Our Enemy, The State, Ch. 2, Sec. III

by Albert Jay Nock, 1935



Back: Our Enemy, The State, Ch. 2, Sec. II



Such are the antecedents of the institution which is everywhere now so busily converting social power by wholesale into State power. [11] The recognition of them goes a long way towards resolving most, if not all, of the apparent anomalies which the conduct of the modern State exhibits. It is of great help, for example, in accounting for the open and notorious fact that the State always moves slowly and grudgingly towards any purpose that accrues to society's advantage, but moves rapidly and with alacrity towards one that accrues to its own advantage; nor does it ever move towards social purposes on its own initiative, but only under heavy pressure, while its motion towards anti-social purposes is self-sprung.

Englishmen of the last century remarked this fact with justifiable anxiety, as they watched the rapid depletion of social power by the British State. One of them was Herbert Spencer, who published a series of essays which were subsequently put together in a volume called The Man versus the State. With our public affairs in the shape they are, it is rather remarkable that no American publicist has improved the chance to reproduce these essays verbatim, merely substituting illustrations drawn from American history for those which Spencer draws from English history. If this were properly done, it would make one of the most pertinent and useful works that could be produced at this time. [12]

These essays are devoted to examining the several aspects of the contemporary growth of State power in England. On the essay called Over-legislation, Spencer remarks the fact so notoriously common in our experience, [13] that when State power is applied to social purposes, its action is invariably "slow, stupid, extravagant, unadaptive, corrupt and obstructive." He devotes several paragraphs to each count, assembling a complete array of proof. When he ends, discussion ends; there is simply nothing to be said. He shows further that the State does not even fulfil efficiently what he calls its "unquestionable duties" to society; it does not efficiently adjudge and defend the individual's elemental rights. This being so--and with us this too is a matter of notoriously common experience--Spencer sees no reason to expect that State power will be more efficiently applied to secondary social purposes. "Had we, in short, proved its efficiency as judge and defender, instead of having found it treacherous, cruel, and anxiously to be shunned, there would be some encouragement to hope other benefits at its hands."

Yet, he remarks, it is just this monstrously extravagant hope that society is continually indulging; and indulging in the face of daily evidence that it is illusory. He points to the anomaly which we have all noticed as so regularly presented by newspapers. Take up one, says Spencer, and you will probably find a leading editorial "exposing the corruption, negligence or mismanagement of some State department. Cast your eye down the next column, and it is not unlikely that you will read proposals for an extension of State supervision. [14] ...Thus while every day chronicles a failure, there every day reappears the belief that it needs but an Act of Parliament and a staff of officers to effect any end desired. [15] Nowhere is the perennial faith of mankind better seen."

It is unnecessary to say that the reasons which Spencer gives for the anti-social behaviour of the State are abundantly valid, but we may now see how powerfully they are reinforced by the findings of the historical method; a method which had not been applied when Spencer wrote. These findings being what they are, it is manifest that the conduct which Spencer complains of is strictly historical. When the town-dwelling merchants of the eighteenth century displaced the landholding nobility in control of the State's mechanism, they did not change the State's character; they merely adapted its mechanism to their own special interests, and strengthened it immeasurably. [16] The merchant-State remained an anti-social institution, a pure class-State, like the State of the nobility; its intention and function remained unchanged, save for the adaptations necessary to suit the new order of interests that it was thenceforth to serve. Therefore in its flagrant disservice of social purposes, for which Spencer arraigns it, the State was acting strictly in character.

Spencer does not discuss what he calls "the perennial faith of mankind" in State action, but contents himself with elaborating the sententious observations of Guizot, that "a belief in the sovereign power of political machinery" is nothing less than "a gross delusion." This faith is chiefly an effect of the immense prestige which the State has diligently built up for itself in the century or more since the doctrine of jure divino rulership gave way. We need not consider the various instruments that the State employs in building up its prestige; most of them are well known, and their uses well understood. There is one, however, which is in a sense peculiar to the republican State. Republicanism permits the individual to persuade himself that the State is his creation, that State action is his action, that when it expresses itself it expresses him, and when it is glorified he is glorified. The republican State encourages this persuasion with all its power, aware that it is the most efficient instrument for enhancing its own prestige. Lincoln's phrase, "of the people, by the people, for the people" was probably the most effective single stroke of propaganda ever made in behalf of republican State prestige.

Thus the individual's sense of his own importance inclines him strongly to resent the suggestion that the State is by nature anti-social. He looks on its failures and misfeasances with somewhat the eye of a parent, giving it the benefit of a special code of ethics. Moreover, he has always the expectation that the State will learn by its mistakes, and do better. Granting that its technique with social purposes is blundering, wasteful and vicious--even admitting, with the public official whom Spencer cites, that wherever the State is, there is villainy--he sees no reason why, with an increase of experience and responsibility, the State should not improve.

Something like this appears to be the basic assumption of collectivism. Let but the State confiscate all social power, and its interests will become identical with those of society. Granting that the State is of anti-social origin, and that it has borne a uniformly anti-social character throughout its history, let it but extinguish social power completely, and its character will change; it will merge with society, and thereby become society's efficient and disinterested organ. The historic State, in short, will disappear, and government only remain. It is an attractive idea; the hope of its being somehow translated into practice is what, only so few years ago, made "the Russian experiment" so irresistibly fascinating to generous spirits who felt themselves hopelessly State-ridden. A closer examination of the State's activities, however, will show that this idea, attractive though it be, goes to pieces against the iron law of fundamental economics, that man tends always to satisfy his needs and desires with the least possible exertion. Let us see how this is so.




Next: Our Enemy, The State, Ch. 2, Sec. IV




.. [11] In this country the condition of several socially-valuable industries seems at the moment to be a pretty fair index of this process. The State's positive interventions have so far depleted social power that by all accounts these particular applications of it are on the verge of being no longer practicable. In Italy, the State now absorbs fifty per cent of the total national income. Italy appears to be rehearsing her ancient history in something more than a sentimental fashion, for by the end of the second century social power had been so largely transmuted into State power that nobody could do any business at all. There was not enough social power left to pay the State's bills.

.. [12] It seems a most discreditable thing that this century has not seen produced in America an intellectually respectable presentation of the complete case against the State's progressive confiscations of social power; a presentation, that is, which bears the mark of having sound history and a sound philosophy behind it. Mere interested touting of "rugged individualism" and agonized fustian about the constitution are so specious, so frankly unscrupulous, that they have become contemptible. Consequently collectivism has easily had all the best of it, intellectually, and the results are now apparent. Collectivism has even succeeded in foisting its glossary of arbitrary definitions upon us; we all speak of our economic system, for instance, as "capitalist," when there has never been a system, nor can one be imagined, that is not capitalist. By contrast, when British collectivism undertook to deal, say with Lecky, Bagehot, Professor Huxley and Herbert Spencer, it got full change for its money. Whatever steps Britain has taken towards collectivism, or may take, it at least has had all the chance in the world to know precisely where it was going, which we have not had.

.. [13] Yesterday I passed over a short stretch of new road built by State power, applied through one of the grotesque alphabetical tentacles of our bureaucracy. It cost $87,348.56. Social power, represented by a contractor's figure in competitive bidding, would have built it for $38,668.20, a difference, roughly, of one hundred per cent!

.. [14] All the newspaper-comments that I have read concerning the recent marine disasters that befell the Ward Line have, without exception, led up to just such proposals!

.. [15] Our recent experience with prohibition might be thought to have suggested this belief as fatuous, but apparently they have not done so.

.. [16] This point is well discussed by the Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset, The Revolt of the Masses, ch. XIII (English Translation), in which he does not scruple to say that the State's rapid depletion of social power is "the greatest danger that today threatens civilization." He also gives a good idea of what may be expected when a third, economically-composite, class in turn takes over the mechanism of the State, as the merchant class took it over from the nobility. Surely no better forecast could be made of what is taking place in this country at the moment, than this: "The mass-man does in fact believe that he is the State, and he will tend more and more to set its machinery working, on whatever pretext, to crush beneath it any creative minority which disturbs it--disturbs it in any order of things; in politics, in ideas, in industry."