An Authentic American Radical

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 Thoreau."

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."

Nock’s 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 myself."
  • "…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 another."
  • "…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 interests."
  • "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."

According 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.

October 14, 2005