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Albert Jay Nock and the Libertarian Tradition

Tags BiographiesFree MarketsU.S. HistoryEntrepreneurship

09/10/2010Jeff Riggenbach

[Transcribed from the Libertarian Tradition podcast episode "Albert Jay Nock."]

In the beginning, there was Henry George.

Henry George was born September 2, 1839, in Philadelphia, the second of ten children in a not overly prosperous family. His formal education ended when he was 14 years old. A little less than a year later, at the age of 15, he went to sea. He didn't care much for the experience, however, and when his ship returned to Philadelphia 14 months later, he stayed ashore for nearly two years, serving an apprenticeship at a printing establishment. Then, at 18, he went to sea again. He never really intended to stick out the entire voyage, however.

He jumped ship in San Francisco and looked around for a job that would make use of his newly acquired skills as a typesetter. He found work soon enough in the local newspaper business, first as a typesetter and printer, then as a reporter and editorial writer, finally as an editor and proprietor. For four years (1871–1875), he was editor and part owner of the San Francisco Daily Evening Post. It was about the time the Evening Post closed its doors, in the mid-1870s, when George was in his mid-30s, that he at last gave in to the impulse to write a book making the argument for an idea that had come to him a few years earlier, near the beginning of the decade.

George had decided at that time that the reason poverty persists even in the midst of great wealth is that absentee owners were skimming off huge profits on undeveloped land whose price had been driven up, not by any improvements put there by the owners, but by the mere proximity of other, developed land and of various commercial enterprises. Seize this unearned wealth, George proposed, and use it to fund government. The "single tax," his proposal came to be called, because, according to George, no other taxes would be necessary to pay the full cost of legitimate governmental activity.

In George's view very little governmental activity was legitimate.

The sphere of government begins, where the freedom of competition ends, since in no other way can equal liberty be assured. But within this line I have always opposed governmental interference. I have been an active, consistent and absolute free trader and an opponent of all schemes that would limit the freedom of the individual.

He held "the rights of property to be absolute," he said — except, of course, for the right to own land; "property in land," he wrote, "is as indefensible as property in man" — and, according to the chapter on him in Charles Madison's useful 1947 book Critics & Crusaders: A Century of American Protest, George argued that, in the end, "genuine free trade involved the abolition of all tariffs and taxes."

Henry George was, in effect, a limited-government libertarian, a minarchist, except for his views on land and the single tax. The book he wrote in the late 1870s and published in 1879, when he was 40 years old, was called Progress & Poverty: An Inquiry into the Cause of Industrial Depressions and of Increase of Want with Increase of Wealth, The Remedy.Download PDF It was a tremendous success, a huge bestseller. It sold some three million copies in a United States inhabited by fewer than 50 million people. It's as though a book published today were to sell 18 million copies. Progress & Poverty made George financially comfortable for the first time in his life. It launched a movement, the "Georgist" or "single-tax" movement, which attained considerable influence in American politics in the 1880s and '90s.

George himself ran for mayor of New York in 1886 and came in second. Third place went to the 28-year-old Republican candidate, Theodore Roosevelt. It was widely believed and widely bruited about that George had really come in first and that Tammany Hall had stolen the election by buying votes and by throwing ballots for George into the East River. George ran again, a decade later, but died of a stroke during the campaign, on October 29, 1897, in New York City, at the age of 58.

Meanwhile, Georgist mayors were elected (or were soon to be elected) in other cities — Toledo, Cincinnati, Cleveland. At least one Georgist was elected to Congress. And George's books were read by and exercised an intellectual influence upon more than a few people who were either already famous, like Leo Tolstoy, or later came to fame of one kind or another: Clarence Darrow, Henry Ford, Aldous Huxley, Albert Jay Nock.

It is the last of these figures, Albert Jay Nock, who is the real central character of our present story. Nock was born in 1870 in Scranton, Pennsylvania, at just about the time Henry George was conceiving the idea that would become Progress & Poverty. Nock's father was an Episcopal minister; his mother was a descendant of John Jay. He grew up mainly in Brooklyn and was educated at home up to the age of 14, when he was sent — in the mid-1880s, at about the time Henry George was making his first run for mayor of New York — to a four-year prep school near Peoria, Illinois.

From there he went to St. Stephen's College, an Episcopal college in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, about a hundred miles up the Hudson River from New York City. Since the mid-1930s, St. Stephen's has been known as Bard College, in honor of its founder, John Bard, who had established it in 1860 as a training school for Episcopal clergymen. For a few years after his graduation from St. Stephen's, in 1892, Albert Jay Nock seems to have toyed with the idea of an academic career. He stuck around Annandale, took graduate courses, and taught introductory courses in Latin and German. By 1895, however, he was in divinity school in Connecticut. In 1897, he was ordained an Episcopal minister. In 1898 he reported to his first church, St. James Memorial in Titusville, Pennsylvania.

For the next 12 years, Nock worked as a clergyman in Titusville, Blacksburg (in Virginia), and Detroit. He married and fathered two sons. Then, at the age of 40, in 1910, he left his wife and children and moved to New York, where he took a job as an editor on a monthly called The American Magazine.

Nock really wasn't cut out to be a minister. Though he was outwardly rather formal and traditional in his manner, and though he tended to favor the traditional and even somewhat sedate in the arts — the symphonies of Franz Josef Haydn, for example — his mind was freethinking and radical, unafraid to question any orthodoxy, unafraid to challenge any shibboleth, however sacred. The evidence suggests that Nock may have donned his clerical collar in an effort to please his mother, who had wanted him to follow in his father's footsteps.

In any case, once he summoned the courage to take that collar off and follow his own secret passion, he headed straight for the world that had been his secret refuge for the previous two decades, the world he'd long been reading about and longing for, the world of ideas and public affairs, the world that was the natural home of all those who saw that human beings were capable of improvement and understood that the way to improve them was to reform their societies. Nock had become a Georgist sitting in his dormitory room, and later his parsonage, reading. Now he would go and live among fellow Georgists, if he could find any, and if not, then at least among people who ached, as he did, for reform, for improvement in the way people lived.

On the American Magazine between 1910 and 1915, Nock worked with John Reed, Lincoln Steffens, and Ida Tarbell. He wrote articles pushing progressive causes and programs. According to his biographer, Michael Wreszin, Nock thought of himself in these years as a humanitarian and progressive, as well as an individualist. And, individualist or not, like other progressives of the period he was, as Wreszin puts it, "enamored of the potential effectiveness of organizing and planning toward constructive ends," despite also being "suspicious of the state, institutions, and vast organizations."

It was in the year 1914, two years before he voted for Woodrow Wilson for president, that Nock, in Wreszin's words, "came out for compulsory service for every boy and girl between the ages of seventeen and twenty-one. But the service would be devoted to agriculture, not war." The conscripts "would fight … against nature instead of men … against floods, grasshoppers, and mosquitos." They would undertake massive "reclamation projects — 'immense areas of dry soil brought under irrigation,' reforestation of the entire northwest, reclamation of the lower Mississippi, and power development. It was a vision to make the TVA [Tennessee Valley Authority] pale by comparison." And, of course, it could all easily be financed by the single tax.

Between 1915 and 1920, Nock freelanced for various magazines and briefly held a full-time job as a member of the editorial staff of The Nation. Then for four years beginning in 1920 he was editor of the legendary Georgist weekly, The Freeman. When The Freeman closed its doors, it was back to freelancing, now mainly for The American Mercury, Harper's, and the Atlantic Monthly, plus writing books and, now and then, as demanded, lecturing and teaching. Nock died on August 19, 1945, just two months short of his 75th birthday.

Throughout these years, Nock was reading and thinking, and his reading and thinking was more and more calling into question many of the assumptions that had long informed his political beliefs. The more he read about history, for example, the more he noticed that, as he later put it, "the State is the poorest instrument imaginable for improving human society"; it is "slow, extravagant, inefficient, wasteful, unadaptive, stupid, and at least by tendency corrupt," so that "confidence in political institutions and political nostrums is ludicrously misplaced."

These facts helped to account, certainly, for what Nock called "the notorious failure of reforming and revolutionary movements in the long run." But might it not also suggest that his hopes of finding a way to improve human beings and human society were groundless? No matter how you looked at it, it was worrisome.

Yet, as late as the early 1930s, according to Nock's memoirs, "I still believed that the masses of mankind are indefinitely improvable." By around 1935, however, he had become convinced that this belief would not withstand scrutiny. "I ended," he wrote, "by striking my colors as gracefully as possible, parted company with the theologians, with Mr. Jefferson, with Price, Priestley, Condorcet, Rousseau, Mme. De Stael, and went over to the opposition with head unbowed and withers still unwrung."

Nock had already decided in the late 1920s, at around the same time he began calling himself an anarchist, that spending his days commenting on current issues, as he had been doing for nearly 20 years, was a waste of time. "It is not so important at the moment," he wrote,

to try to make people take up with this, that, or the other view, as it is to establish the questions that must be considered before any competent view can be formulated. These questions are sunk now in an immense depth of ignorance, and until they are brought up and at least clearly presented, I don't believe the moralist has any chance at all.

One such question was, what is the nature of the state? Where did it come from? If the state was in fact useless for the purpose of improving human society what was it in fact good for? So he wrote a book. It's called Our Enemy, the State. It came out in 1935, after being delivered as a series of lectures at Nock's newly renamed alma mater, Bard College. It contains a chapter that attempts to explain the economic origins of the American Revolution by drawing on the theories of land ownership of Henry George, but apart from that relatively small imperfection, Our Enemy, the State is a true libertarian classic, one of those books you simply must read if you have any serious interest at all in the libertarian idea.

The state, Nock wrote,

did not originate in the common understanding and agreement of society; it originated in conquest and confiscation. Its intention, far from contemplating "freedom and security," contemplated nothing of the kind. It contemplated primarily the continuous economic exploitation of one class by another, and it concerned itself with only so much freedom and security as was consistent with this primary intention; and this was, in fact, very little. Its primary function or exercise was … maintaining the stratification of society into an owning and exploiting class, and a propertyless dependent class. The order of interest that it reflected was not social, but purely antisocial; and those who administered it, judged by the common standard of ethics, or even the common standard of law as applied to private persons, were indistinguishable from a professional-criminal class. …

The positive testimony of history is that the State invariably had its origin in conquest and confiscation. No primitive State known to history originated in any other manner … no primitive State could possibly have had any other origin. Moreover, the sole invariable characteristic of the State is the economic exploitation of one class by another.

Nock quotes the German sociologist Franz Oppenheimer, who described the typical primitive state,

in respect of its origin, as an institution "forced on a defeated group by a conquering group, with a view only to systematizing the domination of the conquered by the conquerors, and safeguarding itself against insurrection from within and attack from without. This domination had no other final purpose than the economic exploitation of the conquered group by the victorious group."

Nock wrote,

Any considerable economic accumulation, or any considerable body of natural resources, is an incentive to conquest. The primitive technique was that of raiding the coveted possessions, appropriating them entire, and either exterminating the possessors, or dispersing them beyond convenient reach. Very early, however, it was seen to be in general more profitable to reduce the possessors to dependence, and use them as labour-motors. … [This] modified technique has been in use almost from the beginning, and everywhere its first appearance marks the origin of the State. …

The State, 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. It has always made justice costly and difficult of access, and has invariably held itself above justice and common morality whenever it could advantage itself by so doing.

In essence, then, "taking the State wherever found, striking into its history at any point, one sees no way to differentiate the activities of its founders, administrators and beneficiaries from those of a professional-criminal class."

After all, Nock argued, there are two and only two means of making a living in this world. There's the economic means — earning it. And there's the political means — seizing it from someone else who has earned it. The state, Nock said, is "the organization of the political means."

Does this sound familiar somehow? Does it sound, perhaps, like the rhetoric of Mr. Libertarian, Murray N. Rothbard? Nock had an immense influence on Rothbard. He also had an immense influence, apparently, on another major figure in the contemporary libertarian movement, Ayn Rand. According to Anne C. Heller, whose biography of Rand, Ayn Rand and the World She Made, was published about a year ago, it was the theory Nock had adapted from Franz Oppenheimer that inspired Rand to write The Fountainhead.

In that novel, Heller writes,

Rand is channeling the ideas of Albert Jay Nock, who argued that members of a society can be grouped in one or the other of two opposing camps: either they are "economic man," those who produce what they need to survive, or "political man," those who use charm or coercion to live off the productivity of others. Rand's fascinating contribution to this formulation is her depiction of the psychology. Nock's political man is her second-hander; his economic man is her individualist hero, reliant on his own ego as the fountainhead of productivity and value. In Roark's self-defense at trial, he says, "The creator's concern is the conquest of nature. The parasite's concern is the conquest of men."

But University of Virginia historian Jennifer Burns reports in her 2009 book, Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right, that when Rand met Nock in the early 1940s, at a time when The Fountainhead was still an unfinished manuscript, she found him "fatalistic … and gloomy," inclined to give up and willing to, as she put it, "surrender the world" to the enemies of individual liberty.

Perhaps Nock knew something Rand didn't? She herself, a few years down the line, would counsel her followers that "it is earlier than you think" — that many years of educating the populace would have to precede any attempt to achieve political liberty in the United States. As Nock himself had put it at least 30 years earlier,

even a successful revolution … would accomplish nothing. The people would be as thoroughly indoctrinated with Statism after the revolution as they were before, and therefore the revolution would be no revolution, but a "coup d'État," by which the citizen would gain nothing but a mere change of oppressors. There have been many revolutions … and this has been the sum of their history. They amount to no more than an impressive testimony to the great truth that there can be no right action except there be right thinking behind it

Yet "instead of recognizing the State as 'the 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."

And "as long as the easy, attractive, superficial philosophy of Statism remains in control of the citizen's mind, no beneficent social change can be effected, whether by revolution or by any other means."

Such were the ideas that made Albert Jay Nock one of the major figures in the 20th-century branch of the libertarian tradition — even if they were his ideas only during the last 20 years or so of his life.


Jeff Riggenbach

Jeff Riggenbach was a journalist, author, editor, broadcaster, and educator. A member of the Organization of American Historians and a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute, he wrote for such newspapers as the New York Times, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, and the San Francisco Chronicle; such magazines as Reason, Inquiry, and Liberty; and such websites as LewRockwell.com, AntiWar.com, and RationalReview.com. His books include In Praise of Decadence (1998), Why American History Is Not What They Say: An Introduction to Revisionism (2009), and Persuaded by Reason: Joan Kennedy Taylor & the Rebirth of American Individualism (2014). Drawing on vocal skills he honed in classical and all-news radio in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Houston, Riggenbach also narrated the audiobook versions of numerous libertarian works, many of them available on Mises.org.