Sunday, October 9, 2011

Book Review: Our Enemy, the State by Albert Nock

Our Enemy, the StateOur Enemy, the State by Albert J. Nock

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An interesting book, worthy of closer study (I distractedly listened to the audio version). Nock makes several arguments about the nature of the state in general, the nature of the traditional American state, and the planting of the seeds of totalitarianism.

Nock argues that the expansion of state power always comes at the expense of what he calls "social" power. That is, power which exists across the rest of society. For example, before 9-11 (obviously not Nock's example), the need for security on airlines was met by society, sometimes airports themselves, sometimes local communities, sometimes the states, and sometimes private companies. Now, the government does it all, and that social power has been transfered to the state. Nock further argues that:

1) it is in the nature of the state to continually expand its power at the expense of society.

2) it is in the nature of people to allow the state to do so, either out of greed and lust for power (on the part of those in the state working for expansion); or out of laziness (on the part of the rest of us who would rather let it happen, than actively fight the expansion of state power).

(I think Nock misses something here that was true even in his own day: he was using the Fascists and Commies as his model, and applying those lessons to the nascent American welfare state. But, even in the 1930s, the expansion of the American national state was not done out of a lust for power so much as it was done from a misdirected and fuzzy sentimentalism. C.S. Lewis better identified the source of Western liberal tyranny:
Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics
Here at least, I think Nock was off in his analysis.)

The critical stage is the time immediately after the assumption of a new power by the state. This is the point at which civic virtue will either resist the state, or die. In a famous example, Nock discusses the effect of the welfare state on the traditional civic virtue of charity. In the past, he argues, if a man asks you for a quarter, you would give it to him if you could spare it, since it was your duty as a citizen. Once the state has started to tax you in order to support the man, you will no longer give the quarter, considering that you have already given through your taxes, whether you wanted to or not.

From this point, Nock argues that the state will increasingly cement its power first by gradually outlawing the exercise of it by any other institutions (again, re: the TSA). Then it will being to conscript citizens to perform the now "necessary" functions which the state has taken on itself, at which point we are reduced to slavery, in that we are reliant on a service only provided by the state, and simultaneously forced to perform that service.

Nock draws his examples primarily from three places: from the transition of the Ancient Roman Empire from the Enlightened rule of the Antonines to the despotism of the Severan Dynasty, from the rise of the Fascists in Europe, and from the rise of the welfare state in America.

Overall, an interesting read. I'm not sure I disagree with the general outlines (his views of the nature of government and of the nature of people I think are spot on). I merely question his application. Liberals (in the modern sense of the word), are not fascists or communists. There isn't the same lust for pointless destruction that so marked the death camps and the gulag.

Having said that, this book is still worth reading for all interested students of American politics.

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