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Nock's Enemy, and Ours

Mises Daily: Monday, November 16, 2009 by

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Our Enemy, The State

[The Freeman, 1974]

When Albert Jay Nock wrote Our Enemy, The State in 1935, he was bucking the tide and he entertained no false hope that his words would have any immediate effect on the course of human events. But his devotion was to the truth, and he was used to being out of step. So, with clinical detachment, he dissected the drift away from social power toward state power, fully aware of his thankless task. Why, then, the painful effort of writing a book? For two reasons, Nock replied:

The general reason is that when in any department of thought a person has, or thinks he has, a view of the plain intelligible order of things, it is proper that he should record that view publicly, with no thought whatever of the practical consequences, or lack of consequences, likely to ensue upon his so doing. He might indeed be thought bound to do this as a matter of abstract duty; not to crusade or propagandize for his view or seek to impose it upon anyone — far from that! — not to concern himself at all with either its acceptance or its disallowance; but merely to record it. This, I say, might be thought his duty to the natural truth of things, but it is at all events his right; it is admissible.

The special reason has to do with the fact that in every civilization, however generally prosaic, however addicted to the short time point of view on human affairs, there are always certain alien spirits who, while outwardly conforming to the requirements of the civilization around them, still keep a disinterested regard for the plain intelligible law of things, irrespective of any practical end.

They have an intellectual curiosity, sometimes touched with emotion, concerning the august order of nature; they are impressed by the contemplation of it, and like to know as much about it as they can, even in circumstances where its operation is ever so manifestly unfavorable to their best hopes and wishes.

For these, a work like this, however in the current sense impractical, is not quite useless; and those of them it reaches will be aware that for such as themselves, and such only, it was written.

There are two political institutions, Nock held: government and the state. Government is an agency of society limited to negative interventions aimed at protecting individuals against force and fraud; governments are established to secure persons in their rights and to punish any trespass on them.

The state, on the other hand, intervenes positively in society; it dragoons people into the chase after various national goals, wars on poverty, provides welfare, pays out subsidies, offers cradle-to-grave security, and so on.

"Nock's book is a big gun in our arsenal."

Nock was opposed to the state system, whatever name it assumes, but he was not an anarchist. He had no naive opinion of human nature and would have never subscribed to the view that men and women, free of all law and law enforcement, would settle down to live happily ever after in some latter-day Garden of Eden. Keeping government strictly limited and decentralized, he believed, is the way to preserve our liberties.

The state being what it is, it matters little who holds office and wields its inordinate powers. This truth is dawning on some persons today; but the general public, however disillusioned with politicians, still has faith in politics as the means of curing all the ills of society and improving the quality of life. Hopefully, people will someday realize that what counts is the overextension of state power, not who holds public office. The important thing is to refute statist ideas, whatever their guise, and Nock's book is a big gun in our arsenal.