The State

Albert Jay Nock

[Nock wrote a six-part article On the State in five issues of the Freeman. Publisher Huebsch described them as "summing up this paper's attitude towards the State." They were also Nock's first sustained attempt to present his views on the State. Parts I and II are included here. They appeared in the June 13 and June 20, 1923, issues of the Freeman]

From all appearances, organized society is tending away from the political theory of government, and towards a theory that may be called purely administrative. The circumstances of the ten years just past have greatly accelerated this tendency, and recognition of it now appears in many quarters where the magnitude of the change involved is perhaps not fully perceived -- as, for example, in Principal Jacks's excellent article on the League of Nations, in last February's issue of the Atlantic Monthly. It is much to the point, however, to see clearly how great and fundamental this change is. Changes hitherto, throughout the history of humanity's communal life, have been from one mode or form of political government to another. Autocracy has been modified into constitutionalism, and constitutionalism into republicanism, which is generally, also, but quite improperly, identified with democracy. All these modes or forms of government are, however, in their essence, political; a change or development from one to another was merely a modal change, not an essential change. The change now impending is not modal but essential; it is a change in fundamental theory. When completed, it will have divested government of every vestige of political character and function, and will have left it standing only as an administrative agency.

To say that this change is impending is by no means to say that it will soon be reflected in our institutions, or that it will suddenly or violently assert itself or get itself enforced by coarse and indiscriminate methods. Such a thing does not happen. In his last days, Edmund Burke said of the French Revolution, which he so feared and hated, that "if a great change is to take place, the minds of men will be fitted to it"; and so it really is, though no one can say precisely how the fitting is done. Formal education and propagandizing have little to do with determining it; indeed, more often than not it goes against these, like the motion of the tide under the waves. The nature of an impending change can be better forecast than from any superficial happenings, by discerning the way the tide is running, the way in which the minds of men are being fitted, the general terms in which they think; and now, apparently, the minds of men are being fitted for the fundamental change above described.

The difference between political and administrative government can not better be made clear than by paraphrasing the first few pages of the treatise called The State, by Franz Oppenheimer, professor of political science in the University of Frankfort, now well translated and available in English. Confronted by the problem of the State as a phenomenon of history, English and American writers on the subject have uniformly tried to solve it by the a priori method; or, one may better say, by guesswork. How did the State originate! What circumstances gave rise to it! What was its primary purpose and intention! To these questions, which touch the essence of their problem, English and American writers have invariably replied by conjecture -- one even affirming that the State came into being by the will of God; another, that its idea originated in a social instinct; another that it was the development of an early association for the purposes of protection; and so on. The trouble with these theories is that they are insufficiently supported by evidence.

Not long ago, on the Continent, a new method of investigation was set up, whereby the State is examined as far back as its existence can be traced, by a strictly historical method, and its phenomena noted for evidence of its origin and purpose. Among these phenomena, one is invariable. It appears in every form or manifestation of the State, from its earlier and simple type down to its present highly-organized, highly-integrated type. There is no State of which we have record that does not present the phenomenon of two distinct economic classes which have interests directly opposed; a relatively small, owning and exploiting class which lives by appropriating without compensation the labour products of a relatively large, propertyless and dependent class.

Wherever in history the State appears, it bears this aspect. The State of the primitive herdsmen exhibits it as clearly as our own. How may it be accounted for! It is usually explained as due to the well-known inequalities of natural endowment prevailing among the race. Persons of greater ability soon found themselves, by force of their natural superiority, in a position to command the services of persons who had less ability, and thus the lateral stratification of the State into two classes took place almost at once. We can all remember, by way of illustration, how generally the commercial success of Mr. John D. Rockefeller and Mr. Andrew Carnegie was accounted for in this way.

This assumption is very simple and also very plausible; so naturally it finds ready acceptance. It is nevertheless untenable, and is instantly seen to be untenable when one recalls the fact that this economic exploitation of one class by another could not possibly take place unless all available land were either actually or legally occupied; for no one would submit to exploitation or to working for another for less than he could make by going out upon unoccupied land and working for himself. The Physiocrats, that illustrious body of Frenchmen who, a century and a half ago, founded the science of political economy, saw this. Karl Marx saw it; and it is strange that so clear a thinker should not also have seen all its implications. In his chapter on colonization, after recounting the fruitless experiment of the English colonizer, Mr. Peel, Marx puts it in so many words that the system which he chooses to call capitalism, but which should properly be called economic exploitation, can not be erected as long as land, actually and legally unoccupied, remains available.

It is plain that in no primitive State (wherein, remember, the system of economic exploitation was in full force) was all available land actually occupied; for it is not all actually occupied in any modern State, even those as densely populated as Germany, Belgium or Japan. Therefore it must have been legally occupied; the ruling and exploiting class must have held it out of accessibility by proscription. If not, the exploited majority would have moved out upon it, and the continuance of exploitation would have become impracticable -- just as Diaz found that he could not get labourers to work in the Mexican mines unless he first confiscated the communal lands.

The State, then as now, must have been the agency whereby this proscription was made effective and kept effective. It would thus appear that the State, instead of originating according to any of the conjectures made by English and American writers on the subject, originated as a class-weapon of conquest and confiscation, and that its primary function was, and still is, to maintain the stratification of society into the two classes noted.[1]

Oppenheimer's conclusion is as follows:

The State, completely in its genesis, essentially and almost completely during the first stages of its existence, is a social institution forced by a victorious group of men on a defeated group, with the sole purpose of regulating the dominion of the victorious group over the vanquished, and securing itself against revolts from within and attacks from abroad. Teleologically, this dominion had no other purpose than the economic exploitation of the vanquished by the victors.

No primitive State known to history originated in any other manner.

Robertus-Jagetzow also, whom Oppenheimer quotes, says,

History is unable to demonstrate any one people wherein ... the division of labour had not developed itself as the subjection of one set under the other.

Thus is derived a conception of the State, or if one prefer a general term that is somewhat simpler, of political government, as a purely antisocial organization; indeed, as the archetype and primary pattern of all organization (I can think of no exception whatever) which is now deemed anti-social and as such is reprehended and discouraged by the common conscience of mankind. It will be useful to remark instances -- instances known to every one -- of the disparity between the social morals of the State and those of the individual, which are in large part enforced upon the individual by the power of the State itself. Upon any other theory of the State, they would be anomalous and inexplicable. If one regard the State, however, as in its origin and by its first intention an anti-social organization -- a class-instrument for the perpetuation of economic exploitation--they at once appear normal and logical. Some of these will be discussed in a later paper.

Having gone thus far in considering the origin and nature of the State, or political government, it is appropriate just here to examine for a moment the content of the word political, as used of government. This can be best done by expanding Franz Oppenheimer's introductory paragraphs, and illustrating them with some examples. Oppenheimer's treatise is extremely brief and compact; the substance of a chapter being often compressed into a paragraph, and that of a paragraph into a sentence. It is therefore a rather hard book to read, and one who approaches the subject for the first time is likely to miss part of its import. These articles are written only for the sake of helping to make its fundamental doctrine, and especially its definitions, clear and easy to be understood.

There are two, and only two, means whereby man can satisfy his needs and desires. These are, first, by labour, by the exchange of labour products and services; and second, by appropriating without compensation the labour-products and services of others. The former means may be called the economic means. It is well understood and needs no illustration, for every exercise of the economic means is easily reducible to the terms of primitive trade and barter. The second, however, needs careful consideration.

This second means whereby man satisfies his needs and desires is obviously robbery. When a person employs this means without sanction of law, as when he breaks a shop or picks a pocket, he is apprehended and punished. When he employs it under sanction of law, as when he uses a tariff to enhance the price of a commodity or uses the monopoly of a natural resource, such as anthracite coal, for instance, to limit production and create an artificial scarcity, with consequent enhancement of prices, he goes unpunished and unquestioned. Yet essentially these acts are robbery; for the enhanced price must be paid, like all prices, out of production, and the enhancement represents no value whatever, but merely represents the privilege conferred upon him by the State through the tariff or the monopoly. By so much, therefore, as the enhanced price is higher than the price determined by free competition in the open market, by so much is he appropriating without compensation the labour-products and services of others. Quite as truly does he do this as though he robbed their shops of labour-products and commanded their services as chattel-slaves.

The State, as we have seen, had its origin in conquest and confiscation, and it has existed ever since as an agency whereby this system of economic exploitation is maintained. It is characterized in every manifestation of which we have record, by this phenomenon of a small exploiting minority and a large exploited majority. Every State, from the earliest to the most modern, is a robber-State. Of its instruments for effecting robbery, the most primitive, and now most costly, are armies and navies. These are used chiefly in safeguarding the economic exploitation of weak alien peoples by the Start's beneficiaries at home; as in Morocco by the French State's beneficiaries, or in Haiti, Santo Domingo and Central America by the American State's beneficiaries. The collision of interests, or the prospect of collision, where several sets of beneficiaries are at work in one place, enormously stimulates the growth of armies and navies and the consequent growth of the militarist spirit.

The instruments whereby the State most largely effects robbery of its own citizens are natural-resource monopoly, tariffs, franchises, concessions. These are all delegations of the taxing power. By putting a tariff against the importation, say, of wool, the State permits the domestic wool-producing interests to levy a tax upon consumers of wool to the amount of the excess in price over the price determined by supply and demand in a free competitive market. These interests give the consumer nothing in return for this tax; the State gives them, as beneficiaries, the privilege of levying it, and they accordingly do so.[2]

Similarly, by permitting private monopoly of natural resources, the State delegates to those beneficiaries who are lucky enough to hold such monopoly, the power to levy a tax upon all who desire access to those natural resources for purposes of production. Nothing is given in return for this tax; the beneficiary simply appropriates without compensation so much of the labour-products and services of others as the State permits him to take. In some cases, it is a very large amount, e.g., the monopoly of lands in New York City held by the Astor family and by the corporation of Trinity Church. These delegations of the taxing power are called privileges.

These are the main devices whereby the State fulfills its primary function of keeping up, in our communal lift, the economic exploitation of one class by another. Wt are now prepared to understand that the second means which man has of satisfying his needs and desires, which is directly opposed to the first or economic means, may be called the political means.

It is important to understand these definitions clearly. To gain a livelihood, to satisfy his needs and desires, man can either work or steal, he can use the economic means or the political means. By the economic means, he exchanges labour and labour-products for the labour and labour-products of others. By the political means, he appropriates the labour and labour-products of others, giving neither labour nor labour-products in exchange. Inasmuch as so large proportion of the State's activity, certainly ninety per cent of it, is spent upon enabling this uncompensated appropriation of labour and labour products, the State itself is well described by Oppenheimer, in reference to its origin, nature and function, as the organization of the political means. "Political government" signifies the same thing; it means the sort of government that has for its primary purpose the maintenance of economic exploitation through privilege.

The reader is now in a position to survey certain aspects of the State which must have impressed him as anomalous. For instance, upon any of the current theories of the State, it is rather remarkable that the right of individual self-expression in politics, which has been rapidly extended and is now wellnigh universal, should have resulted in so much less benefit to the exploited majority than was expected. Republicanism has done little more to make effective the will and the desires of the majority than constitutionalism or autocracy. The war made this clear in a striking and unmistakable way; and even disregarding the revelations made by the war, it is a matter of the commonest knowledge that the interests of the majority are as egregiously disserved in republican France and America as they are in monarchical Britain and Belgium. But if the State is per se an anti-social institution, an organization of the political means, then obviously its nature persists under one form as under another, and a change of form or mode counts for nearly nothing. A republic which maintains the integrity of the political means through an army and navy, private monopoly of natural resources, tariffs and franchises, is quite as essentially anti-social as any autocracy that uses the like instruments for the like purpose.

Similarly, in republics and constitutional monarchies where the party system prevails, a change of party is futile. Party-politics and campaign promises have quite generally become, in our popular scale of speech, synonyms for falsehood and disreputableness. If the State were a social institution, having its origin in any kind of regard for the general welfare, it is hard to see why this should be as it invariably is. The politically-minded liberal or progressive would be quite justified in his indefeasible optimism, his hopeful belief that a due allowance for human frailty, a little busy tinkering with externals -- a change of party, a new platform, a new party, or what not -- will help to mend matters. But if the State be the organization of the political means, a device to enable certain persons to live without working, by appropriating the labour and labour-products of other persons, without compensation, his faith and his enterprise are alike devoid of foundation and are mere mischievous absurdity.


  1. It is worthy of remark that the hunting tribes, with whom conquest and economic exploitation is almost impracticable, on account of the nature of their pursuits, never formed a State; nor yet did the primitive peasants, for the same reason.
  2. It is rather interesting to observe signs that the true character of tariffs as sheer charters of robbery, is becoming generally known. Formerly there was a good deal of popular argument and discussion of tariff bills, and many pleas in Congress on the ground of "protecting American industries," "protecting the American workingman," etc. There was only a little pro forma discussion of our present tariff-law, probably the most outrageous and indefensible in our history, and hardly any pretence that it meant anything but straight theft or that it was passed for any reason but that it could be passed and that its beneficiaries, by making hay while the sun shone, could do quite well out of it in the length of time that must elapse before it can be revised.