Our Enemy, The State

Our Enemy, The State

Albert J. Nock wrote this book in response to Roosevelt's New Deal. More precisely, he couldn't tolerate programs like Social Security, including unemployment compensation. He was deeply troubled by this entirely new political doctrine, unprecedented in U.S. history, which proclaimed that "the State owes its citizens a living."

The Book in 1'

As a result, his book is an inquiry about the origin of the State: Why does it exist? What is it? How does it act?

The answers and the theory he provides, lead us to a genuine, inescapable conclusion. The state is our enemy. The last thing he addresses, then, is How to get rid of it?

Overall, the book is clearly libertarian in its perspective. It has a confrontational tone, yet at the same time, I sense a certain melancholy. Nock believed his sentiments were at odds with the majority, who viewed the state as the result of a common agreement and as a benefactor. He argued that the principles of the Declaration of Independence had been repudiated, and he saw the Constitution as a document as dangerous as the bureaucratic state apparatus it had created. The state had centralized so much power that individuals had become mere subjects whose rights were granted by the state.

As Marco Bassani highlights in his Italian preface to the book, at a time when Keynes was formulating a theory that legitimized any form of government intervention in the economy (he would publish The General Theory in 1936), including unemployment compensation, Nock provided a lucid analysis of how unnatural and immoral that solution would be. He argued that the creation and distribution of wealth could be achieved through economic means, such as free exchange, while state intervention represented the use of political means. Namely, “the uncompensated appropriation of wealth produced by others.”

Why does the State exist?

Nock is very clear about this. If we truly want to understand why individual power is weakening while state power is increasing (taxes are rising and you feel powerless, your vote counts for less and less, political decisions are made far from where you live, etc.), you must grasp the nature of the state.

The State originated through specific means and for a particular purpose.

It emerged through violence with the goal of economically exploiting its subjects.

Peasants receiving their lords orders before going to work, 1400s.

The State is NOT the result of a social contract or unanimous agreement. Unlike classical liberalism, the state is neither a spontaneous entity that individuals gradually established for reasons of safety.

The state originated "in conquest and confiscation." It resulted from the continuous economic exploitation of one class by another. And those who administered it "were indistinguishable from a professional-criminal class."

In the past, kings exploited their subjects and redistributed wealth among the royal family and aristocrats. Today, politicians exploit citizens and redistribute it among their electoral platforms. The main players have changed, but the mechanism remains the same. The means through which the state acts are public funds and public spending, and the goal remains the economic exploitation of a category of subjects (although some may perceive it as "security")

Freedom and security have never been, and are not, the primary interests of the State. The State allows as much freedom and security as necessary to continue economically exploiting its subjects.ù

What is it? How does it work?

Drawing from Oppenheimer's work "Der Staat," the State is the organization of the political means. In other words, it represents "the uncompensated appropriation of wealth produced by others."

The political means stands in stark contrast to the economic means, which involve voluntary production and exchange of wealth. These are the only two means that exist for satisfying human needs and desires, and the state is clearly the result of the former.

The political means have the advantage of requiring less effort than the economic means. The political means do not require you to possess actual skills or produce something by yourself. Therefore, as Nock observes, a person will employ the political means whenever possible—otherwise, in association with the economic means.

💡
Similar definitions in history: According to Voltaire, “The state is a device for taking money our of one set of pockets and putting it into another.” According to Bastiat, “The State is the great fiction by which everyone endeavors to live at the expense of everyone else.”

The state is essentially a different form of church.

A thirteenth century fresco of Sylvester and Constantine, showing the purported Donation. Santi Quattro Coronati, Rome

You are born within a state, you work for the state (often dedicating approximately 60% of your time), and you may even die for the state (in war) or simply while under the authority of the state. Individuals are taxed by the state and are expected to conform to the doctrines and regulations of the state (for instance, wearing masks). And if you resist or defy these mandates, you will encounter trouble with the state, much like how the Church historically caused significant problems for those who challenged it.

And after all, you cannot complain about politicians. Given the very nature of the state, politicians are just the fittest to occupy that position:

“It is an anti-social institution, administered in the only way an anti-social institution can be administered, and by the kind of person who, in the nature of things, is best adapted to such service.”

How to get rid of it?

Like all libertarians, Nock does NOT advocate a violent solution for eliminating the state. Violence has always been the means employed by the state, after all. Therefore, a program of liberty cannot involve violence. Nock suggests a concept that would later become mainstream in libertarian thought. That is, the solution is to think differently.

In other words, nobody has ever seen "the state." You can observe bureaucratic and administrative offices, but you cannot observe the state.

The state is a fictitious entity that exists solely in our minds. The state is a matter of words.

Once one stops thinking that there needs to be a state to control the economy, guarantee safety, and enact laws (while extracting taxes, sometimes even blood, and constantly restricting individual freedom), they can begin contemplating alternative solutions.

Nock is optimistic that a regime of natural order will emerge. A regime of natural order is a form of government that does not engage in positive interventions on individuals (as the State does) but only negative interventions in the pursuit of simple justice—not law, but justice. Government, in fact, differs from "the State.

“So long, and only so long, as those terms are favorable, the institution lives and maintains its power; and when for any reason men generally cease thinking in those terms, it weakens and becomes inert.”

Alternatively, Nock aligns with Ortega y Gasset, who envisions the state's eventual demise through its own actions—a form of Marxist capitalism's self-destruction. Nock believes that sooner or later, the state will have exhausted everything it can extract from producers, rendering itself feeble, and causing the population to suffer starvation, as has occurred with empires in the past.


My Take Today

Today, within the contemporary US context, Nock has become a hero to the so-called "Natcons" (national conservatives) and Paleo-libertarians. It's noteworthy that Natcons often employ an unusual interpretation of his ideas. They essentially seek to utilize the state apparatus, including strict laws and policing, to safeguard US national and cultural identity, a direction that Nock never envisioned. He was staunchly opposed to the use of the state apparatus and instead favored economic means (which aligns with Natcons' support for economic laissez-faire).

While I believe it's important to identify the entity—fictitious as it may be—that is contributing to the erosion of individual rights today, I also understand how such an entity can be instrumentalized for populist purposes, as seen in the case of Natcons.

A different perspective was given by the reactionary John Lukacs in his paper “Our Enemy, The State?” published in 1996. He wrote:

“The danger that threatens us - yes, here in the United States - is the breakdown not of culture but of civilization itself- which, in turn, depends on the proper authority of the state and on the proper practices of government. These practices may be bureaucratic rather than democratic, exaggerated as well as constraining, abstractly humanitarian yet in reality inhuman. Still our enemy is not the state, and not even government itself. It is the mis- conception of such terms as Progress and Freedom - confusing masses of people in the name of an antigovernment populism, leading to anarchy first and to tyranny afterwards, or to a future novel mixture of both.”