Albert Jay Nock:
The Superfluous Man

Jack Schwartzman

[Reprinted from Fragments, October-December 1964]

Author's Note: One of the great influences in the life and writings of Frank Chodorov was Albert Jay Nock [1870-1945]. It is for that reason that the following article, which once appeared in FAITH AND FREEDOM, is especially abridged and revised for this issue of FRAGMENTS. All quoted paragraphs are taken from three of Nock's books: On Doing the Right Thing, and Other Essays; Our Enemy, the State; and Memoirs of a Superfluous Man.

"In every civilization ... there are always certain alien spirits who keep a disinterested regard for the plain intelligible law of things irrespective of any practical end." Albert Jay Nock

You are gone these twenty years, Mr. Nock, yet to a fragmentary number, whom you once called the "remnant," your work -- they say -- will live forever. This is very perplexing to us a collectivist delegation that has come all the way to this Place to interview you. Why do you smile? You are indeed a puzzling relic of a breed that used to be known as individualists. What were you individualists like? Is it true that you did not believe in democracy?

"I could see how 'democracy' might do very well in a society of saints and sages. ... Socrates could not have got votes enough of the Athenian mass-men to be worth counting. ...As against Jesus, the historic choice of the mass-man goes regularly to some Barabbas. … Above all things the mass-mind is most bitterly resentful of superiority. It will not tolerate the thought of an elite. ...Under this system ... the test of the great mind is its power of agreement with the opinions of small minds. ...An equalitarian and democratic regime must by consequence assume ... that everybody is educable."

Do you not believe in compulsory education?

"I have never been able to find any one who would tell me what the net social value of a compulsory universal literacy actually comes to. ...It enables scoundrels to beset, dishevel, and debauch much intelligence as is in the power of the vast majority to exercise."

You are odd indeed. Don't you have any regard for society?

"There is no such thing as society. ...I have never been able to see 'society' otherwise than as a concourse of very various individuals. ...When the great general movement toward collectivism set in, ... 'society,' rather than the individual, became the criterion of hedonists. ...Comte invented the term altruism as an antonym for egoism. ...This hybrid or rather this degenerate form of hedonism served powerfully to invest collectivism's principles with a specious moral sanction, and collectivists ... made the most of it."

If people were truly opposed to collectivism, why is it that it is flourishing all over the Earth?

"Considering mankind's indifference to freedom, ... collectivism is the political mode best suited to their disposition. ...Under its regime, the citizen ... is relieved of the burden of initiative and is divested of all responsibility, save for doing as he is told."

Will you not agree that the collectivist plan calls for the abolition of war and poverty in the future?

"What we and our more nearly immediate descendants shall see is a steady progress in collectivism running off into a military despotism of a severe type. Closed centralization; a steadily growing bureaucracy; state power and faith in state power increasing; social power and faith in social power diminishing; the state absorbing a continually larger proportion of the national income; production languishing, the state in consequence taking over one 'essential industry' after another, managing them with ever-increasing corruption, inefficiency and prodigality, and finally resorting to a system of forced labor."

Will you not admit that only collective power can do away with iniquity and misery? (But you are smiling again!)

"It is an attractive idea. ...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 economies, that man tends always to satisfy his needs and desires with the least possible exertion. ...Spencer and Henry George had familiarized me with the formula."

We do not understand you.

"There are two ... means, and only two, whereby man's needs and desires can be satisfied. One is the production and exchange of wealth; this is the economic means. The other is the un-compensated appropriation of wealth produced by others; this is the political means. ...

"The state, then, whether primitive, feudal, or merchant, is the organization of the political means. Now, since man tends always to satisfy his needs arid desires with the least possible exertion, he will employ the political means whenever he can -- exclusively if possible; otherwise, in association with the economic means. He will, at the present time, that is, have recourse to the state's modern apparatus of exploitation; the apparatus of tariffs, concessions, rent-monopoly and the like."

Do you mean to imply that the state is not brought into being to serve the needs of all men?

"The positive testimony of history is that the state invariably had its origin in conquest and confiscation. No primitive state known to history originated in any other manner."

But are there not good states, as well as bad?

A state is a state is a state. "Thus colonial America, oppressed by the monarchical state, brings in the republican state; Germany gives up the republican state for the Hitlerian state; Russia exchanges the monocratic state for the collectivist state; Italy exchanges the constitutionalist state for the 'totalitarian' state."

But does not the state abolish crime?

"The state claims and exercises the monopoly of crime. ...It forbids private murder, but itself organizes murder on a colossal scale. It punishes private theft, but itself lays unscrupulous hands on anything it wants."

Does not the state provide social security and other great services?

"The state has no money. It provides nothing. Its existence is purely parasitic, maintained by taxation. …A naive ignorance of this fact underlies the pernicious measures of 'social security.' ...What such schemea actually come to is that the workman pays ... the whole bill."

Should not the state intervene in cases of emergency?

"Every intervention by the state enables another, and this in turn another, and so on indefinitely. ...When this takes place, the logical thing, obviously, is to recede, and let the disorder be settled in the slower and more troublesome way ... through the operation of natural laws. ...The state then intervenes by imposing another set of complications upon the first … until the recurrent disorder becomes acute enough to open the way for a sharking political adventurer to come forward and, always alleging 'necessity,' the tyrant's plea, to organize a coup d'etat."

Isn't the state, however, naturally necessary for man?

"Under a regime of natural order, that is to say, under government, which makes no positive interventions whatever on the individual ... misuses of social power would be effectively corrected. ...Under a regime of actual individualism, actual free competition actual laissez-faire ... a serious or continuous misuse of social power would be virtually impossible."

Just what do you mean by your peculiar distinction between government and state?

"Based on the idea of natural rights, government secures those rights to the individual by strictly negative intervention, making justice costless and easy of access; and beyond that it does not go. The state, on the other hand, both in its genesis and by its primary intention, is purely anti-social. It is not based on the idea of natural rights, but on the idea that the individual has no rights except those that the state may provisionally grant him ...

"While government is by its nature concerned with the administration of justice, the state is by its nature concerned with the administration of law -- which the state itself manufactures for ... its own primary ends…

"The code of government should be that of the legendary King Pausole, who prescribed but two laws for his subjects, the first being, Hurt no man, and the second, Then do as you please."

If you feel so strongly about state abuses, why did you not become a reformer?

"It is easy to prescribe improvements for others; it is easy to organize something to institutionalize this or that, to pass laws, multiply bureaucratic agencies, form pressure groups, start revolutions, change forms of government, tinker at political theory. The fact that these expedients have been tried unsuccessfully in every conceivable combination for six thousand years has not noticeably impaired a credulous unintelligent willingness to keep on trying them again and again."

Then what can any person do to improve society?

"The only thing that the psychically human being can do to improve society is to present society with one improved unit. In a word, ages of experience testify that the only way society can be improved is by the individualistic method ... of each one doing his very best to improve one…

"I found myself settled in convictions which I suppose might be summed up as a philosophy of intelligent selfishness, intelligent egoism, intelligent hedonism: ... to know oneself as one can; to avoid self-deception and to foster no illusions; to learn what one can about the plain natural things of life, and make one's valuations accordingly."

What a dangerous theory! If every one were permitted to act freely in accordance with his own valuations, there would be no end to crime.

"It seems to be a fond notion with the legalists and authoritarians that the vast majority of mankind would at once begin to thieve and murder and generally misconduct itself if the restraints of law and authority were removed…

"The practical reason for freedom … is that freedom seems to be the only condition under which any kind of substantial moral fiber can be developed. Everything else has been tried, world without end. …

"Freedom, for example ... undoubtedly means freedom to drink oneself to death. ...It also means freedom to say, 'I have studied, I have graduated, I never drink.' It unquestionably means freedom to go on without any code of morals at all but it also means freedom to rationalize, construct and adhere to a code of one's own. Freedom to do the one without correlative freedom to do the other is impossible."

But what must man do to fight injustice?

"Simply nothing... The student of civilized man will ... regard the course of our civilization ... as an instance of nature's unconquerable intolerance of disorder, and in the end, an example of the penalty which she puts upon any attempt at interference. …

"If it were in my power to pull down its whole structure overnight and set up another of my own devising -- to abolish the state out of hand, and replace it by an organization of the economic means -- I would not do it. ...The effect would be only to lay open the way for the worse enormities of usurpation possibly, who knows? with myself as the usurper!"

Well, Mr. Nock, thank you for the interview. It has been most enlightening. When we return to Earth, we will ask our legislators to study your proposals, and have our committees debate them in open forum. (But why do you continue smiling?) Meanwhile, is there any final statement that you would care to make?

"I learned early with Thoreau that a man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone; and in view of this I have always considered myself extremely well-to-do. All I ever asked of life was the freedom to think and say exactly what I pleased, when I pleased, and as I pleased. …

"It is true that one can never get something for nothing; it is true that in a society like ours one who takes the course which I have taken must reconcile himself to the status of a superfluous man; but the price seems to me by no means exorbitant, and I have paid it gladly, without a shadow of doubt that I was getting all the best of the bargain."