An Authentic American Radical

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October 13
marked the 1870 birth of Albert Jay Nock, a self-described "philosophical
anarchist," who Murray Rothbard called "an authentic
American radical, in the great tradition stemming from Henry David

Nock wrote
in an era when progressives were in ascendance, and their collectivist
vision was crowding out America’s tradition of liberty. In
response, he assaulted collectivism, root and branch, with what
has been described as "relentless truth telling," and
insisted that its inherent use of coercion was indefensible. He
defended individualism as the only means of avoiding that coercion,
reflecting heroes that included Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine,
Herbert Spencer, and Henry George.

Nock expanded
on sociologist Franz Oppenheimer’s distinction between two
opposite ways to advance one’s interests: the economic means
– production – and the political means – theft.
He argued that the State (in contrast with the voluntary arrangements
people make to live together, which he called government) was
based on theft. He believed that "the State is fundamentally
anti-social, and is all for improving it off the face of the earth…"

Nock, whose
approach has been described as "less anxious to please and
more eager to get at the truth, whatever the cost to comforts
and prejudices," was considered by some as the greatest stylist
of his day. Paul Palmer said "no American ever wrote a more
powerful prose."

powerful arguments against all forms of collectivism, in almost
20 books and far more essays, were also influential not just on
Murray Rothbard ("who consistently upheld the Nockian position,"
according to Jeffrey Tucker), but on libertarians such as Frank
Chodorov and Leonard Read, and conservative William F. Buckley,
Jr. (who said in 1999 that from Nock, "I imbibed deeply the
anti-statist tradition which he accepted, celebrated, and enhanced."

This year
is also the 70th anniversary of the publication of Our
Enemy the State
, which grew out of lectures given at Columbia
University’s Bard College. Since it has been described as
"perhaps the most encompassing record of Nock’s political
thought," it is worthwhile remembering some of its core insights
in celebration of his birthday, and in hopes of inspiring further
examination of his works and ideas.

  • "…every
    assumption of State power, whether by gift or seizure, leaves
    society with so much less power…"
  • "The
    State has said to society, You are either not exercising enough
    power…or are exercising it in what I think is an incompetent
    way, so I shall confiscate your power, and exercise it to suit
  • "…underlying…faith
    in "political action"…is the assumption that
    the interests of the State and the interests of society are,
    at least theoretically, identical; whereas in theory they are
    directly opposed…"
  • "…the
    code of government should be that of the legendary King Pausole,
    who prescribed but two laws for his subjects, the first being,
    Hurt no man, and the second, Then do as you please; and that
    the whole business of government should be the purely negative
    one of seeing that this code is carried out."
  • "[The
    State] did not originate in the common understanding and agreement
    of society; it originated in conquest and confiscation…"

  • "Based
    on the idea of natural rights, government secures those rights
    to the individual by strictly negative intervention, making
    justice costless and easy of access; and beyond that it does
    not go. The State, on the other hand, both in its genesis and
    by its primary intention, is purely anti-social. It is not based
    on the idea of natural rights, but on the idea that the individual
    has no rights except those that the State may provisionally
    grant him…So far from encouraging a wholesome development
    of social power, it has invariably, as Madison said, turned
    every contingency into a resource for depleting social power
    and enhancing State power…"
  • "There
    are two methods, or means, and only two, whereby man’s
    needs and desires can be satisfied. One is the production and
    exchange of wealth; this is the economic means. The other is
    the uncompensated appropriation of wealth produced by others;
    this is the political means."
  • "The
    State…is the organization of the political means. Now, since
    man tends always to satisfy his needs and desires with the least
    possible exertion, he will employ the political means whenever
    he can…He will…have recourse to the State’s modern apparatus
    of exploitation…So long, therefore, as the organization
    of the political means is available – so long as the highly-centralized
    bureaucratic State stands as primarily a distributor of economic
    advantage, an arbiter of exploitation, so long will that instinct
    effectively declare itself."
  • "…government
    [is] the purely social institution which should have no other
    object than, as the Declaration put it, to secure the natural
    rights of the individual; or as Paine put it, which should contemplate
    nothing beyond the maintenance of freedom and security –
    the institution which should make no positive interventions
    of any kind upon the individual, but should confine itself exclusively
    to such negative interventions as the maintenance of freedom
    might indicate."
  • "…imagine
    the suppression of every bureaucratic activity in Washington
    today that has to do with the maintenance and administration
    of the political means, and see how little would be left. If
    the State were superseded by government, probably every federal
    activity could be housed in the Senate Office Building –
    quite possibly with room to spare."
  • "Instead
    of recognizing the State as u2018the common enemy of all well-disposed,
    industrious and decent men’ the run of mankind, with rare
    exceptions, regards it not only as a final and indispensable
    entity, but also as, in the main, beneficent. The mass-man,
    ignorant of its history, regards its character and intentions
    as social rather than anti-social; and in that faith he is willing
    to put at its disposal an indefinite credit of knavery, mendacity
    and chicane, upon which its administrators may draw at will.
    Instead of looking upon the State’s progressive absorption of
    social power with the repugnance and resentment that he would
    naturally feel towards the activities of a professional-criminal
    organization, he tends rather to encourage and glorify it…"
  • "…we
    find more firmly implanted than ever the same general idea of
    the State…an organization of the political means, an irresponsible
    and all-powerful agency standing always ready to be put into
    use for the service of one set of economic interests as against
  • "…the
    existence of free competition is obviously incompatible with
    any exercise of the political means…the most that rugged
    individualism has done to distinguish itself has been by way
    of running to the State for some form of economic advantage."
  • "The
    State is not…a social institution administered in an anti-social
    way. It is an anti-social institution administered in the only
    way an anti-social institution can be administered, and by the
    kind of person who, in the nature of things, is best adapted
    to such service."
  • "…enervation
    pervades our society with respect to the State…It effects
    especially those who take the State’s pretensions at face value
    and regard it as a social institution whose policies of continuous
    intervention are wholesome and necessary; and it also affects
    the great majority who have no clear idea of the State, but
    merely accept it as something that exists, and never think about
    it except when some intervention bears unfavorably upon their
  • "Every
    intervention by the State enables another, and this in turn
    another, and so on indefinitely; and the State stands ever ready
    and eager to make them, often on its own motion, often again
    wangling plausibility for them through the specious suggestion
    of interested persons…complications are erected on it; then
    presently someone sees that these complications are exploitable,
    and proceeds to exploit them; then another, and another, until
    the rivalries and collisions of interest thus generated issue
    in a more or less general disorder. When this takes place, the
    logical thing, obviously, is to recede, and let the disorder
    be settled in the slower and more troublesome way, through the
    operation of natural laws…Instead, the interests unfavorably
    affected – little aware, perhaps, how much worse the cure
    is than the disease, or at any rate little caring – immediately
    call on the State to cut in arbitrarily between cause and effect,
    and clear up the disorder out of hand."
  • "It
    is one of the most extraordinary things in the world, that the
    interests which abhor and dread collectivism are the ones which
    have the most eagerly urged on the State to take each one of
    the successive single steps that lead directly to collectivism."
  • "…ignorance
    and delusion concerning the nature of the State combine with
    extreme moral debility and myopic self-interest …to enable
    the steadily accelerated conversion of social power into State
    power…It is a curious anomaly. State power has an unbroken
    record of inability to do anything efficiently, economically,
    disinterestedly or honestly; yet when the slightest dissatisfaction
    arises over any exercise of social power, the aid of the agent
    least qualified to give aid is immediately called for."

  • "…an
    appeal to the State…is a plea for arbitrary interference
    with the order of nature, an arbitrary cutting-in to avert the
    penalty which nature lays on any and every form of error…there
    is no such means."
  • "It
    will be clear to anyone who takes the trouble to think the matter
    through, that under a regime of natural order, that is to say
    under government, which makes no positive interventions whatever
    on the individual, but only negative interventions on behalf
    of simple justice – not law, but justice – misuses
    of social power would be effectively corrected; whereas we know
    by interminable experience that the State’s positive interventions
    do not correct them. Under a regime of actual individualism,
    actually free competition, actual laissez-faire – a regime
    which, as we have seen, can not possibly coexist with the State
    – a serious or continuous misuse of social power would
    be virtually impracticable."

to Jeffrey Tucker, Albert Jay Nock had "a political anarchism
which saw the State as the enemy of everything that is civilized,
beautiful and true. And he applied this principle consistently
in opposition to welfare, government-managed economies, consolidation,
and, above all else, war." That explains his conclusion in
Memoirs of a Superfluous Man that "It is easier to seize
wealth than to produce it; and as long as the State makes the
seizure of wealth a matter of legalized privilege, so long will
the squabble for that privilege go on." It also explains
his adamant opposition to expansion of state power at the expense
of individualism: "The weaker the State is, the less power
it has to commit crime."

Albert Jay
Nock explained his endorsement of liberty in his 1935 "On
Doing the Right Thing," in H.L. Mencken’s American
Mercury: "The practical reason for freedom, then is that
freedom seems to be the only condition under which any kind of
substantial moral fibre can be developed. Everything else has
been tried, world without end. Going dead against reason and experience,
we have tried law, compulsion and authoritarianism of various
kinds, and the result is nothing to be proud of." And as
he wrote in Memoirs
of a Superfluous Man
, "If a regime of complete economic
freedom be established, social and political freedom will follow
automatically; and until it is established neither social nor
political freedom can exist." Since we are now far more distant
from that ideal than when he wrote, Nock’s insights are at
least as important to heed today as when he wrote.

14, 2005

Gary M.
Galles [send him mail]
is a professor of economics at Pepperdine University.

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