Albert Jay Nock:
The Superfluous Man
[Reprinted from Fragments, October-December
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
"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.
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
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
"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
"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
"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."