The Libertarian Who Knew Too Much

So, I’ve been reading some of the works of Albert Jay Nock today. He’s not a very well known writer anymore, but, as Wikipedia puts it:

“Nock was an important influence on the next generation of American thinkers, including libertarians such as Murray Rothbard, Ayn Rand, Frank Chodorov, and Leonard Read, and conservatives such as William F. Buckley, Jr..”

Given all this, I thought I knew about what to expect from him. But I was, at least partially, wrong. He seems to me a great deal smarter and more thoughtful than Rand or Buckley, and while he certainly does espouse many libertarian ideas, his philosophy seems much more nuanced and carefully thought out than most of what we consider “libertarian” thought today. This passage, from perhaps his most famous book Our Enemy, the State gives you an idea of what I mean:

“The State had by no means always kept its hands off trade, but it had never countenanced the idea that its chief reason for existence was, as we say, “to help business.” The merchants and financiers, however, had precisely this idea in mind. They saw the attractive possibilities of production for profit, with the incidence of exploitation gradually shifting to an industrial proletariat. They saw also, however, that to realize all these possibilities, they must get the State’s mechanism to working as smoothly and powerfully on the side of “business” as it had been working on the side of the monarchy, the Church, and the large-holding landed proprietors.”

It’s difficult to argue, given the title of Nock’s book, that he considers “the merchant-State” as he calls it, a good thing. Yet hardly a day goes by without some Libertarian and/or Republican demanding that our state do precisely what is described above. For example, this Washington Post article quotes Governor Rick Perry as saying on Friday:

“‘I am a pro-business governor and I don’t make any apologies to anybody about it. I’m going to be a pro-business president and I won’t make any apologies about it.'” 

Unless I am badly mis-reading one or the other, I see no way to reconcile those two lines of thinking.

It’s not that I agree with Nock’s philosophy; for he makes what I think are many naive errors. Also, many of his ideas will strike the modern reader as sexist and racist, although what I have read of his so far is no more so than was typical of the prevailing “wisdom” of his day, and at times perhaps even a little less so.

It’s just that, whatever his flaws, it seems to me that Nock put a lot of thought into his worldview, and consequently his work reads more like someone who was honestly trying to figure out how the world worked as opposed to the “I command you to be independent and obey me” attitude of Ayn Rand’s crowd. 

The long and short of it is: I very much doubt if any of the people who profess to admire him today have read his work beyond a few carefully selected quotes.

What's your stake in this, cowboy?