Albert Jay Nock (1870-1945), American essayist and social critic, considered a “grand old man” of libertarianism, was later in his life deemed a pessimist by both his friends and enemies, when in reality he was a fatalist. Mixed in with his many piquant and accurate observations on history and politics is a bitter surrender to a species of determinism -- which I would call a secular version of original sin -- one which governed his main political thesis and spared him the task of becoming an articulate and powerfully eloquent advocate of freedom. That is, while he advocated freedom, individualism and limited government that would protect life, liberty and property (through what he called “negative intervention“), he did not believe they were sustainable in man, and, in most circumstances, not even desirable by him once he saw a way of securing his existence via political or coercive means (via what he called “positive intervention”).
He received what was in the late 19th century a “classical” education, mastering Latin and Greek, history, philosophy and literature, and emerged from his schooling with an impressive and invaluable fund of knowledge. Later in his life he taught at Bard College and the University of Virginia. He became an Episcopalian priest and served in several different parishes, but left the church in 1909. It could be argued that his determinism was rooted in the religious notion of original sin. Another perspective is that his political ideas were inextricably founded on what Ayn Rand would call a malevolent universe premise.
He described himself as a philosophical anarchist, oblivious to the fact that to call one’s self such is to confess that one has eschewed philosophy altogether, although the corpus of his work does represent a philosophy, one colored by a cloying union of skepticism and determinism. He wrote over twenty books, his most famous ones being Our Enemy, the State (1935) and Memoirs of a Superfluous Man (1943). After his death, his works faded into obscurity, until rediscovered and promulgated by conservatives and libertarians later in the 20th century.
This was a logical adoption; both camps disdain the necessity of a comprehensive philosophy of reason, and treat such concepts as freedom and liberty as self-evident concretes not requiring metaphysical validation or a foundation. Conservatives remain clueless or hostile to a morality founded on a rational, non-religious view of the nature of man. Libertarians remain hostile to a non-subjectivist view of the nature of man as a being of volitional consciousness who must be consistently rational in his mind and actions in order to survive and flourish.
Reading especially Nock’s Our Enemy, the State, one has the disquieting sense that one is imbibing a libertarian rendition of Karl Marx’s dialectical materialism, that is, an autonomous force that pits freedom-valuing men against freedom-evading men, and that, given the timbre of Nock’s fatalistic view of man, the “original sin” of favoring the investment of the least amount of effort over genuinely productive work, the freedom-evaders are always certain to triumph. They will always find a way to seize control of a limited government and transform it into a coercive, looting “State” (in the meantime persuading a duped, dumbed-down populace that it is an expression of “popular sovereignty” or a manifestation of “democracy“). Nowhere in this work does one encounter the term volition.
Evidence of this absence can be seen in one statement at the beginning of Chapter 5, “Politics and Other Fetiches”:
It is a commonplace that the persistence of an institution is due solely to the state of mind that prevails towards it, the set of terms in which men habitually think about it….At one time, a certain set of terms regarding man’s place in nature gave organized Christianity the power largely to control men’s consciences and direct their conduct; and this power dwindled to the point of disappearance, for no other reason than that men generally stopped thinking in those terms.”
Why did men cease thinking that the Church was the centerpiece of their lives? Nock does not give a clue, neither in that chapter nor elsewhere in his book. It just happened. Never mind the Renaissance, the Age of Reason, the Enlightenment, eras of major philosophical conflicts in which men struggled to be set free from the tyranny of a politically powerful Church to pursue their lives, and then against the fiat power of secular governments. It just happened. They were mere puppets of a Hegelian dialectical Absolute Spirit.
And not only did it “just happen,” but almost immediately what Nock calls the “feudal-state” began to be supplanted by the “merchant-state,” exemplified, he writes, by the British model. That is, when men were free to embark on trade, commerce, and manufacturing, with little or no leave from a monarch, most of them looked to the State to preserve and sanctify by lawful monopoly their positions in those realms. This was certainly the case with the mercantilist system, from which America’s Founders wish to free themselves.
Nock claims that most of the Founders, however, wished to exercise that political power themselves, and quickly abandoned the principles set forth in the Declaration of Independence once the break with the mother country was militarily secured at Yorktown, once independence had been won from the Crown. The Constitution, he avers, was a consequence of that abandonment. Nowhere in his book is that position more evident than in Chapter 4, “Land Monopoly and American Independence.” And nowhere does he mention the Bill of Rights, intended to restrict the federal government’s actions to protecting one’s freedom and property (and without which the Constitution would never have been ratified). This chapter could well have been written from the perspective of Marx, Engels, and other collectivist theoreticians.
“It was said at the time, I believe, that the actual causes of the colonial revolution of 1776 would never be known. The causes assigned by our schoolbooks may be dismissed as trivial; the various partisan and propagandist views of that struggle and its origins may be put down as incompetent.”
That position, I contend, is evidence of Nock’s disparagement of the rise and rule of reason in the pre-Revolutionary period, and is the necessarily jaded outlook of someone who has abandoned philosophy. Ideas have no consequences, evil is autonomously potent and will always trump the good. The Constitutional Convention, he claims, was more or less a conspiracy of most of its delegates:
“The task of the delegates was precisely analogous to that of the earlier architects who had designed the structure of the British merchant-state, with its system of economics, politics and judicial control; they had to contrive something that could pass muster as showing a good semblance of popular sovereignty, without the reality.”
And, in Chapter 5:
“Nowhere in the history of the constitutional period do we find the faintest suggestion of the Declaration’s doctrine of natural rights, and we find its doctrine of popular sovereignty not only continuing in abeyance, but constitutionally stopped from ever reappearing. Nowhere do we find a trace of the Declaration’s theory of government; on the contrary, we find it expressly repudiated. The new political mechanism was a faithful replica of the old disestablished British model….”
That is, Nock writes, the Constitution was meant to pay lip-service to the sanctity of life, liberty and property, while at the same time establish a State that would slyly rob individuals of them by means of providing access to political power to anyone pragmatic and unscrupulous enough to seek it. In short, the Constitution, with its checks and balances and all its pre-Civil War articles and amendments, was a fraud, a fabrication the result of a “gentlemen’s agreement” to admit power and exclude or diminish freedom. This position leaves one wondering if Nock, who was widely read in so many subjects, had ever perused the Federalist and anti-Federalist papers, and saw that the Constitution was a product of a passionately fought intellectual contest.
It is true, as his defenders state, that Nock valued individual rights and that he wrote that the State had no natural right to enact “positive interventions” on individuals, or to implement statism. But, his deterministic perspective would discourage his vaunted “Remnant” of anti-statists or anti-collectivists. I would judge Albert Jay Nock to be in the first rank of thinkers who have done more damage to the cause of liberty than good. If one doubts my charge of his enervating fatalism, here is his own appraisal of Our Enemy, the State:
“I would be the first to acknowledge that no results of the kind which we agree to call practical could accrue to the credit of a book of this order, were it a hundred times as cogent as this one -- no results, that is, that would in the least retard the State’s progress in self-aggrandizement and thus modify the consequences of the State’s course.”
How can one hope to win the fight for freedom, when one concedes defeat by stating that it would be futile to even face the enemy? This is what neither Thomas Jefferson (a particular hero of Nock’s) nor the other Founders thought should be a practical policy when they pledged their lives, fortunes and sacred honor.