I just finished listening to Albert Jay Nock’s book, Our Enemy, The State. It was, perhaps, the finest disquisition on the inherent dangers of the state I’ve ever read. And, what’s odd is that one of the main points of the book was that government isn’t inherently bad. What’s bad is “the state.” He draws a very clear and compelling distinction between government and the state. And, even though the book was written in 1935, it reads like a modern treatise on the history of our lost liberty. In that regard, I see him very much like a 20th century John C. Calhoun. He saw what was coming by logical mandate. Knowing what he knew about the state and it’s relationship to it’s citizens, history could unfold no other way.
Let’s go through his main points:
1. State power is drawn from social power.
It is unfortunately none too well understood that, just as the State has no money of its own, so it
has no power of its own. All the power it has is what society gives it, plus what it confiscates from
time to time on one pretext or another; there is no other source from which State power can be
drawn. Therefore every assumption of State power, whether by gift or seizure, leaves society with
so much less power; there is never, nor can there be, any strengthening of State power without a
corresponding and roughly equivalent depletion of social power.
–Nock, Our Enemy, The State
This is an interesting comment. We all know that all state money comes from only two sources: confiscation(taxes) and inflation(printing money). But, he is saying that state power is derived the same way, through a sort of confiscation of societal power. And, just as taxes result in it’s victim being financially poorer, so does the confiscation of a citizen’s “power.” And, by power he means the citizens ability to exercise his/her efforts toward solving a personal or societal ill. Take, for instance, the beauracracy involved in starting a business. There are all sorts of papers to fill out, licenses to apply for and fees/taxes to pay. In the carrying out of these exigencies, the state has placed barriers in front of you in regards to exercising your power(in this instance, your labour) to provide for your own welfare. He expounds on that next.
2. This consumption of social power by the state robs society of the will to exercise that power.
It is largely in this way that the progressive conversion of social power into State power becomes
acceptable and gets itself accepted. When the Johnstown flood occurred, social power was
immediately mobilized and applied with intelligence and vigour. Its abundance, measured by
money alone, was so great that when everything was finally put in order, something like a million
dollars remained. If such a catastrophe happened now, not only is social power perhaps too
depleted for the like exercise, but the general instinct would be to let the State see to it. Not only
has social power atrophied to that extent, but the disposition to exercise it in that particular
direction has atrophied with it. If the State has made such matters its business, and has
confiscated the social power necessary to deal with them, why, let it deal with them. We can get
some kind of rough measure of this general atrophy by our own disposition when approached by a
beggar. Two years ago we might have been moved to give him something; today we are moved to
refer him to the State’s relief-agency. The State has said to society, You are either not exercising
enough power to meet the emergency, or are exercising it in what I think is an incompetent way,
so I shall confiscate your power, and exercise it to suit myself. Hence when a beggar asks us for a
quarter, our instinct is to say that the State has already confiscated our quarter for his benefit, and
he should go to the State about it.
–Nock, Our Enemy, The State
Here, he is fleshing out his previous idea about the depletion of social power by the state as it takes on more and more activities that are considered social issues. He gives an example that is contemporary to his own time, so I’ll do the same. This phenomenon is perhaps no more clearly illustrated than what happened in Kauai, Hawaii last year. After waiting on the Department of Land and Natural Resources to fix a park road for months, the residents of the area repaired the road themselves. The DOLNR had estimated that it would cost $4 million dollars and take two years to repair the road. Instead, the area business owners and residents did it in 8 days and with only donations.
What should have never been the business of the state to begin with had paralyzed this community for months. But, why? Why would they wait for someone else to do something for them. Because of the atrophy of will that occurs when the state absconds with power that it never should have had. The more power that is accumulates to itself, the less society desires to exercise that particular power on it’s own. Even if it legally can.