Wednesday, April 23, 2014

As the State Enlarges, Liberty Contracts — Albert Jay Nock’s ‘Our Enemy, the State’

Albert Jay Nock (1870-1945) was a highly influential public intellectual of the pre-World War II period whose influence suffered a precipitous decline during the New Deal era. Although he seemed to find Social Darwinism tolerable and tended towards anarchism, what Nock had to say about the contraction of social freedom when the State promiscuously expands its influence over its citizens still has much validity today.

His magnum opus would have to be Our Enemy, The State (1935), available from the Ludwig von Mises Institute.

Prefatory to his book, Nock quotes several other influential people of his time:

Be it or be it not true that Man is shapen in iniquity and conceived in sin, it is unquestionably true that Government is begotten of aggression, and by aggression. — Herbert Spencer, 1850.

This is the gravest danger that today threatens civilization: State intervention, the absorption of all spontaneous social effort by the State; that is to say, of spontaneous historical action, which in the long-run sustains, nourishes and impels human destinies. — Jose Ortega y Gasset, 1922.

It [the State] has taken on a vast mass of new duties and responsibilities; it has spread out its powers until they penetrate to every act of the citizen, however secret; it has begun to throw around its operations the high dignity and impeccability of a State religion; its agents become a separate and superior caste, with authority to bind and loose, and their thumbs in every pot. But it still remains, as it was in the beginning, the common enemy of all well-disposed, industrious and decent men. — Henry L. Mencken, 1926.

The truth of Nock’s introductory summary statement, while generalized, has been demonstrated time and again throughout history:

IF WE look beneath the surface of our public affairs, we can discern one fundamental fact, namely: a great redistribution of power between society and the State. This is the fact that interests the student of civilization. He has only a secondary or derived interest in matters like price-fixing, wage-fixing, inflation, political banking, “agricultural adjustment,” and similar items of State policy that fill the pages of newspapers and the mouths of publicists and politicians.

All these can be run up under one head.

They have an immediate and temporary importance, and for this reason they monopolize public attention, but they all come to the same thing; which is, an increase of State power and a corresponding decrease of social power.

It is unfortunately none too well understood that, just as the State has no money of its own, so it has no power of its own. All the power it has is what society gives it, plus what it confiscates from time to time on one pretext or another; there is no other source from which State power can be drawn.

Therefore, every assumption of State power, whether by gift or seizure, leaves society with so much less power; there is never, nor can be, any strengthening of State power without a corresponding and roughly equivalent depletion of social power.

Moreover, it follows that with any exercise of State power, not only the exercise of social power in the same direction, but the disposition to exercise it in that direction, tends to dwindle.

In his preface to Nock’s book, Frank Chodorov places it in historical context:

When OUR ENEMY THE STATE appeared in 1935, its literary merit rather than its philosophic content attracted attention to it.

The times were not ripe for an acceptance of its predictions, still less for the argument on which these predictions were based.

Faith in traditional frontier individualism had not yet been shaken by the course of events.

Against this faith the argument that the same economic forces which in all times and in all nations drive toward the ascendancy of political power at the expense of social power were in operation here made little headway. That is, the feeling that “it cannot happen here” was too difficult a hurdle for the book to overcome.

By the time the first edition had run out, the development of public affairs gave the argument of the book ample testimony. In less than a decade it was evident to many Americans that their country is not immune from the philosophy which had captured European thinking.

. . . and, we might add, which seems to captivate America’s public officials today.

In Nock’s day, opinion polls were in their infancy, yet he can’t resist citing one that confirms his main thesis:

The result of a questionnaire published in July 1935, showed 76.8 per cent of the replies favourable to the idea that it is the State’s duty to see that every person who wants a job shall have one; 20.1 per cent were against it, and 3.1 per cent were undecided.

The vestiges of the New Deal, the Great Society programs of the ’60s, and the shameless pandering for votes displayed by both political parties almost guarantee that such thinking will persist well into the 21st century.

You can purchase Our Enemy, the State here. Several of Nock’s The American Mercury articles are available online here.

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