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Meet the Enemy

Mises Daily: Tuesday, August 04, 2009 by

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Half a century ago, as I was struggling to articulate a social and political philosophy with which my inner voices could find approval, I discovered one of my earliest introductions to what has since come to be known as libertarian thought. I had read – and enjoyed – classical philosophers John Locke, John Stuart Mill, the Stoics, and others who took seriously the plight of the individual at the hands of political systems.

Discovering the writings of H.L. Mencken during the early days of my inquiries introduced me to a number of contemporary critics of governmental behavior. It was at this time that I read a book, titled Our Enemy, the State and written by Albert Jay Nock, that began the real transformation of my thinking. I soon became less interested in the pursuit of abstract philosophic reasoning and increasingly focused on the realpolitik of political systems.

A major problem with political philosophies is that they involve the playing out of the abstract thoughts of their authors. Are the differing visions of a "state of nature" as seen by Hobbes, Rousseau, or Locke grounded in empirical studies of the history of stateless societies, or are they only the projection of the life experiences, intuitive speculations, indoctrinations, the collective unconscious, and other internally generated influences upon the mind of the writer? As our understanding of the world is grounded in subjectivity, the same question needs to be asked of anyone engaged in speculative philosophy: is it possible to stand outside our own minds and comment upon the world free of the content of our own thinking? Our understanding of the world is grounded in subjectivity, and we are easily seduced into confusing the reality of political systems with our expectations as to how such systems ought to work. Was Heisenberg right in telling us that the observer is an indispensable ingredient in what is being observed?

Who was this observer I had just discovered? Albert Jay Nock began his career as an Episcopal priest, later turning to journalism. At different times, he wrote for the magazines The Nation and Freeman, publications with different perspectives than their current versions. A self-described Jeffersonian and Georgist, he was an articulate spokesman for classical liberalism and an advocate of free markets and private property who had a strong distrust of power. He wrote at a time when the concept of "liberalism" was being intellectually and politically corrupted into its antithesis of the state-directed society; and he was troubled by the detrimental effect such a transformation would have on both individuals and the culture when the resulting debasement of character and behavior became accepted as the norm.

Nock had an abiding interest in the epistemological question that asks how we know what we know and how changes in our thinking generate the outward modifications that occur in our world. In his classic Memoirs of a Superfluous Man, he observed that

the most significant thing about [a man] is what he thinks; and significant also is how he came to think it, why he continued to think it, or, if he did not continue, what the influences were which caused him to change his mind.

Albert Jay Nock was what in my youth would have been described as an exponent of a "liberal arts" education. He understood not only that "ideas have consequences" – a proposition later expounded upon by Richard Weaver – but that organizations have a certain dynamic which, when mobilized, can generate unexpected consequences. He acknowledged the pursuit of individual self-interest as a principal motivating factor, but he saw how corporate and political interests can combine to promote such interests, coercively, at the expense of others.

Nock's intellectual development was greatly influenced by the works of the German economist and sociologist, Franz Oppenheimer. Nock focused much of his attention on Oppenheimer's analysis of the two principal means – expounded upon in Der Staat – by which human needs can be met. Satisfying such needs through the exercise of "one's own labor and the equivalent exchange of one's own labor for the labor of others" Oppenheimer defined as "economic means." By contrast, pursuing such interests through "the unrequited appropriation of the labor of others" he termed "political means." Nock elaborates upon Oppenheimer's thesis to describe how the state actually works. Because people tend to act with "the least possible exertion" in pursuing their ends, they will tend to prefer the political to the economic means, a trait that has produced the modern corporate-state – or what Nock referred to as the "merchant-State."

The efforts of earlier political philosophers to explain the origins of the state either as an expression of "divine will" or as the product of an alleged "social contract" begin to melt away when confronted by Nock's realism. He tells us that the state has its genesis not in some highly principled pursuit of a "common will" to resist some imagined perverse human nature, but in nothing more elevated than "conquest and confiscation." He echoes Voltaire's observation that "the art of government consists in taking as much money as possible from one class of the citizens to give to the other." The Watergate-era mantra "follow the money" reverberates this more-prosaic theme.

Those who chide critics of the state as being "idealistic" or "utopian" must, themselves, answer for their visionary faith that state power could be made to restrain itself. As Nock understood, and as more recent history confirms, it is those who believe that written constitutions can protect the individual from the exercise of state power who hold to a baseless idealism, particularly when it is the state's judicial powers of interpretation that define the range of such powers. Words are abstractions that never correlate with what they purport to describe and must, therefore, be interpreted.

Supreme Court decisions continue to affirm Nock's realistic assessment that "anything may be made to mean anything." The 20th century alone provided thinkers such as Nock with a perspective that allowed them to see how their earlier speculations about the nature of the state actually played out. The post-9/11 years have seen a wholesale retreat by the American government from the illusion of limited government, with constitutional prescriptions for and proscriptions against state power widely ignored. Anthony de Jasay has added his critique of the imaginary nature of limited government by observing that "collective choice is never independent of what significant numbers of individuals wish it to be." Has history shown that political systems and the citizenry retain the sense of mutuality that is implicit in the "contract" theory that supposedly underlies the modern state? Does the avowed purpose of political systems to protect the lives, liberty, and property interests of individuals remain intact?

The modern state increasingly manifests itself as the ill it was the purpose of centuries-old philosophies to identify, and of constitutional systems to prevent. This raises the question whether the very existence of the state, with its self-interested exercise of a monopoly on the use of force, could portend other than the continuing cycles of wars, repression, economic dislocations, and other forms of collective conflict and disorder. Will today's young minds, desirous of understanding the reality rather than just a theory of politics grounded in hope, be able to resist a shift in thinking such as is offered by Nock and others who offer explanations for statism grounded in principled pragmatism?

Such a question brings us to a consideration of Nock's purposes in writing. He had no interest in political reforms, seeing such efforts as superficial in nature. Neither was he motivated by a desire to educate mass-minded men and women, as such people lacked both the depth of character and the intellectual capacity to understand the principles underlying "the humane life."

He saw his task, rather, as being to care for those he called "the Remnant," those independent men and women whose intellectual and emotional inquisitiveness provide them a profound understanding of such principles. Unlike mass-minded persons who are easily manipulated and mobilized in service to various institutional causes, the Remnant remain skeptical of proselytizers who seek converts to ideologies, or who desire to save mankind. Trying to find members of the Remnant will be futile, Nock tells us, for it is they who will seek out like-minded spirits. Nock sees his role as providing the support and nurturing to such individuals who will, once the civilization has collapsed, be the ones to "build up a new society" on the basis of their understanding of the "august order of nature." For such people alone, Nock tells us, was this book written.

Our Enemy, the State was first published in 1935, when the economic consequences of the New Deal were beginning to be felt. In 1943, Nock spoke of writing a second edition, to elaborate on these economic effects. In the summer of 1945, however, Nock died without accomplishing this task. Nonetheless, as his friend Frank Chodorov commented in his preface to this work, "Our Enemy, the State needs no support," and stands as a sufficient indictment of political systems.