All Commentary
Thursday, November 1, 1962

A Reviewer’s Notebook – 1962/11


Man Of Letters

To those of us who cut our intel­lectual eyeteeth in the early nine­teen twenties, Albert Jay Nock’s Freeman was a great liberator. It was not that one necessarily per­ceived a marked degree of clarity about fundamental philosophy be­hind it, for its contributors in­cluded socialists and planners along with Single Taxers and free­wheeling libertarians. The sense of gay exhilaration that pervaded it, however, suggested that the editor was a self-starter—and when, in the middle of the nine­teen thirties, Nock published his Our Enemy, the State, his devotees were blessedly open to entertain the idea that Mr. Roosevelt’s New Deal was basically a trap. In re­trospect one could see that The Freeman had been the great con­servator of the idea of voluntar­ism: even its hospitality to social­ist writers was to be understood as a civilized gesture to the First Amendment. Nock as editor had had his basic point of view—but aside from that he was willing to let well-written arguments pro­ceed.

Nock, of course, had been a Single Taxer, which seemed to some of us to be neither here nor there in a country in which an abundance of land was traded on the open market and thus could hardly be engrossed. But the Single Tax was Nock’s means to an end. The end itself was the free use of energy, the exercise of one’s God-given rights without coercion by the state.

The Growth of Ideas

How had Nock’s ideas been formed? Where, in a period of collectivist drift, had he gotten his education? In his own Mem­oirs of a Superfluous Man Nock indicated a rather clear line of progression: he had, as he said, studied Greek and Latin, which had given him historical insight into the reasons for the rise and decline of the two great ancient civilizations; he had been led to a profound contemplation of Mr. Jefferson’s theory that where the state could do something for you, it could do something to you; and he had, after reading Henry George, and Herbert Spencer’s The Man vs. the State, been skep­tical of Lincoln Steffens, Fred­eric Howe, Robert M. La Follette, and other early twentieth century reformers who proposed an in­crease in state power in specific fields that needed ad hoc atten­tion. It was all a very neat and orderly education as Nock out­lined it.

Well, the Memoirs of a Super­fluous Man remains a great essay in self-understanding, but with the publication of Selected Letters of Albert Jay Nock, collected and edited by his son, Francis J. Nock (Caxton, $4), it becomes apparent that Nock, in writing his intel­lectual autobiography, remem­bered the grand contours and tended to forget the bumps along the way. The interesting thing about these letters, many of them written to Ruth Robinson, the il­lustrator of Nock’s Journey into Rabelais’s France, is that their author, like most of us, had to feel his way toward a mature theory of the proper limits of govern­mental power. Nock’s reading of the Greek and Latin classics, of Jefferson’s writings, of Spencer and Henry George and Gumplo­wicz and Franz Oppenheimer, may have been taken in orderly pro­gression, but the meaning of what he read had seeped in at highly irregular intervals. Arid it was obviously experience rather than reading that brought Nock even­tually to his mature way of look­ing at things.

First, a Reformer

In the beginning of his journal­istic career, which started when he was some forty years old, Nock was more of a statist reformer than he preferred, in later years, to remember. As his son Francis points out, he was capable of writ­ing in September of 1914 that “private gifts” of parks and play­grounds to a city tended “to blunt the city’s sense of duty and cor­rupt its self-respect.” Parks, so the Nock of 1914 thought, “should be municipal institutions in a com­plete sense,—a public investment that the city puts its money into because it is very much worth­while to do so.” Whatever one may think about the distinction between buying park land out of tax money and taking it for the municipality as a gift from an in­dividual, the Nock who made the distinction was certainly not pon­dering Jefferson’s theory that if the state could do something for you, it could by the same token do something to you. Parks, when they are not the result of free gifts, are made by exercise of eminent domain—i.e., forcible seizure by the political authority. One would have thought that Nock, as a Jeffersonian, would have favored acquiring parks through voluntary bequest.

Again, when Nock went to visit the city of Milwaukee during his journalistic tours in 1913 and 1914, he hoped to learn good things about “them way-up social­ists” who had captured the munic­ipal government. It seems to have been this visit to Milwaukee that started Nock’s disillusion­ment with what the reformers of Lincoln Steffens’s generation were doing. In a letter to Ruth Robin­son he wrote that “chasing up the record of the socialists all day” had been “a discouraging job.” Though he looked diligently for a record of accomplishment on which to base “a few good words,” he discovered that the socialists had “played politics as diligently as anybody” and “worked the spoils system for about all it was worth.” His final sad words about the Milwaukee socialists were that “they talked themselves out of of­fice.”

Nock’s disappointment with Mil­waukee under municipal socialism did not complete the education that would lead him to become the foremost advocate of voluntarism of his generation. Moving on to­ward Calumet, Michigan, on his journalistic wanderings, he ex­pected to make out a case against the owners of the copper mines.

He had heard that the New Eng­land stockholders in Calumet and Hecla, “first cousins… [to] the copperhead snake,” had “made 1,600 per cent profit year after year” by exercising “as absolute rights as any feudalistic power of the Middle Ages.” This, he wrote to Ruth Robinson, was enough to make one “wonder whether it was a good thing to hand over our nat­ural resources to private develop­ment.”

Well, when Nock finally arrived in Calumet in the middle of a bliz­zard in January of 1914, he found that “conditions of labour have been shockingly misrepresented.” The mine manager, it turned out, was a fine fellow, the townspeople “are a fine set.” Both sides to the controversy over wages “treated me as well as one could possibly be treated, and I saw no distress or violence except one little mess on a streetcar I was on.” So, instead of blasting the mine owners of Cal­umet as he had expected to do, Nock left northern Michigan feel­ing that “there is plenty to say about the situation, giving every­body full credit all around, with­out telling… horrid falsehoods.”

It was while covering stories for the reforming and muckrak­ing magazines that Nock really got his libertarian education. The facts of life gradually illuminated the theory he found in the libertarian books. What he saw in Mil­waukee, in northern Michigan, in Detroit, and in Cleveland was eventually supplemented by a jour­nalistic experience in Europe dur­ing the early years of World War I. When the time to start The Freeman had rolled around, Nock was writing (to Francis Neilson in November of 1919) that “social­izing industry means nothing but increasing the number of your shareholders.” In good Henry George fashion he appended a few words about “economic rent” de­vouring “socialized industry just as it devours capitalist industry.” But he was no longer capable of blaming the capitalists for the woes of the world.

Cats and Dogs and Liberty

The Nock letters, whether they are to Ruth Robinson or Brand Whitlock or H. L. Mencken or Paul Palmer, show the “educable” man in action. And it was always an amused and amusing man who al­lowed events to confirm or reject his theories. Nock did not believe in banging people over the head to convince them. His letter to Ber­nard Iddings Bell in June of 1944 shows the Nock whimsy at its most playful. “As against the dog,” he wrote Bell, “I am in favour of the cat, having had largely to do with both in my time. The dog is na­ture’s prize collectivist and au­thoritarian; he has the slave-men­tality and can’t be happy out of servitude, a natural-born New Dealer, you know, utterly lovable and devoutly given to all good works, y’understand, but a ding-busted fool like your friend H…. The cat, on the other hand, has oodles of self-respect and is bung-full of dignity. He… has no il­lusions about the social order. The greatest good of the greatest number does not interest him. He takes no stock in any scheme of enforced cooperation… So one is bound to respect the cat, though one may not like him… It is the vestiges of the early Socialism and authoritarianism still at work within your Unbewusstsein which sets you against the cat. Have you noticed that his friends are always the great libertarians, Mark Twain, du Pont de Nemours, etc., and that it is the individualist lib­erty-loving peoples with whom he is ace-high, the Belgians, French, Moors, Chinese? There is reason in all this.”

This would hardly do as a Ph.D. thesis on the influence of animals on history, for the Chinese, de­spite respect for the cat, went communist anyway. But it was Nock’s way of bringing principles to the attention of a correspond­ent. Nock never stood on a soap box, which is one reason why his voice is still heard.

The Ultimate Foundation Of Economic Science by Ludwig von Mises (D. Van Nos­trand Company, 148 pp., $4.50).

Reviewed by Percy L. Greaves, Jr.

The science of economics has been erected, step by step, on a foundation of such simple, but fundamental, premises as the fol­lowing:

“The characteristic feature of man is action… purposive ac­tion… conscious behavior…. To act means: to strive after ends, that is, to choose a goal and to resort to means to attain the goal sought….

“Actions are directed by ideas, and ideas are products of the hu­man mind…. Theory… is the search for constant relations be­tween entities or, what means the same, for regularity in the suc­cession of events…. Causality… is a priori not only of human thought but also of human action.

. Cognizance of the relation be­tween a cause and its effect is the first step toward man’s orienta­tion in the world and is the intel­lectual condition of any successful activity.     ..

“Man meditates about the con­ditions of his own self and of his environment, devises states of af­fairs that, as he believes, would suit him better than the existing states, and aims by purposive con­duct at the substitution of a more desired state for a less desired that would prevail if he were not to interfere.”

The above quotations are from the new book by Ludwig von Mises, world renowned author of Human Action and a dozen other books no economist should ignore. His latest volume not only probes the basic roots of all human ac­tion, but also exposes the ill-founded basis of some key falla­cies that now stand in the way of human progress.

“Economic progress,” as Mises writes, “is the fruit of the en­deavors of the savers, of the in­ventors, and of the entrepre­neurs.” Where there is no infla­tion or credit expansion the “pro­gressive accumulation of capital and the improvement of techno­logical methods of production that it engenders would result in a progressive drop in prices…. The amount of goods available for consumption would increase and the average standard of living would improve, but these changes would not be visible in the fig­ures of national income statistics. “The concept of national income entirely obliterates the real con­ditions of production within a market economy…. The ‘na­tional income’ approach is an abortive attempt to provide a jus­tification for the Marxian idea that under capitalism goods are `socially’ produced and then ‘ap­propriated’ by individuals. It puts things upside down. In reality, the production processes are activities of individuals cooperating with one another. Each individual col­laborator receives what his fellow men—competing with one another as buyers on the market—are prepared to pay for his contribu­tion.”

Among the other myths that Mises smashes is the anarchists’ dream of a peaceful society with­out any government. He points out that “man alone among all living beings consciously aims at substituting social cooperation… for the law of the jungle. How­ever, in order to preserve peace, it is, as human beings are, indis­pensable to be ready to repel by violence any aggression, be it on the part of domestic gangsters or on the part of external foes. Thus, peaceful human cooperation, the prerequisite of prosperity and civ­ilization, cannot exist without a social apparatus of coercion and compulsion, i.e., without a govern­ment.”

Mises also explodes once more the still popular myth that “one man’s gain is necessarily another man’s loss.” This Mercantilist doc­trine, traceable to Aristole, is still the basic fallacy of many protec­tionists, as well as those who worry about an unfavorable bal­ance of trade or payments.

“In the market economy the better people are forced by the instrumentality of the profit-and loss system to serve the concerns of everybody…. In its frame the most desirable situations can be attained only by actions that bene­fit all the people. The masses, in their capacity as consumers, ulti­mately determine everybody’s rev­enues and wealth…. What pays under capitalism is satisfying the common man, the customer. The more people you satisfy, the bet­ter for you.

“This system is certainly not ideal or perfect. There is in hu­man affairs no such thing as per­fection. But the only alternative to it is the totalitarian system, in which in the name of a ficti­tious entity, ‘society,’ a group of directors determine the fate of all people.”

This little book deserves to be read and inwardly digested by all who seek enlightenment on the economic and political problems of our times. If it is, economics will again be taught in our col­leges, and mass media will present a more realistic interpretation of world events. Political interfer­ences with the moral actions of men will gradually disappear, while living standards will ad­vance by leaps and bounds.


  • John Chamberlain (1903-1995) was an American journalist, business and economic historian, and author of number of works including The Roots of Capitalism (1959). Chamberlain also served as a founding editor of The Freeman magazine.