The dynamic tension between Albert Jay Nock and Murray Rothbard

In his book Egalitarianism as a Revolt against Nature, Murray Rothbard confronts the cynicism of Albert Jay Nock and asserts that such outlooks on life lead inevitably to conservatism. To the Nock enthusiast this can be a jolting statement to contend with. At first one might not want to believe what Rothbard is saying, but weeks of studying this question from time to time will yield that, on the whole, he is right.

One of Nock’s more impressive statements is that a great portion of wisdom concerns the development of a sense of the inevitable. There is much to be learned from this, but consider the damage that can be done when one decides that the State, or taxes, are inevitable. How would one then deal with the presence of these evils? Since they are “inevitable,” lobbying for their dismantling is out of the question, so one resorts to the idea of “limited government,” that infamous conservative bromide.

One of the advantages which Rothbard had over Nock is that he developed a positive system of anarcho-capitalism. Nock called himself a “philosophical anarchist,” but essentially got no further than spelling out the evils of the State. We should not be ungrateful for this; often the house built upon the rock cannot be built until the one that sits on sand is removed. It might be true, nonetheless, that Nock’s negative outlook did little to encourage him to work out a positive theory of anarchy. Rothbard’s passion for justice, on the other hand, clearly compelled him to do just that very thing.

So far it looks like Rothbard is the hands-down winner in this “battle” of free market anarchists, but I would caution the student of these writers not to deliver a verdict too quickly. On closer inspection, it would appear more likely that there is actually a dynamic tension between these men; that one need not shun one in order to embrace the other. How is this so?

One of the happier byproducts of Nock’s skepticism is a sense of duty to mind one’s own business. Nock considers it to be a waste of time, and even in bad taste, really, to try to change other people. This leaves each man with only one approach: live well. Mind your own business. Cultivate your own garden. Clean up your own act.

We modern men love the opposite approach, taking the speck out of our neighbor’s eye before taking the log out of our own. We love to save people, to rescue them, to proselytize them until they agree with us, who could make the world just perfect if only everyone would see things our way. Nock’s healthy skepticism is an antidote to this sanctimonious arrogance.

In the end, a workable anarcho-capitalist theory depends upon our willingness to mind our own business. It is what makes sense out of Rothbard’s theory of private property rights. It’s what allows us to say “I don’t agree with x, but I don’t think it should be illegal, either.” In a word, it’s what makes us passionate lovers of freedom and justice.

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2 Responses

  1. Hey, an anarchist site — if you’re into this, I thought that you might be interested in my anarchist cast, the most popular philosophy show on the web… :)

  2. I am curious how you would reconcile this with a common religious imperative, and specifically a Christian imperative, to evangelism. Is it as simple as limiting this approach of “minding one’s own business” to matters of civic and economic life? Or would you contend that a proactive, engaging religious evangelism conflicts with human freedom?

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