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Saturday, May 12, 2012
Our Enemy, The State - By Albert Jay Nock Part 2.3
Such are the antecedents of the institution which is everywhere now so busily converting social power by wholesale into State power.11 The recognition of them goes a long way towards resolving most, if not all, of the apparent anomalies which the conduct of the modern State exhibits. It is of great help, for example, in accounting for the open and notorious fact that the State always moves slowly and grudgingly towards any purpose that accrues to society’s advantage, but moves rapidly and with alacrity towards one that accrues to its own advantage; nor does it ever move towards social purposes on its own initiative, but only under heavy pressure, while its motion towards antisocial purposes is self-sprung.
Englishmen of the last century remarked this fact with justifiable anxiety, as they watched the rapid depletion of social power by the British State. One of them was Herbert Spencer, who published a series of essays which were subsequently put together in a volume called The Man versus the State. With our public affairs in the shape they are, it is rather remarkable that no American publicist has improved the chance to reproduce these essays verbatim, merely substituting illustrations drawn from American history for those which Spencer draws from English history. If this were properly done, it would make one of the most pertinent and useful works that could be produced at this time.
These essays are devoted to examining the several aspects of the contemporary growth of State power in England. On the essay called Over-legislation, Spencer remarks the fact so notoriously common in our experience,13 that when State power is applied to social purposes, its action is invariably “slow, stupid, extravagant, unadaptive, corrupt and obstructive.” He devotes several paragraphs to each count, assembling a complete array of proof. When he ends, discussion ends; there is simply nothing to be said. He shows further that the State does not even fulfil efficiently what he calls its “unquestionable duties” to society; it does not efficiently adjudge and defend the individual’s elemental rights. This being so – and with us this too is a matter of notoriously common experience – Spencer sees no reason to expect that State power will be more efficiently applied to secondary social purposes. “Had we, in short, proved its efficiency as judge and defender, instead of having found it treacherous, cruel, and anxiously to be shunned, there would be some encouragement to hope other benefits at its hands.”
Yet, he remarks, it is just this monstrously extravagant hope that society is continually indulging; and indulging in the face of daily evidence that it is illusory. He points to the anomaly which we have all noticed as so regularly presented by newspapers. Take up one, says Spencer, and you will probably find a leading editorial “exposing the corruption, negligence or mismanagement of some State department. Cast your eye down the next column, and it is not unlikely that you will read proposals for an extension of State supervision.14... Thus while every day chronicles a failure, there every day reappears the belief that it needs but an Act of Parliament and a staff of officers to effect any end desired. Nowhere is the perennial faith of mankind better seen.”
It is unnecessary to say that the reasons which Spencer gives for the anti-social behaviour of the State are abundantly valid, but we may now see how powerfully they are reinforced by the findings of the historical method; a method which had not been applied when Spencer wrote. These findings being what they are, it is manifest that the conduct which Spencer complains of is strictly historical. When the town-dwelling merchants of the eighteenth century displaced the landholding nobility in control of the State’s mechanism, they did not change the State’s character; they merely adapted its mechanism to their own special interests, and strengthened it immeasurably.
The merchant-State remained an anti-social institution, a pure class-State, like the State of the nobility; its intention and function remained unchanged, save for the adaptations necessary to suit the new order of interests that it was thenceforth to serve. Therefore in its flagrant disservice of social purposes, for which Spencer arraigns it, the State was acting strictly in character.
Spencer does not discuss what he calls “the perennial faith of mankind” in State action, but contents himself with elaborating the sententious observations of Guizot, that “a belief in the sovereign power of political machinery” is nothing less than “a gross delusion.” This faith is chiefly an effect of the immense prestige which the State has diligently built up for itself in the century or more since the doctrine of jure divino rulership gave way. We need not consider the various instruments that the State employs in building up its prestige; most of them are well known, and their uses well understood. There is one, however, which is in a sense peculiar to the republican State. Republicanism permits the individual to persuade himself that the State is his creation, that State action is his action, that when it expresses itself it expresses him, and when it is glorified he is glorified. The republican State encourages this persuasion with all its power, aware that it is the most efficient instrument for enhancing its own prestige. Lincoln’s phrase, “of the people, by the people, for the people” was probably the most effective single stroke of propaganda ever made in behalf of republican State prestige.
Thus the individual’s sense of his own importance inclines him strongly to resent the suggestion that the State is by nature anti-social. He looks on its failures and misfeasances with somewhat the eye of a parent, giving it the benefit of a special code of ethics. Moreover, he has always the expectation that the State will learn by its mistakes, and do better. Granting that its technique with social purposes is blundering, wasteful and vicious – even admitting, with the public official whom Spencer cites, that wherever the State is, there is villainy – he sees no reason why, with an increase of experience and responsibility, the State should not improve.
Something like this appears to be the basic assumption of collectivism. Let but the State confiscate all social power, and its interests will become identical with those of society. Granting that the State is of anti-social origin, and that it has borne a uniformly anti-social character throughout its history, let it but extinguish social power completely, and its character will change; it will merge with society, and thereby become society’s efficient and disinterested organ. The historic State, in short, will disappear, and government only remain. It is an attractive idea; the hope of its being somehow translated into practice is what, only so few years ago, made “the Russian experiment” so irresistibly fascinating to generous spirits who felt themselves hopelessly State-ridden. A closer examination of the State’s activities, however, will show that this idea, attractive though it be, goes to pieces against the iron law of fundamental economics, that man tends always to satisfy his needs and desires with the least possible exertion. Let us see how this is so.