Life, Liberty, and ...


This article originally appeared in Scribner’s in March 1935; it is now the introduction to Our Enemy, The State.

For almost a full century before the Revolution of 1776, the classic enumeration of human rights was "life, liberty, and property." The American Whigs took over this formula from the English Whigs, who had constructed it out of the theories of their seventeenth-century political thinkers, notably John Locke. It appears in the Declaration of Rights, which was written by John Dickinson and set forth by the Stamp Act Congress. In drafting the Constitution of Massachusetts in 1779 Samuel and John Adams used the same formula. But when the Declaration of Independence was drafted Mr. Jefferson wrote "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," and although his colleagues on the committee, Franklin, Livingston, Sherman, and Adams, were pretty well tinctured with Whig philosophy, they let the alteration stand.

It was a revolutionary change. "The pursuit of happiness" is of course an inclusive term. It covers property rights, because obviously if a person’s property is molested, his pursuit of happiness is interfered with. But there are many interferences which are not aimed at specific property rights; and in so wording the Declaration as to cover all these interferences, Mr. Jefferson immensely broadened the scope of political theory – he broadened the idea of what government is for. The British and American Whigs thought the sociological concern of government stopped with abstract property rights. Mt Jefferson thought it went further; he thought that government ought to concern itself with the larger and inclusive right to pursue happiness.

Unhappiness and Enervation

This clause of the Declaration has been a good deal in my mind lately because for the best part of a year I have been moving about in several countries, and have noticed that hardly anybody in any of them seemed happy. I do not say that the people I saw were sullen or gloomy, or that they no longer occupied themselves in their usual ways. What struck me was, simply, that the general level of happiness was not so high as I had been accustomed to see it some years ago. The people did not act like free people. They seemed under a shadow, enervated, sat upon. They showed little of the spontaneity of spirit which is a sure mark of happiness; even in their amusements they behaved like people who have something on their minds. Moreover, this decline of spirit apparently had little to do with "prosperity" or the lack of it. For all I could see, the prosperous were as dispirited as the unprosperous, and the well-to-do seemed not much, if any, happier than the poor.

But the interesting thing about this moral enervation was that so much of it, practically all of it, was attributable to nothing else but state action. Any thoughtful observer could not help seeing that it arose chiefly out of a long series of positive interferences with the individual’s right to pursue happiness. Whether or not these interventions were justifiable on other grounds, it was clear that if the state really had any concern with the individual’s pursuit of happiness, it had made a most dreadful mess of its responsibility. I noticed with interest, too, that all the countries I visited had some sort of political structure that could be called republican. That is to say, their sovereignty nominally resided in the people, and the people nominally created their governments. This brought to my mind Paine’s saying that "when we suffer or are exposed to the same miseries by a government which we might expect in a country without government, our calamity is heightened by the reflection that we furnish the means whereby we suffer." As an exercise of the scientific imagination, I tried to make a fair conjecture at the question whether the aggregate of these peoples’ happiness was appreciably greater under the governments they had than it would be if they had no government at all. I could not make out that it was. I am not prepared with any elaborate defence of my estimate, but I think I could at least set up a pretty good case for the proposition that they were not nearly so happy as they would be if their governments had been considerably less paternalistic.

I am very far from suggesting that these governments deliberately set out to make their peoples unhappy. The question of motive need not come in at all. In fact, we may admit that by every one of its interventions the state intended to raise the general level of happiness, and actually thought it would do so. The only thing we need observe is that quite evidently it had not done so, and that if it had acted differently it might have succeeded better. By consequence, if it were acting differently now, the prospect for an increase in these peoples’ happiness hereafter might be brighter than it is.

How, then, should the state act? What is the utmost that the state can do to raise the general level of happiness? Mr. Jefferson’s answer to this question can be put in few words – that it should mind its own business. But what is its business? In Mr. Jefferson’s view its business is to protect the individual from the aggressions and trespasses of his neighbors, and beyond this, to leave him strictly alone. The state’s whole duty is, first, to abstain entirely from any positive regulation of the individual’s conduct; and, second, to make justice easily and costlessly accessible to every applicant. In its relations with the individual, the code of state action should be purely negative, more negative by 20 percent than the Ten Commandments. Its legitimate concern is with but two matters: first, freedom; second, justice.

The State’s Business

This was Mr. Jefferson’s notion of the state’s part in bringing about an ideal social order. All his life was devoted to the doctrine that the state should never venture into the sphere of positive regulation. Its only intervention upon the individual should be the negative one of forbidding the exercise of rights in any way that interferes with the free exercise of the rights of others. According to this idea, one could see that the unhappiness and enervation which I was everywhere observing as due to state action were due to state action entirely outside the state’s proper sphere. They were due to the state’s not minding its own business but making a series of progressive encroachments on the individual’s business. They were due to the state’s repeated excursions out of the realm of negative coercion into the realm of positive coercion.

The frequency, variety, and extent of these excursions as disclosed by the last twenty years of European history are almost beyond belief. Tracing them in detail would be impracticable here, and is probably unnecessary. Any one acquainted with European conditions twenty years ago will be pretty well able to judge by how much the margin of existence, which the individual is free to dispose of for himself, has been reduced. Here or there in Europe the state now undertakes to tell the individual what he may buy and sell; it limits his freedom of movement; it tells him what sort of quarters he may occupy; what he may manufacture; what he may eat; what the discipline of his family shall be; what he shall read; what his modes of entertainment shall be. It "manages" his currency, "manages" the worth of his labor, his sales-prices and buying-prices, his credit, his banking facilities, and so on with an almost limitless particularity; and it keeps an enormous, highly articulated bureaucracy standing over him to see that its orders are carried out.

This, too, when one considers only the positive coercions that the state applies directly to the individual. When one considers also those that it applies indirectly, one sees that the individual’s margin of free existence has well-nigh disappeared bodily. These coercions take place when the state invades fields of endeavor that were formerly occupied by private enterprise, and either competes with private enterprise or supplants it. In the countries that I visited, the state now appears variously as railway-operator, ship-operator, shipbuilder, house-builder, clothier, shoemaker, gunmaker, wholesale and retail tobacconist, match-seller, banker and moneylender, news-purveyor, radio-broadcaster, market-operator, aviation-enterpriser, letter-carrier, parcel-carrier, telegraphist, telephonist, pawnbroker. The state has also invaded the field of eleemosynary effort, or what is called, I believe, "social service." Thus the state now appears as grand almoner, giving away immense largesse in the form of doles or wage-supplements. It also appears as employer-at-large, improvising work for those who have none. It also appears as educator-in-chief, chief sanitary inspector, chief arbitrator, chief druggist and chemist, chief agriculturist, and in many like roles; in one country I noticed that the state had even undertaken a loose monopoly of the dissemination of culture! I can think of only one line of human activity – religion – which state meddling has of late years tended rather to decrease than to increase. Formerly the state was a considerable purveyor of religious opportunity, but now it does very little actively in that way, its subsidies being mostly confined to tax-exemption, as in the United States.

Service and Servitude

By way of consequence, two things are noticeable. The first one is that whatever the state has accomplished outside its own proper field has been done poorly and expensively. This is an old story, and I shall not dwell upon it. No complaint is more common, and none better founded, than the complaint against officialism’s inefficiency and extravagance. Every informed person who is at the same time disinterested is aware – often by harassing experience – that as compared with the administration of private enterprise, bureaucratic administration is notoriously and flagrantly slow, costly, inefficient, improvident, unadaptive, unintelligent, and that it tends directly to become corrupt. The reasons why this is so, and must be so, have often been set forth – the classic document in the case is Herbert Spencer’s essay called The New Toryism – so I shall not go over them afresh, but merely cite one sample comparison which I was able to make, not in Europe, but here in America, and only the other day. I choose it merely for its vividness, since it concerns the one state enterprise which at present is considered the most laudable, most necessary, and most highly humanitarian.

About a week ago, I had by sheer accident an "inside" chance to compare American state enterprise with private enterprise in the matter of relief for certain enormous batches of destitute vagrants. The contrast was most impressive. If the cooperation of private enterprise had not stayed steadily on the spot to read the Riot Act to state enterprise, to show it which way to go and how to start, where to get off and how to stop when it got there, and in a general way hold its hand from beginning to end, those vagrants would have stood the best chance in the world not only of starving but of freezing, for a sudden spell of very bitter weather had just come on.

The clear consenting testimony of all political history certifies this incident as a standard specimen of state efficiency. The post office is often cited as an example of a state commercial monopoly that is well and cheaply administered. It is nothing of the kind. The post office merely sorts mail and distributes it. Private enterprise transports it; and as John Wanamaker said when he was Postmaster General, private enterprise would be only too glad to take over everything that the post office now does, do it much better and for much less money, and make an attractive profit out of it at that.

The second noticeable consequence of the state’s activity in everybody’s business but its own is that its own business is monstrously neglected. According to our official formula expressed in the Declaration, as I have said, the state’s business is, first, with freedom; second, with justice. In the countries I visited, freedom and justice were in a very dilapidated condition; and the striking thing was that the state not only showed complete indifference to their breakdown, but appeared to be doing everything it could to break them down still further. As James Madison wrote in a letter to Mr. Jefferson in 1794, the state was busily "turning every contingency into a resource for accumulating force in the government," with a most callous disregard, not only of freedom and justice, but of common honesty. Every few days brought out some new and arbitrary confiscation of individual rights. Labor was progressively confiscated, capital was progressively confiscated, even speech and opinion were progressively confiscated; and naturally, in the course of this procedure anything like freedom and justice was ignored.

In short, I thought the people might fairly be said to be living for the state. The state’s fiscal exactions, necessary to support its incursions into everybody’s business but its own, were so great that their payment represented the confiscation of an unconscionable amount of the individual’s labor and capital. Its positive regulations and coercions were so many, so inquisitorial, and their points of incidence upon the individual were so various, as to confiscate an unconscionable amount of his time and attention. Its enormously advantaged presence in so many fields of enterprise that are properly free and competitive confiscated an unconscionable share of his initiative and interest. It seemed to me that whichever way the individual turned, the state was promptly on hand to meet him with some form of positive coercion; at every step he was met by a regulation, an exaction, or a menace. Not daily but hourly, in the course of my travels, there occurred to me Mr. Henry L. Mencken’s blunt characterization of the state as "the common enemy of all honest, industrious, and decent men."

So indeed it seemed. Putting the case in plain language, the individual was living in a condition of servitude to the state. The fact that he "furnished the means by which he suffered" – that he was a member of a nominally sovereign body – made his condition none the less one of servitude. Slavery is slavery whether it be voluntary or involuntary, nor is its character at all altered by the nature of the agency that exercises it. A man is in slavery when all his rights lie at the arbitrary discretion of some agency other than himself; when his life, liberty, property, and the whole direction of his activities are liable to arbitrary and irresponsible confiscation at any time – and this appeared to be the exact relation that I saw obtaining between the individual and the state.

The New Absolutism

This relation corresponds to a political theory precisely opposite to the one set forth in the Declaration. It is not a new theory; it is merely "cauld kail made het again," as the Scots say – it is the old doctrine of absolutism in a new mode or form. The theory behind the Declaration is that the state exists for the good of the individual and that the individual has certain rights which are not derived from the state, but which belong to him in virtue of his humanity. He was born with them, and they are "unalienable." No power may infringe on them, least of all the state. The language of the Declaration is most explicit on this point. It is to secure these rights, Mr. Jefferson wrote, that governments are instituted among men. That is what government is for. The state may not invade these rights or abridge them; all it may do is to protect them, and that is the purpose of its existence.

The new absolutist theory of politics is exactly the opposite of this. The individual exists for the good of the state. He has no natural rights, but only such rights as the state provisionally grants him; the state may suspend them, modify them, or take them away at its own pleasure. Mussolini sums up this doctrine very handsomely in a single phrase, "Everything for the state; nothing outside the state; nothing against the state," and this is only an extension to the logical limit of the doctrine set forth in England by Carlyle, Professor Huxley, Matthew Arnold, and many others in the last century.

This idea, the absolutist idea of the state, seems to be very generally prevalent at the moment. The great majority of social philosophers and publicists treat it as matter-of-course; not only in Europe, where some form of theoretical absolutism has always been more or less in vogue, but also in America, where the idea of government, as expressed officially in the Declaration, runs all the other way. Since my return here I cannot help noticing that the rank and file of Americans seem to be extremely well reconciled to the idea of an absolute state, for the most part on pragmatic or "practical" grounds; that is to say, having found the frying-pan of a misnamed and fraudulent "rugged individualism" too hot for comfort, they are willing to take a chance on the fire. If only one be tactful enough not to name the hated names of Socialism, Bolshevism, Communism, Fascism, Marxism, Hitlerism, or what not, one finds no particular objection to the single essential doctrine that underlies all these systems alike – the doctrine of an absolute state. Let one abstain from the coarse word slavery and one discovers that in the view of many Americans – I think probably most of them – an actual slave-status is something that is really not much to be dreaded, but rather perhaps to be welcomed, at least provisionally. Such is the power of words.

The absolutist doctrine seems to assume that the state is a kind of organism, something that has an objective existence apart from the mere aggregation of individuals who make it up. Mussolini speaks of the state much as certain hierophants speak of the Church – as though if all its citizens died off overnight, the state would go on existing as before. So in the last generation Carlyle said that the state should be "the vital articulation of many individuals into a new collective individual"; and one hears the same sort of thing continually from the neo-absolutists of the present day.

No doubt this conception of the state has poetic truth, and to that extent there is a great deal in it. But in its practical relations with the individual, the state acts as though the idea also had scientific truth, which it manifestly has not. Merely reducing the matter to its lowest terms, as I did a moment ago, shows that it has not. Suppose every German died tonight, would the Hitlerian absolute state exist tomorrow in any but a strictly poetic sense? Clearly not.

Again, the absolutist rejection of the idea of natural rights lands one straight in the midst of the logical tangle that so baffled Herbert Spencer. If the individual has no rights but those that the state gives him, and yet if, according to republican theory, sovereignty resides in the people, we see a strange sort of sequence. Here we have a sovereign aggregation of individuals, none of whom has any rights of any kind. They create a government, which creates rights and then confers them on the individuals who created it. The plain man’s wits do not hold out through this sequence, nor yet did Spencer’s. "Surely," he says, "among metaphysical phantoms the most shadowy is this which supposes a thing to be obtained by creating an agent, which creates the thing, and then confers the thing on its own creator!"

But I do not intend to discuss these doctrines further; least of all do I intend to follow them into the shadowy realms of metaphysics. The thing that I am interested in for the moment is the pursuit of happiness. The question I wish to raise is whether it is possible for human beings to be happy under a regime of absolutism. By happiness I mean happiness. I do not mean the exhilaration arising from a degree of physical well-being, or the exaltation that comes from a brisk run of money-getting or money-spending, or the titillations and distractions brought on by the appeal to raw sensation, or the fanatical quasi-religious fervor that arises from participation in some mass-enterprise – as in Russia and Germany, at the moment. I refer to a stable condition of mind and spirit quite above anything of that kind; a condition so easily recognized and so well understood that I do not need to waste space on trying to define it.

Mr. Pickwick’s acquaintance, Mr. Jack Hopkins, the young surgeon, thought a surgical operation was successful if it was skilfully done. Mr. Pickwick, on the other hand, thought it was successful if the patient got well. While in Europe I read a good many essays and speeches about public affairs, and they impressed me as having been written mostly from Mr. Jack Hopkins’s point of view. Their burden was that the state’s progressive confiscations, exactions and positive coercions, its progressive dragooning of the individual under bureaucratic management, were infallibly going to usher in a new Era of Plenty. If the state only kept on enlarging the scope of officialism, only kept on increasing its encroachments upon the individual’s available margin of existence it would round out an excellent social order and put it on a permanent footing.

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Well, possibly. I have no inclination to dispute it, since even if the state were sure to do all this, I still have a previous question to raise. Like Mr. Pickwick, I am interested to know what the individual is going to be like when it is done. Let us make an extreme hypothesis. Let us suppose that instead of being slow, extravagant, inefficient, wasteful, unadaptive, stupid, and at least by tendency corrupt, the state changes its character entirely and becomes infinitely wise, good, disinterested, efficient, so that any one may run to it with any little two-penny problem and have it solved for him at once in the wisest and best way possible. Suppose the state close-herds the individual so far as to forestall every conceivable consequence of his own bad judgment, weakness, incompetence; suppose it confiscates all his energy and resources and employs them much more advantageously all round than he can employ them if left to himself. My question still remains – what sort of person is the individual likely to become under those circumstances?

I raise this question only because no one else seems ever to think of raising it, and it strikes me as worth raising. In all I have heard or read, in public or private, during the last four years, it has never once come up. I do not pretend to answer it. I raise it merely in the hope of starting the idea in the minds of others, for them to think about and answer for themselves, if they think it worth while to do so.

Can any individual be happy when he is continually conscious of not being his own man? Can the pursuit of happiness be satisfactorily carried on when its object is prescribed and its course charted by an agency other than oneself? In short, is happiness compatible with a condition of servitude, whether the voluntary servitude of the "yes-than" or the involuntary servitude of the conscript? How far is happiness conditioned by character, by keeping the integrity of one’s personality inviolate, by the cultivation of self-respect, dignity, independent judgment, a sense of justice; and how far is all this compatible with membership in a conscript society? This is what I should like to hear discussed, for one hears nothing of it. If we might have this topic thoroughly threshed out for us in public now and again, I for one would not ask for another word about "a planned economy" and similar matters for a long time.

Crossing to America after the experiences I have mentioned, I read for the third time Mr. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Soon after arriving I read the extraordinary production called Karl and the Twentieth Century. I cannot recommend these books for purposes of entertainment; they are neither light nor particularly cheerful. One thing they do, however, and they do it exceedingly well. They throw a strong light, a very strong light indeed, upon what was probably in Mr. Jefferson’s mind when he revised the classic enumeration of man’s natural rights, and made it read, "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." What I have seen since I landed has made me think it is high time for Americans to wake up to what the state is doing, and ask themselves a few plain questions about it. There are plenty of examples to show what a conscript society is like – well, do they want to live in one? There are plenty of examples to show what sort of people a conscript society breeds – is that the sort of people they want to be? Do they like the idea of a slave-status with a coercive and militant state as their owner? If they do, I should say they are getting what they want about as fast as is reasonably possible; and if they do not, my impression is that they had better not lose much time about being heard from.

Albert Jay Nock (1870–1945) was an influential American libertarian author, educational theorist, and social critic. Murray Rothbard was deeply influenced by him, and so was that whole generation of free-market thinkers. See Nock’s The State of the Union.

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