All Commentary
Sunday, September 1, 1991

A Reviewers Notebook: The State of the Union

In the Thirties, reviewing a book by Albert Jay Nock for The New York Times, I twitted Nock for referring to Thomas Jefferson reverential-ly as “Mr. Jefferson” where, often in the same paragraph, it was plain “Mencken” or even plain “Lincoln.” A couple of days later I received a one-line letter from Nock. It read “Young man, know your betters.”

I never could quite puzzle out Nock’s reproof, for I considered Mencken, with his American Mercury, and Lincoln, with his Emancipation Proclamation, just as worthy of special salute as Jefferson. Incidentally, I loved every line of Nock’s little biography of Jefferson, so there was no prejudice involved in anything I had said.

Nock had a genius for seeing things as they are, and Charles Hamilton, in a Nock anthology just published by the Liberty Fund of Indianapolis, has given us a fine selection of far-sighted excerpts from Nock’s books and essays. The title is The State of the Union: Essays in Social Criticism (340 pages, $20 cloth, $7.50 paper). The state of the Union in Nock’s estimation was never very good, for there was always too much reliance on the coercion in statism.

Nock believed in broad principles. Following the German sociologist Franz Oppenheimer, he insisted that there were only two means by which human beings could satisfy their needs and desires. One was by the economic means. This involved work, sometimes heavy digging in the ground. Naturally people tended to avoid this. It was easier to invoke the political means of letting the State do it by taxing all and subsidizing a few.

The British, looking back on their own Glorious Revolution of 1688, often theorized that a pact accounted for the origin of the State. Nock said no. Tracing back in every instance he could find, he could discover no pact. In all cases the State had come into being when a stronger group appropriated the production of a weaker for their own transfer purposes. Nook is no evangelist; he doesn’t talk about rackets. But the best to be hoped for in his thinking is to hold government to a limited racket somewhere this side of Communism and Fascism.

Until he encountered the opinions of Ralph Adams Cram, who thought that perhaps one in 40 individuals was actually human, Nock considered that as long as there was available free land individual progress was possible. He himself would settle for amenities—good food, good theater and opera, and so on. Asked when and where he would have preferred to live, he said France between 1810 and 1885. Brussels and Belgium seemed in the Twenties and Thirties to be the closest approximation of the historic France he favored. So he was always gravitating back to Brussels.

How, in a period of collectivist drift, had he formed his opinions? There is a clear line of progression in his autobiographical Memoirs of a Superfluous Man. He had studied Greek and Latin with his father. I find it hard to believe he picked up the Greek alphabet so easily. But there it was.

Jefferson had a well-founded theory that where the State could do something for you, it could also do something to you. It was with this in mind that Nock and the Neilsons of the Swift meat-packing fortune started the Freeman as the proclaimed conservator of the idea of voluntarism. The Nation and the New Republic held the field for liberal compromise. The Freeman would not be liberal; it would be radical.

It lasted four years. Nock’s idea was to hire good people and let them make their own assignments. A young editor (it must have been Suzanne LaFollete, though Nock doesn’t name her) took hold, passing along some of Nock’s hints and suggestions. Nock’s main test of an article’s acceptability was that it should be coherent and written in impeccable, 24-carat prose. Lewis Mumford and Van Wyck Brooks, both socialists, were welcomed on esthetic grounds.

Nock was like a doctor who knows that nature can be counted on every time to do most of the healing. Russian General Kutusov who made such good use of space and time had the same idea. “Snoring as a Fine Art” is the title essay in a posthumously published book that takes off from the publication of Caulaincourt’s memoirs of Napoleon’s 1812 campaign in Russia. Kutusov knew that Napoleon could win on any battlefield by his superior tactical knowledge. So he calculatedly snored and slept whenever there was any suggestion of a direct confrontation with the French army. When Napoleon could do nothing with his occupation of Moscow because nobody remained in town to speak to him, he could only think of going home. This was no surprise to Kutusov, nor to Nock in retrospect.

Nock approved of any economy of means. He happened to be visiting in Pennsylvania among the Amish in the early New Deal period. Rex Tugwell and Henry Wallace were agitated by the supposed need to give state support to agriculture. But the Amish knew nothing about agricultural depression. The aim of the Amish farmer was to work his own land with the help of his children to raise enough food to feed his own family. If there was any surplus it could be sold for cash. Nock noticed that the whole Amish community was rich where other farming areas were poor.

There were things that Nook could barely stomach. He tells about a community that permitted a man to be burned alive. The killing was a frightful crime. It could only have happened in wretched steel-making country where there was, to quote Nock, “an upper class materialized, a middle class vulgarized, a lower class brutalized.”

Nock can’t stay with vulgarity or with brutality very long. He had been well brought up, living at first in Brooklyn on heights that overlooked lower New York, and later moving with his family to lumber country in Michigan. Here Nock’s theory about what should be vouchsafed to the reader by way of biography breaks down. We don’t know what Nock’s father did in lower Manhattan or why he went to lumber country. We miss the con nections that took Nock to a school in Illinois that gave him some insight into the difference between educating the “educable” in the “grand old fortifying curriculum” of the classics and shunting the run-of-the-mill students into training for special tasks. All we know about connections is that Nock found Thomas Jefferson’s idea of picking one out of 20 or more for special educable attention to be a good thing.

Amenity became the key concept of Nock in his post-Freeman days. One of the most fascinating sections in The State of the Union is about Nock’s trip through “a little-visited European country” which, with tongue in cheek, he calls “Amenia.” Amenia is “a very beautiful land,” with inhabitants who are “uncommonly amiable and gracious to strangers.” There is a good deal of illiteracy in Amenia, but plenty of bookstores. The Amenians, says Nock, have only the vaguest notion of “creating a market” for anything, including literature. They have not even learned the art of”sophisticating” their products. The staples, nonetheless, are fine. The railroads are cheap and safe. Amenia is well off for natural resources, and there is enough gold to go around, “so why not let it lie awhile” in the ground?

Does Amenia lack enterprise? N0ck noticed that it was short on “economism,” by which he means the insistence that if you make a thing well, you must go on making it whether the demand is there or not. If it is not there, advertising pressure will create it.

Nock expressed the hope that the “civilized Amenia” of 10 years hence “will be as charming and captivating” as the Amenia “which I have had the good fortune to visit.” We have been privileged to follow Nock in a grand spoof. But it is the key to his amenity-loving character.

  • 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.