Monday, May 08, 2006

Nock Reconsidered

I mistakenly wrote in "Nock-ing Collectivism" that I was re-reading Albert Jay Nock's Our Enemy the State (available online here). As it turns out, I had owned the book for several years, but hadn't read deeply into it. Upon finally finishing it I said basta! Nock (1870-1945) was a crank. Yes, Nock was against the New Deal, and that's in his favor. But beyond that he was simply a precursor of Murray Rothbard, a political naïf of the first order.

To begin with, Nock tried to draw a fine distinction between "government" and "state." He defined "government" as a voluntary social institution through which individuals protect their lives and property. The "state," by distinction, he saw as an institution that is imposed upon people for the purpose of controlling their lives and confiscating their property.

But a state is a state, no matter what it's called. An institution with the power to enforce peace at home and to defend against foreign enemies is a state, even if Nock chose to call it "government." Nock's fine distinction merely expressed a preference for a minimal state over an expansive, intrusive state. But the only way to ensure that a state remains minimal (if it begins that way) is to be vigilant against the expansion of its power, as the Framers intended in the Constitution. There is no magical formula by which a "government" perpetuates itself in the face of inevitable pressure for the expansion of governmental power.

The false distinction between government and state was the least of Nock's errors. Where the man truly proved himself a crank was in his embrace of the doctrines of Professors Aaron M. Sakolski and Charles A. Beard. Nock wrote this in 1933 (two years before OETS) about Sakolski's book, The Great American Land Bubble:

Professor Sakolski's recent book . . . is the first attempt, as far as I know, at a history of land-speculation in America, and is correspondingly valuable. For [those] who have been bred to the notion that "human nature" is perfectible, or even measurably improvable, it is rather dispiriting reading, for it shows two hundred years of supposedly human society motivated precisely like Carlyle's "Egyptian pitcher of tamed vipers, each struggling to get its head above the others," or as we ourselves have observed it in the days of the Florida land-boom or the "Coolidge market."

Nock, in other words, saw human striving for wealth (at least in the form of land values) as a kind of "greed." As I will show, Nock saw the Founders as nothing better than land-hungry predators who happened to talk a good game -- as if there were something wrong in wanting land or in declaring independence from Great Britain in order to pursue one's economic betterment.

Nock's attachment to Beard confirms Nock's essential Leftism. At the time Nock wrote OETS, Beard was a leading academic light of the "progressive" movement. According to Wikipedia,

Beard's reputation today rests on his wide-ranging and bestselling The Rise of American Civilization (1927) and its two sequels, America in Midpassage (1939), and The American Spirit (1943), all written in collaboration with his wife, Mary Ritter Beard whose own interests lay in feminism and the labor union movement (Woman as a Force in History, 1946). Together they wrote a popular survey, The Beards: Basic History of the United States. Disciples of Beard such as Howard Beale and C. Vann Woodward focused on greed and economic causation and downplayed the centrality of corruption. They argued that the rhetoric of equal rights was a smokescreen hiding their true motivation, which was promoting the interests of industrialists in the Northeast. The basic flaw was the assumption that there was a unified business policy. Scholars in the 1950s and 1960s demonstrated that businessmen were widely divergent on monetary or tariff policy. While Pennsylvania businessmen wanted high tariffs, those in other states did not; the railroads were hurt by the tariffs on steel, which they purchased in large quantity. . . . Forrest McDonald in We The People: The Economic Origins of the Constitution (1958) argued that Charles Beard had misinterpreted the economic interests involved in writing the Constitution. Instead of two interests, landed and mercantile, which conflicted, there were three dozen identifiable interests that forced the delegates to bargain.

Consider Nock's interpretation of the Founding (from OETS):

The charter of the American revolution was the Declaration of Independence, which took its stand on the double theses of "unalienable" natural rights and popular sovereignty. We have seen that these doctrines were theoretically, or as politicians say, "in principle," congenial to the spirit of the English merchant-enterpriser, and we may see that in the nature of things they would be even more agreeable to the spirit of all classes in American society. A thin and scattered population with a whole wide world before it, with a vast territory full of rich resources which anyone might take a hand at preempting and exploiting, would be strongly on the side of natural rights, as the colonists were from the beginning; and political independence would confirm it in that position. These circumstances would stiffen the American merchant-enterpriser, agrarian, forestaller and industrialist alike in a jealous, uncompromising and assertive economic individualism.

So also with the sister doctrine of popular sovereignty. The colonists had been through a long and vexatious experience of State interventions which limited their use of both the political and economic means. They had also been given plenty of opportunity to see how the interventions had been managed, and how the interested English economic groups which did the managing had profited at their expense. Hence there was no place in their minds for any political theory that disallowed the right of individual self-expression in politics. As their situation tended to make them natural-born economic individualists, so it also tended to make them natural-born republicans.

Thus the preamble of the Declaration hit the mark of a cordial unanimity. Its two leading doctrines could easily be interpreted as justifying an unlimited economic pseudo-individualism on the part of the State's beneficiaries, and a judiciously managed exercise of political self-expression by the electorate. Whether or not this were a more free-and-easy interpretation than a strict construction of the doctrines will bear, no doubt it was in effect the interpretation quite commonly put upon them. American history abounds in instances where great principles have, in their common application, been narrowed down to the service of very paltry ends. The preamble, nevertheless, did reflect a general state of mind. However incompetent the understanding of its doctrines may have been, and however interested the motives which prompted that understanding, the general spirit of the people was in their favour.

There was complete unanimity also regarding the nature of the new and independent political institution which the Declaration contemplated as within "the right of the people" to set up. There was a great and memorable dissension about its form, but none about its nature. It should be in essence the mere continuator of the merchant-State already existing. There was no idea of setting up government, the purely social institution which should have no other object than, as the Declaration put it, to secure the natural rights of the individual; or as Paine put it, which should contemplate nothing beyond the maintenance of freedom and security – the institution which should make no positive interventions of any kind upon the individual, but should confine itself exclusively to such negative interventions as the maintenance of freedom might indicate. The idea was to perpetuate an institution of another character entirely, the State, the organization of the political means; and this was accordingly done.

In sum, Nock believed that the nation got off to a bad start. And then came the Constitution, as Nock saw it in OETS:

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 estopped 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, but so far improved and strengthened as to be incomparably more close-working and efficient, and hence presenting incomparably more attractive possibilities of capture and control. By consequence, therefore, we find more firmly implanted than ever the same general idea of the State that we have observed as prevailing hitherto – the idea of an organization of the political means, an irresponsible and all-powerful agency standing always ready to be put into use for the service of one set of economic interests as against another.

Nock was an idealist who offered (in OETS, at least) no practical alternative to the republican government of limited powers (minimal state) that the Constitution, in fact, put in place. Nock seemed to believe that the people of the United States could have survived and thrived under the Articles of Confederation, even though the Articles -- unlike the Constitution -- failed, among other things, to provide for an effective defense against foreign enemies and for free trade among the States.

I conclude that Nock was opposed to the New Deal not because it undid the good that had come before but because it represented a further regression from an unattainable, ideal world that simply ought to be. Nock's ideal world seems to have been some sort of communism, replete with "natural rights" and "popular sovereignty" -- for the "right" kind of people, as discussed below -- in which there are no base motives and no "dirty" politics. In his own way, then, Nock is as irrelevant as Rothbard and his disciples and followers, many of whom seem to revere Nock.

Nock's idealism took some peculiar forms. According to an appreciation by William Bryk at New York Press,

Nock’s intellectual framework shifted in 1932 when the self-professed radical and Jeffersonian stopped believing in the improvability of man. . . . The distinction between the mob (Nock’s "mass-men") and the few who were a glory to the human race (Nock’s "Remnant") was greater than that between the mob and certain higher anthropoids.

Nock soon professed his new faith. He wrote of momentary distress at seeing a man scavenging in a garbage pail. A few minutes later, he was undisturbed at seeing a dog do the same thing. Then he realized his erroneous presumption: that the man was a human being, rather than merely a man. Now, he no longer found any anomaly in a man’s behaving as a brute and not as a human being. . . .

In this frame of mind, he wrote Our Enemy, the State. . . .

From 1933 to 1939, Nock contributed a current affairs column, "The State of the Union," to The American Mercury. He consistently assaulted the New Deal’s swineries, both foreign and domestic, and after 1936, argued American foreign policy was conducted to provoke war. In 1941, he published "The Jewish Question in America," a two-part article in the Atlantic Monthly. Wreszin calls it "subtle and restrained." Indeed, the prose is elegantly polished; the tone is serenely analytical; the venue is respectable; and the argument favors excluding the Jews through apartheid. Nock claims, as Wreszin says, "that he wished to launch a meaningful dialogue whereby intelligent Americans might probe the bigotry that infested not merely the lower orders but all society..." He claims to be charting "quicksands and rock formations so the piers of some future structure might be secure."

He argues that Jews, being Orientals, cannot understand or communicate with Americans, who are Occidental. He suggests the Jews have failed to know their place, and anticipates seeing the "Nuremberg Laws reenacted and enforced with vigor." Finally, Nock dismisses criticism by claiming Jews would be peculiarly unable to understand his meaning.

Thereafter, fewer editors accepted Nock’s articles. He appeared in Scribner’s Commentator, an odd collection of general essays and Nazi apologia, until its publisher closed it down after Pearl Harbor. Finally, he was reduced to reviewing books in the Review of Books, published by Merwin K. Hart’s National Economic Council, a front for the few rightists openly opposed to the war after Pearl Harbor.

In Memoirs [of a Superfluous Man], published two years before his death, Nock wrote of being asked what he thought were the three most degrading occupations open to man. He replied that the first was holding office in a modern republic. The second was editing an American metropolitan newspaper. As for the third, he was unsure whether it was pimping or managing a whorehouse.

A bit of misanthropy can be a good thing, but too much of it is dysfunctional. Nock's hyper-misanthropy was dysfunctional in the extreme.