A Dissenting View on Albert Jay Nock

Robert Clancy

[Reprinted from Fragments, April-June, 1982]

Albert Jay Nock is admired by some who admire Nock who do not admire [Henry] George; and I'll have to be put down as one who admires George but does not admire Nock.

Nock wrote a book-length essay on Henry George on the centenary of the latter's birth in 1939. Though in his preface he acknowledges George as "one of the first half-dozen of the world's creative geniuses in social philosophy," by the end of the book one wonders why.

The one thing with which George identified himself most closely - the Single Tax - is the one thing Nock considers a mistake. Nock also thinks George made a mistake by running for mayor in 1886 and again in 1897. Apparently he erred, too, in writing against Herbert Spencer who recanted his earlier views on the land question. And it was also presumptuous of him to write an open letter to Pope Leo XIII on the occasion of his encyclical Rerum Novarum. And George should have behaved more politely toward the academic world and not debated with professors. George was mistaken in having confidence in "the people"; he should have cultivated "the elite."

What is left? According to Nock, "the quality of simple human goodness." George was "innocent, sincere, steadfast," and, Nock hoped, "the elite of mankind" (whoever they are) would come to appreciate that.

Really now, I think Henry George and the Georgist movement can dispense with such left-handed compliments. The Georgist movement has an aim, a thrust, a direction. It looks forward to influencing public opinion toward the philosophy and reforms proposed by George, and to the progressive adoption of land value taxation - and yes, eventually, hopefully - the Single Tax.

Far from alienating scholars, Henry George's political activities interest many of them to this day, especially the 1886 campaign, and they frequently research this event. George was not the only one who deplored Spencer's recantation - many others did - and George's book on the subject, A Perplexed Philosopher, contains important clarifications that are still useful. George worked carefully on his open letter to the Pope, The Condition of Labor, and it is probably his best statement on the ethics of his philosophy and reform.

As for George's faith in the people, there has been better success in gaining acceptance of Georgism by "the man in the street" than among most of the learned economists who are so immersed in hogwash that they cannot recognize straight facts or see simple truths.

What in the world can we do with Nock's Henry George except put him up on an unwanted pedestal, reject what he stood for - and lapse into inaction?