All Commentary
Saturday, October 1, 1983

Book Review: Mr. Jefferson by Albert Jay Nock Introduction by Russell Kirk and Our Enemy, the State by Albert Jay Nock Introduction by Edmund A. Opitz

Mr. Jefferson

by Albert Jay Nock Introduction by Russell Kirk

202 pages • $8.95 paperback

Our Enemy, the State

by Albert Jay Nock Introduction by Edmund A. Opitz

109 pages • $6.95 paperback
(Both books published by Hallberg Publishing Corporation, Delavan, WI 53115) 1983

The republication of these two classics occurs, auspiciously, forty years after the Memoirs of a Superfluous Man and twenty years after the founding of The Nockian Society. The books are attractively printed and each includes a long introductory essay written for the occasion, plus some notes on A.J.N. by the secretary of The Society.

Western nations were well down the road to serfdom when Our Enemy appeared in 1935. Nock had no expectation that his book would slow our Gadarene progress, but he believed that anyone who had uncovered the plain truth of things in some area of life ought to hang up his findings in plain sight where questing minds might find them. That there are such minds among us is attested by the growing demand for this book.

The tone of Our Enemy is set by the magisterial opening sentences: “If we look beneath the surface of our public affairs we can discern one fundamental fact, namely: a great redistribution of power between society and State. This is the fact that interests the student of civilization . . . an increase of State power and a corresponding decrease in social power.”

In order to grasp Nock’s argument we must understand his major terms—society, government and the State. A society is a multi-generational group of kindred—men, women and children—occupying a given territory, sharing a common heritage and vision, acknowledging and mostly practicing the moral code—don’t murder, assault, steal, or lie; keep your word, fulfill your contracts, love your neighbor and don’t covet his goods. Every society is founded upon certain “rules of the game,” precepts which must be observed if the social order is to endure. These rules are codified as the law.

Society is the context in which individuals choose and pursue their personal goals, ride their hobbies, play, loaf, or whatever—so long as it’s peaceful. It includes the economy, where millions of men and women engage in the voluntary production and amicable exchange of goods and services. Society is the vast and intricate network of people linked in voluntary associations seeking to advance their educational, religious, scientific, artistic, recreational or other purposes. Society is intrinsically peaceful; force is alien to the several kinds of activities which comprise the basic nature of society. But every existing social order has to contend with people who are anti-social; predatory and criminal elements who disturb the peace of the community by violating the life, liberty and property of the citizens. Acts of violence must ultimately be countered by lawful force—government.

Society needs an agency authorized to use defensive force in situations specified under the law in order to protect individual citizens against violations of life and liberty and property and the nation against external aggressors. This is, basically, the idea of government set forth in the Declaration of Independence. It is a political philosophy premised upon the conviction that people, by and large, are competent to run their own lives and direct their personal affairs; it contemplates a government that lets people alone, intervening only to check those who refuse to let others alone.

The law is set in motion by a breach of the peace, and then it intervenes negatively to punish those who initiate force against others; it counters violence by an exercise of lawful force. But all human institutions suffer corruptions, and the law is no exception; government is subject to capture by power hungry groups from within the private sector who twist the institution of justice into an instrument of plunder. At which point the State comes into operation.

The State, in Nock’s terminology, is a double barrelled affair, part public and part private. It is a pincer movement, with office holders misusing their political power to operate a scam in cahoots with groups of private citizens, to gain economic and other advantages for both at the expense of the general public. The State is the law perverted into an instrument of plunder. It is a cabal of politicians and pressure groups operating behind a screen of legality to the disadvantage of peaceful and productive citizens. The State is a parasitic and predatory burden upon society. It is our enemy.

Nock brought out his Jefferson on the hundredth anniversary of our third President’s death. When the book was reprinted in 1960 it contained a charming and perceptive Introduction by Jefferson scholar, Merrill D. Peterson, who called Nock’s study “the most captivating volume in the Jefferson literature.” He praised Nock as “a finished scholar, a brilliant editor, and a connoisseur of taste and intellect.”

Jefferson was one of Nock’s favorite Americans, the most apolitical politician our country has produced, a multi-faceted man and a model of civilized conduct. Nock sums up Jefferson’s character: “A dominant sense of form and order, a commanding instinct for measure, harmony and balance, unfailingly maintained for fourscore years toward the primary facts of human life—towards discipline and training, towards love, parenthood, domesticity, art, science, religion, friendship, business, social and communal relations.”

Shortly after the original appearance of his Jefferson, Nock ventured a prediction: “I think my Jefferson will work in the same way (as The Freeman), very quietly and for a long time, and with an effect entirely disproportionate to the amount of fuss made over it. I think this is the natural way for an influence to work.”

Just so! “The high merits of Jefferson’s urbane and persuasive style,” writes Russell Kirk, “have lost nothing since 1926.” Indeed they have gained, and a new generation of readers has a rich experience in store.

  • The Rev. Edmund A. Opitz (1914-2006) was a Congregationalist minister, a FEE staff member, who for decades championed the cause of a free society and the need to anchor that society in a transcendent morality. A man of wide reading and high culture, Opitz was for many years on the staff of the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York. He was one of the few voices in the 1950s through the 1990s calling for an integrated understanding between economic liberty and religious sensibility. He was the founder and coordinator of the Remnant, a fellowship of conservative and libertarian ministers.