the great mass of ineducable youth
into the schools, and the schools necessarily have to turn
to basket-weaving and driver-ed courses, to mere vocational training,
instead of genuine education. Nock clearly believed, then, that
the compulsory attendance laws, as well as the new great myth that
everyone must graduate from high school and college, was wrecking
the lives of most of the young, forcing them into jobs and occupations
for which they were not suitable and which they disliked, and also
wrecking the educational system in the process.
It is clear
that, from an equally libertarian (though from a "rightwing"
rather than a "left-wing" anarchist) perspective, Nock
was anticipating a very similar position by Paul Goodman thirty
and forty years later. While clothed in egalitarian rhetoric, Goodman's
view equally condemns the current system, including compulsory attendance
laws, for forcing a mass of kids into school when they should really
be out working in purposeful and relevant jobs.
One of the
most forceful aspects of the developing ideology of the Right was
the focusing on the dangers of the growing tyranny of the Executive,
and especially the President, at the expense of the withering of
power everywhere else in society: in the Congress and in the judiciary,
in the states, and among the citizenry. More and more power was
being centered in the President and the Executive branch; the Congress
was being reduced to a rubber stamp of Executive decrees, the states
to servitors of federal largesse. Regulatory bureaus substituted
their own arbitrary decrees, or "administrative law,"
for the normal, even-handed process of the courts. Again and again,
the Liberty League and other Rightists hammered away at the enormous
accession of Executive power. It was this apprehension that led
to the storm, and the defeat of the administration, over the famous
plan to "pack" the Supreme Court in 1937, a defeat engineered
by frightened liberals who had previously gone along with all New
in his brilliant Triumph of Conservatism, has pointed out
the grave error in liberal and Old Left historiography of the alleged
"reactionary" role of the Supreme Court in the late nineteenth
and early twentieth centuries in striking down regulatory legislation.
The Court has always been treated as a spokesman of Big Business
interests trying to obstruct progressive measures; in truth, these
judges were honest believers in laissez-faire who were trying
to block statist measures engineered by Big Business interests.
The same may one day be said of the "reactionary" Nine
Old Men who struck down New Deal legislation in the 1930s.
One of the
most sparkling and influential attacks on the New Deal was written
in 1938 by the well-known writer and editor Garet Garrett. Garrett
began his pamphlet "The Revolution Was" on a startlingly
perceptive note: conservatives, he wrote, were mobilizing to try
to prevent a statist revolution from being imposed by the New Deal;
but this revolution had already occurred. As Garrett beautifully
put it in his opening sentences:
those who still think they are holding the pass against a revolution
that may be coming up the road. But they are gazing in the wrong
direction. The revolution is behind them. It went by in the Night
of Depression, singing songs to freedom.8
The New Deal,
Garrett charged, was a systematic "revolution within the form"
of American laws and customs. The New Deal was not, as it superficially
seemed to be, a contradictory and capricious mass of pragmatic error.
In a revolutionary
situation mistakes and failures are not what they seem. They are
scaffolding. Error is not repealed. It is compounded by a longer
law, by more decrees and regulations, by further extensions of
the administrative hand. As deLawd said in The Green Pastures,
that when you have passed a miracle you have to pass another one
to take care of it, so it was with the New Deal. Every miracle
it passed, whether it went right or wrong, had one result. Executive
power over the social and economic life of the nation was increased.
Draw a curve
to represent the rise of executive power and look there for mistakes.
You will not find them. The curve is consistent.9
The New Deal
and businessmen were using words in two very different senses, added
Garrett, when each spoke of preserving the "American system
of free private enterprise." To the businessmen these words
"stand for a world that is in danger and may have to be defended."
But to the New Deal they "stand for a conquered province,"
and the New Deal has the correct interpretation, for the "ultimate
power of initiative" has passed from private enterprise to
government. Led by a revolutionary elite of intellectuals, the New
Deal centralized political and economic power in the Executive,
and Garrett traced this process step by step. As a consequence,
the "ultimate power of initiative" passed from private
enterprise to government, which "became the great capitalist
and enterpriser. Unconsciously business concedes the fact when it
talks of a mixed economy, even accepts it as inevitable."10
- See Murray
N. Rothbard, America's Great Depression (Princeton, N.J.:
D. Van Nostrand Co., 1963), pp. 245–51.
- Robert M.
Crunden, The Mind and Art of Albert Jay Nock (Chicago:
Henry Regnery, 1964), p. 172.
Jay Nock, Journal of Forgotten Days (Hinsdale, Ill.: Henry
Regnery, 1948), p. 33.
- Ibid., pp.
Mind and Art, pp. 164–65.
- Robert R.
LaMonte and H.L. Mencken, Men versus the Man (New York:
Henry Holt and Co., 1910), p. 73.
- New York:
Harcourt Brace, 1932.
- Garet Garrett,
"The Revolution Was," in The People's Pottage (Caldwell,
Id.: Printers, 1953), p. 15.
- Ibid., p.