Is Albert Jay Nock a Statist Too?

By Scott McPherson

In his classic Our Enemy The State, Albert Jay Nock writes that “It may…be easily seen how great the difference is between the institution of government, as understood by [Thomas] Paine and the Declaration of Independence, and the institution of the State…The nature and intention of government…are social. Based on the idea of natural rights, government secures those rights to the individual by strictly negative intervention, making justice costless and easy of access; and beyond that it does not go. The State, on the other hand, both in its genesis and by it primary intention, is purely anti-social. It is not based on the idea of natural rights, but on the idea that the individual has no rights except those that the State may provisionally grant him.” [Emphasis added]

Nock seems to think that a limited government is possible, at least theoretically, and that it is distinguishable from a State. Is he a statist too?

Anarchists claim that anyone who advocates “aggression” is a statist. I have written a number of commentaries over the last decade, so perhaps I’ve overlooked something, but could someone please refer me to where in any of them I have advocated aggression?

And while were on the subject, I have to ask, would aggression be possible in an anarcho-capitalist world, or, with government (or the State, I can never tell which they want to get rid of) abolished will we all be too busy holding hands and singing Celtic tribal chants to aggress against anyone else?

If the answer is yes – and I pray my anarchist contemporaries haven’t gone so completely off the deep end that they will answer otherwise – then won’t government, oops, a “rights protection agency” be called in to settle the matter? That’s starting to sound a lot like government to me.

And will this system of government ever itself act in a non-libertarian fashion? According to David Friedman, in his blueprint for anarcho-capitalism, The Machinery of Freedom, the answer is…Yes.

In Chapter 31, “Is Anarcho-Capitalism Libertarian?” Friedman writes,

I have described how a private system of courts and police might function, but not the laws it would produce and enforce; I have discussed institutions, not results. That is why I have used       the term anarcho-capitalist, which describes the institutions, rather than libertarian. Whether these institutions will produce a libertarian society – a society in which each person is free do           do as he likes with himself and his property as long as he does not use either to initiate force             against others – remains to be proven.

Under some circumstances they will not. [Emphasis added]

So I have to ask: Is Friedman a statist too? I don’t think so. I think he’s honest when he says that people can, theoretically, hire a “rights protection agency” (none dare call it government) that violates the rights of others and potentially create a non-libertarian society. That sounds pretty anti-social to me! It also sounds a little like what Ludwig von Mises – that evil statist – meant when he talked about the free market being the best means of allocating resources, but that it will not necessarily create good things. That is up to the consumer.

If a limited government – and I mean that in the Nockian since of the word – will always, according to the anarchist, grow into a State, therefore making its supporters de facto “statists”, then wouldn’t a supporter of anarcho-capitalism have to wear the same label, since it too can produce un-libertarian results?

Maybe the anarcho-capitalists should come down from their high horse, and recognize that the difference between what a principled limited-government libertarian wants and what an anarchist wants is only separated by a disagreement over means, i.e., one government within a specific geo-political boundary providing protection of our rights, or many of them.   Far too often they jump to conclusions about what other people believe — simply because we don’t believe them.  I, for one, am unconvinced that “competing governments” will work out.   The idea seems better suited to a fantasy roll-playing game.  Somalia seems like a good example of that in practice.  But I also admire the anarchist for thinking and working towards the system of government that he wants. I’m with Nock, that noted anarchist, when I say that I want a government, and that a government limited to the protection of my rights is possible. That may make me naïve, or foolish – but it doesn’t make me a statist.

Scott McPherson is a member of Seacoast Liberty.

8 Responses

  1. Anarchists claim that anyone who advocates “aggression” is a statist. I have written a number of commentaries over the last decade, so perhaps I’ve overlooked something, but could someone please refer me to where in any of them I have advocated aggression?

    You’re the one saying you oppose anarchy, which means you support the state. If you do, you support the aggression the state necessarily employs. The state taxes and monopolizes the institutions of justice–it uses force (violence, aggression) against innocent people (taxpayers; customers; competitors). Please explain why this is not aggression. Don’t say “but how would anarchy work?” That does not mean what you advocate is not aggression–it just means that you favor aggression for some reason (as all advocates of criminality do). (See What It Means To Be an Anarcho-Capitalist.)

    If you are not for the power of a state to outlaw competition, compel membership, or tax, then fine, but you are an anarcho-libertarian like us, in this case. Which is it?

    “I’m with Nock, that noted anarchist, when I say that I want a government, and that a government limited to the protection of my rights is possible. That may make me naïve, or foolish – but it doesn’t make me a statist.”

    Yes, it does–if you advocate a state. If you merely are mistaken and are really advocating a stateless government that does not commit aggression, then you are not a statist, and are instead an anarchist. You’ll have to tell me which you are.

    Of course. As was Hayek–see, e.g., Block’s Hayek’s Road to Serfdom.

  2. Mr. Kinsella:

    Wow, heads you win, and tails I lose! How convenient!

    Is Nock’s definition of government wrong then? It must be, because the real definition of statism is apparently “anything that isn’t anarchy.” Again, how convenient.

    Is Friedman advocating a statist society, if he acknowledges that under anarcho-capitalism individual rights may be curtailed — or is a rights violation by a private company armed with the powers of government somehow less despicable than a similar action by a single government?

    Just because I have reached the conclusion that multiple governments would create a very un-libertarian society — a possbility acknowledged even by Friedman — doesn’t mean I advocate a State, where, as Nock sees it, “the individual has no rights”.

    If the majority wants to abolish government, what right does that leave the minority, who might want a government to protect them against that majority?

    I’ve never said I would oppose your right to withdraw consent from government — and I do not, for the record, support taxation as a means of funding government — I just believe you do not have a right to set up a competing government, one that, theoretically, could be used to violate my rights! If you set up a government that opposes my government, then we are war, aren’t we?

    Government can be a very dangerous institution — that’s why I don’t want a bunch of them. I’d rather we focused on making the one we have conform to libertarian principles.

    It’s been fun, Mr. Kinsella. This discussion, academic at best, can be a stimulating intellectual excercise. I’ll leave the last word to you. Best of luck with your pursuits.

  3. I don’t find it useful to distinguish between “the government” and “the state.” Whichever term you use, I think the defining characteristic is that it’s an organization which acts as if what people see as their rights with regard to other people don’t apply with regard to it, and doesn’t, by so acting, provoke the sort of response that individual rights violation normally provokes. Examples would be taxation and the draft, both of which would be seen and treated as obvious rights violations if done by anyone other than the government.

    My claim is that a society with no such institution, one in which the organizations that enforce rights, arbitrate disputes, provide the useful functions governments are supposed to provide are seen as having no special rights other people don’t have, is both possible and likely to be more attractive than a society with a government.

    Obviously that doesn’t mean that no rights violations will occur—whether or not rights enforcement agencies ever violate rights, there will surely still be some individual thieves, murderers, and the like.

    These are issues not easily dealt with in a short comment. Interested readers may want to look at a piece of mine that explains some of the ideas underlying my view that a government is an agency of legitimized coercion—the terminology I used in MoF.

  4. is it possible for minarchist types to have their “limited” government AND leave me the hell alone?

    probably for a while, but then busybody types will still want me to have to pay for their hopes and dreams. All governments go that way eventually.

    There is only legitimacy in government when one chooses to be governed. I do not choose this. If you do, fantastic! Good luck!

    I’ll be waiting for the “liberty oriented” jackboots to roll up.

  5. […] now Scott McPherson petulantly dedands, in Is Albert Jay Nock a Statist Too? Anarchists claim that anyone who advocates “aggression” is a statist. I have written a number […]

  6. Scott, I think you are missing the point re: anarchy. I was a minarchist like you at one time. Most anarchists were minarchists first. One of the big hangups is, “how will it work?”

    Now there is a lot of historical research into private solutions to social challenges like Roderick Long’s “How Government Solved the Health Care Crisis” and forward research like Walter Block’s new book on road privatization and Gil Guillory’s work on Private Defense Agencies.

    But the how, is not as important as recognizing that the market is the only valid means to provide defense and justice. By valid, it’s understood that using force, either to collect taxes, or to enforce legal monopoly is illegitimate.

    In order to have a minarchist government, one must deny individuals the right to property and to individual sovereignty. That’s the hallmark of statism.

    So when someone claims a minarchist is a statist, they are correct. It is someone who advocates a monopoly state (albeit a smaller one) with the institutional power to use aggression.

  7. Nock was a geo-libertarian.

    His definition of a state was the use of state privilege by a rentier class (bankers, landowners, limited liability corporations, etc) to a legal claim on the wages of those excluded by the privilege.

    Thus his idea that there are two ways to gain wealth:

    1. the economic means
    2. the political means

    He therefore saw local governance as legitimate, non-arbitrary, delegated authority – narrowly constituted – to uphold negative liberty by requiring the sharing of the economic rent that results from private privilege of enclosure of the natural commons.

  8. Scott:

    I think this post was better written than your last one – which is not to say that I agree with it more, only that it has more actual substance. Your ideas are stated with greater clarity, which lends itself better to constructive debate of those ideas.

    I do not consider myself a very effective communicator (yet), so instead of posting some original prose, I’ll instead link to a lucid rebuttal of one of the specific questions your post raised about free market institutions resembling or regressing back into a “government”. It’s by Stefan Molyneux, and is entitled 609 Would Anarchy Create Governments?. I hope you at least find it stimulating, if not correct.

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