Our Enemy the State by Albert Jay Nock

I envy Albert Jay Nock: the confidence of his opinions, clarity of his writing, and depth of his knowledge. During my immersion in the liberal arts back in college in the mid-1980s, I knew I would have a corporate career, but I aspired to be a man in a tweed jacket spending his time as a dilettante or an aesthete. I’d never be a Nock, but I knew I was part of a remnant.

Our Enemy the State is a classic individualist text, full of elegant and clear arguments using history and contemporary societal morality against the growing, encroaching power of the state. Written in 1935 at the height of the New Deal (following the 1934 midterm elections and the popular reaffirmation of FDR’s presidency), Nock’s frustration for his time comes across loud and clear. He holds New Dealers and other political grifters in contempt, part of a grand tradition of glorified kleptocracy where the few with power exploit society. While his condemnation is clear, Nock’s tone remains stoic and factual, never overusing emotion (and thus avoiding the kind of autobiographical political screeds we see in our present age). Throughout Our Enemy the State, Nock makes compelling logical, philosophical, and historical arguments, allowing the book to continue to resonate 85 years later.

Nock rejects the liberal historical interpretation holding the state as guarantor of individual liberty, enforcing all manner of rank and order under a litany of state-created human rights. Nock describes the dichotomy between the private realm and a public realm, arguing this relationship amounts to a zero sum game. The state, arising out of the public realm, only exists at the expense of society at large. The private individuals comprising society and the state occupying the public realm are in a binary relationship when it comes to liberty: There is either the freedom to do something or a law enforced by state power preventing it. This is not to say that without the state a society would lack governance or government: societies have institutions which are largely self-governing, both formal (local laws against violence and theft, rules enforced through institutional membership, contracts between individuals) and informal (cultural norms, a community’s mores, the moral codes of philosophy or religion that may be voluntarily adopted), amounting to a government that is both top down and bottom up. “Teleologically, government implements the common desire of society, first, for freedom, and second, for security. Beyond this it does not go; it contemplates no positive intervention upon the individual, but only a negative intervention.” In contrast, the state is a synthetic artifice built by violence: conquest, slavery, confiscation, and expropriation. The state maintains a monopoly on violence over a certain geography, making the control of land critical to its continued existence. Deciding who gets to use land–granting rights to use land–serves as the ultimate means of maintaining power. Thus, functionally, the state has more in common with an ongoing criminal enterprise than any other kind of organization.

The state’s legal regime allows one person’s property rights to be sacrificed to supplement another’s, or one person’s individual decisions limited so that another may benefit. In effect, the state merely confiscates and redistributes the collective power and resources of a society based upon an ever expanding scheme of citizenship–assertions of rights, sententious duties “owed” to others, nationalistic groupthink, enforced adherence to law–and perpetuates itself through its ongoing parasitizing of society. Worse, to most contemporary readers, I’m not certain they would realize there’s any differentiation between the “state” and “society” because they have been conditioned to believe the state holds society together. Indeed, for most people in our current age, the state is the vital entity that makes makes society possible. 

Nock describes how the citizens of democratic republics tend to conflate the state with their own identities, mixing nationalistic feelings with a loyalty to the state’s governance structure. Obviously this remains true today. For example, consider how the White House is a symbol for America itself, and how often Hollywood action movies show the White House or other buildings in Washington getting destroyed–a cinematic sequence representing the destruction of America itself (Independence Day, 2012). Perhaps American optimism is at play when Nock points out that citizens tend to look past the state’s failings, holding a naive belief the state will just learn from its mistakes and get better. Like a self-improvement addict, the US government is always in a process of improving! There’s an undercurrent of blind faith in democratic republics, as if it would only be a matter of time when the state’s apparatus would be dismantled and reasonable governance returns to society. Certainly movements like The Tea Party were built upon similar nationalistic fantasies.

Nock writes in detail about British history and its transition from a feudal state to a mercantile state achieved through the English Revolution. Puritan Christian values oriented toward labor and productivity served as a foundation for a merchant state, serving the development of a merchant class. Meanwhile, the European Enlightenment’s focus on individualism brought about broader societal freedom with respect to economic development and the development of the bourgeoisie (at the expense of the power of the monarchy, landed gentry, and Church). Post-revolution, philosophical theories of natural rights and popular sovereignty provided a legal framework for a merchant state. The merchant class, following incentives and seeking to maximize return on investment, co-opted the British state to ensure continued economic advantage.

Nock takes a similar teleological approach to the founding of the United States. Functionally, the Massachusetts Bay Company what is the first government in America, with the merchant state coming to America before the model took hold in its mother country. The United States were formed out of a desire by American elites to operate an even more efficacious merchant state, one aimed a maximizing benefits to domestic elites. For example, American elites saw the Crown standing in the way of land speculation in the west, and were ready to risk war with the French or native tribes so domestic markets could be expanded. The Declaration of Independence described individual rights and popular sovereignty, implying Americans would be under a state post-revolution (beyond the provision of freedom and security). The revolutionaries only went so far: they wanted to preserve the merchant state but simply rid themselves of British constraint. The short duration under the Articles of Confederation saw cronyism and self-dealing. In reaction, the Constitutional Convention and Ratification (1787-89) amounted to a Federalist coup d’etat benefiting industrial, commercial and creditor interests at the expense of farmers, artisans, and debtors class. Nock cites the work of Charles Beard quite a bit in these chapters.

Nock concludes his book with a somber tone. Western society no longer has the energy to resist being ruled by the state, so the state will only grow in power until society breaks down and state falls in the cycle of history. Nock acknowledges his book will not change this; rather, his work is intended for intellectually curious people who value history and want to understand the world as it really is.

While Nock may overgeneralize, I suspect historical and anthropological evidence around state formation would prove him correct. I think there’s a strong argument that Nock may be too dismissive of the benefits brought about by the liberal democratic order–without going as far as whiggish history, there was a definite increase in human rights and material conditions (something I tried to explore in US history). However, with West Coast Hotel v. Parrish ending the Lochner era in 1937 (just a few years after Nock published Our Enemy the State), the concept of economic rights/freedom of contract came to an end, curtailing individual freedom. I doubt Nock would have been surprised by this, especially as he identified SCOTUS as the highest legislative body in the US state. As for the zero sum game between society and the state, a critic could refute Nock with a utilitarian argument: The state’s denial of certain liberties for a few individuals results in greater liberty for more people in the society. In other words, a similar argument a free trader would make refuting a protectionist: free trade fuels the growth of a national economy so that it doesn’t matter who wins and who loses when the overall economy grows to the general benefit of all. This argument has the same flaw as the ruling in West Coast Hotel v. Parrish: once the state is in the business making decisions of what’s best for society, the politics of the state become the major, and possibly only, determent in any outcome. So-called human rights may be ranked over economic rights today, but tomorrow changing political winds may mean that human rights are recast to serve the state’s interests. 

These are hard issues to understand for the multiple generations raised under all-powerful states. Most people in the 21st century tend to see the state as a giver and guarantor of rights. The state-as-criminal enterprise may have had a rhetorical power to a reader in the 1930s; today, as elite competition centers around elected offices and bureaucratic appointments, no one sees any trace of criminality. It’s like a crime family that went legit 100 years ago.