Nock’s three laws

Edward Cline, while writing about the relationship between art and reality, and how fiction is more important than history, links to an article on libertarian Albert Jay Nock

While Nock never wrote any systematic treatise on political economy or social science, he was very candid about the worldview that formed the basis of his social criticism, as found in the articles and books he published on political and historical topics. Although the principles which he adhered to were embedded in entertaining polemics, they were not merely ad hoc but exhibit an internal coherence which go a long way towards the elucidation of social facts. In particular he enunciated three laws which he alleged to be universal in the constitution of human society.

Nock writes towards the end of his life (1944) in Memoirs of a Superfluous Man (pdf),

“I was indescribably fortunate in getting, as early as I did, a clear sense of the bearing which three great laws of the type known as ‘natural’ have on human conduct. I say fortunate, for it was by good luck alone, and not my own deserving, that I got this sense. By luck I stumbled on the discovery that Epstein’s law, Gresham’s law, and the law of diminishing returns operate as inexorably in the realm of culture; of politics of social organization, religious or secular as they do in the realm of economics. This understanding enabled me to get the hang of many matters which far better men than me have found hopelessly puzzling, and to answer questions to which otherwise I would have found no answer.” (Nock 1944, pp. 133–4)

The first of these, Epstein’s Law, is the inherent tendency of human beings to satisfy their wants through the easiest means available. The second, Gresham’s Law, asserts that less valuable items will push items of greater value out of circulation. The third is the law of diminishing returns, which declares that every successive unit applied to a given end will have less utility than the one that has gone before it.

The first of these laws Nock claimed as his own formulation (named after a friend of his) but the latter two were formulas already familiar to economics, although given a somewhat different role in Nockian sociology. Nock claimed that these three laws explained the most salient social problem of his day (and by extension ours as well). That problem, as Nock saw it, was the failure of the Western democratic movement to fulfill its aim of creating a just and livable civilization. In Nock’s mind the democratic movement had not abolished, but rather abetted, what he saw as the two great evils of modernity, “economism” and “statism.” Economism is the tendency to reduce all human ends to epiphenomena of wealth accumulation. Statism is the tendency to surrender social power (custom, traditional sanctions, moral sense) to state power (legislation and coercion).
Nock drew a distinction between political and economic means as alternate, and opposing, ways to govern social and productive relations. Whenever a class substituted state power for social power, pursuing enrichment at the expense of other classes by the use of tariffs, imposts, embargos, rationing, wage-fixing, etc., the society was governed by political means. In Nock’s view all contemporary societies were governed by political means. A non-exploitative society governed by economic means was to be considered either a hypothetical construct or a dim memory of pre-state societies.

The ubiquity of political governance was in turn founded on the three laws, which Nock had distilled from the history of political economy and his own observations. In particular, Epstein’s Law, which showed that people in the mass would take the path of least resistance in order to increase their well-being, dictated that political means would triumph over economic means in a democratic society. Given the choice of increasing production or voting a subsidy to one’s income (and that of one’s fellow class members), the choice was obvious.

However, Epstein’s Law does not apply to naked transfers of power and wealth, such as would easily be recognized as an ordinary criminal act. Rather, the legitimacy of the exploitation is justified by conceptually overlaying society with an institution called “the State,” which impersonates society through the pretense of organizing the social whole, this idea having rooted itself as a mental habit characteristic of the population at large.

As Nock writes in Our Enemy the State (pdf),

“It is a commonplace that the persistence of an institution is due solely to the state of mind that prevails towards it, the set of terms in which men habitually think about it. So long, and only so long, as those terms are favorable, the institution lives and maintains its power and when for any reason men generally cease thinking in those terms, it weakens and becomes inert.” (Nock 1935 HI, Pt. 2)

An excellent article that covers everything from Nock’s views on the French revolution and the corruption of the idea of the American republic, to his influence on the Austrian school (Cline’s post talks about Nock and Rand).

In conclusion, the article says-

Nock’s aim was far larger than simply showing that “the market process works.” It was, in fact, more concerned with showing how politics doesn’t work. What is needed in libertarian theory today is not to prove that there is a “promised land,” but any contribution to clearing a road that might lead there.


Trackbacks are closed, but you can post a comment.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s