Progress Toward Collectivism
The ideas expressed by Mr. Jefferson in the Declaration, expressed by Thomas Paine and Benjamin Franklin, did not last as long in the consciousness of America as a pint of whisky in a lumber camp.
Albert Jay Nock wrote the following article for The American Mercury magazine in February 1936.
IN CONVERSATION with me, not long ago, one of my friends was speculating on what might have happened in 1932 if the government had taken a stand directly opposite to the one it did take. "Suppose, for instance," he said, "that in his inaugural address, Mr. Roosevelt had said: "The banks are closed, and you are all looking to the government to open them again and get them going. You will look in vain. You think it is the first duty of a government to help businesses. It is not. The only concern that government has with banking or any other business is to see that it is run honestly, to punish any and every form of fraud, and to enforce the obligations of contract. This government has no concern with the present plight of the banks, except to see that any banker who acts dishonestly goes to jail - and to jail he shall go."
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My friend thought that a good many people in the business world would have drawn a long breath of relief at the announcement of such a policy. They would cheerfully have said good-bye to their dollars that had been impounded or embezzled, for the sake of hearing that the government proposed thenceforth to keep hands strictly off business, except to see that it was run honestly, or in other words, that as far as business was concerned, the government would limit itself strictly to making justice costless, accessible, sure, swift, and impartial. Aside from this, it would leave businesses free to hoe their own row and get themselves out of their own messes as best they might.
I did not agree. My belief was, and is, that the business world would have acted like a herd of drug addicts whose rations had been suddenly cut off, for in its relations with the government, that is precisely what the representative business world of America has always been and is now—a herd of addicts. It has always been believed that the one governmental function which dwarfs all others to insignificance is to "help business" Let any kind of industry get itself into any kind of clutter, and it is the government's duty to intervene and straighten out the mess. This belief has prevailed from the beginning; it has seeped down from the business world and pervaded the general population so thoroughly that I doubt whether there are five hundred people in the country who have any other view of what government is really for. It seems to me, therefore, as I said, that the abrupt announcement of a change of policy would have merely thrown the people en masse into the imbecile hysteria of hopheads(heroin addicts) who are bereft of their supplies.
This belief being as deeply rooted as it is the belief that the one end and aim of government is to help business — the history of government in America is a history of ever-multiplying, ever-progressive interventions upon the range of individual action. First in one situation, then in another, first on this pretext, then on that, the government has kept continually stepping in on the individual with some mode of coercive mandate until we all have come to think that invoking governmental intervention is as much the regular and commonplace thing as turning on the water at a tap or throwing an electric-light switch.
Professor Ortega describes the American attitude towards the State well. The ordinary man, he says, "sees it, admires it, knows that there it is. Furthermore, the mass-man sees in the State an anonymous power, and feeling himself, like it, anonymous, he believes that the State is something of his own.
Suppose that in the public life of a country some difficulty, conflict, or problem, presents itself, the mass-man will tend to demand that the State intervene immediately, and undertake a solution directly, with its immense and unassailable resources." This is what America has always done. Moreover, apart from any public difficulty or problem, when the mass-man wants something very much, when he wants to get an advantage over somebody, or wants to swindle somebody, or wants an education, or a job, or hospital treatment, or even a hand-out, his impulse is to run to the State with a demand for intervention.
The thing to be noticed about this is that State intervention in business is of two kinds, negative and positive. If I forge a check, break a contract, misrepresent my assets, bilk my shareholders, or sophisticate my product, the State intervenes and punishes me. This is a negative intervention.
When the State sets up a business of its own in competition with mine, when it waters down the currency, kills pigs, plows under cotton, labels potatoes; when it goes in for a Planned Economy, or when it uses its taxing power to redistribute wealth instead of for revenue—that is, when it takes money out of other people's pockets merely to put it into mine, as in the case of the processing taxes, for example — that is a positive intervention.
These two kinds of intervention answer to two entirely different ideas of what government is, and what it is for. Negative intervention answers to the idea expressed in the Declaration of Independence, that government is instituted to secure certain natural rights to the individual, and after that, must let him strictly alone. It is exactly the idea attributed to the legendary King Pausole, who had only two laws for his kingdom, the first one being, Hurt no man, and the second, Then do as you please.
Positive intervention does not answer to this idea of government at all. It answers to the idea that government is a machine for distributing economic advantage, a machine for you to use, if you can get hold of it, for the purpose of helping your own business and hurting somebody else's. Pursuant to this idea of government, the machine is manned by a sort of prætorian guard, a crew of extremely low and approachable persons who are not there for their health, but because they are beset by the demons of need, greed, and vainglory. Then when I want an economic advantage of some kind, I join with others who have the same interest, and thus accumulate enough influence to induce the machine-crew to start the wheels going and grind out a positive intervention - a subsidy, land-grant, concession, franchise, or whatever it is that I and my group desire.
This latter idea of what government is for is the only one that ever existed in this country. The idea expressed by Mr. Jefferson in the Declaration, expressed in the clearest and most explicit language by Thomas Paine and Benjamin Franklin, did not last as long in the consciousness of America as a pint of whisky in a lumber camp. When Cornwallis disappeared from public view after the surrender at Yorktown, this idea also disappeared, never to return. Before the new government took its seat in 1789, the industrial interests were fully organized, ready, and waiting with a demand for positive intervention. From that day to this, the demand for this, that, or the other positive intervention has gone on incessantly. This is what is actually meant by "helping business" None of the groups which dickers with the machine-crew for an intervention to help business really cares two straws about helping business. What they want is an intervention to help their business; and since positive State intervention cannot help them without hurting somebody else – for obviously no positive intervention can be good for everyone - it follows that they want that also.
Thus it has come to be accepted on all sides that government exists mainly for just this purpose. The securing of human rights, the cheap, prompt, and effective administration of justice-all this is regarded as secondary. In fact, we now see governments everywhere, notoriously disregarding justice and human rights. Napoleon on St. Helena said that in fifty years all Europe would be either republican or cossack—well, here you have it.
They show no concern with justice, but only with law-law which they themselves manufacture, mostly by irresponsible decree, or what in this country is called "executive order," to suit their own purposes.
The American government has always been conspicuous for its indifference to justice, its disreputable subservience to expediency, and its devotion to a corrupt and corrupting legalism. It started out that way, and with its steady progress in centralization, its steady accumulation of coercive power over more and more of the individual citizen's activities, and its steady entrenchment of a larger and larger bureaucracy, it became steadily more indifferent, subservient, and corrupt, until it developed into the moral monstrosity that it now is.
One hundred and thirty-five years ago, Mr. Jefferson said that if the American government ever became completely centralized, it would be the most corrupt on earth; and the single instance of the Maine campaign in 1934 is probably enough to show that it is now entitled to that distinction.
The perversion of the idea that government exists to help business is responsible for this. All a government can properly and safely do to help business is what the Declaration says it is supposed to do to maintain individual rights, punish any trespass on those rights, and otherwise let the individual alone.
This would be a real help to business, and a great help. But this is not the idea and never has been. The idea, as I have said, is that the government should help some special business to the detriment of others, according as one or another person or group is able to influence the machine-gang to work the State machine for a positive intervention.
It is easy to see how serious collisions of interest are thus provoked. First, say, the steelmakers want an intervention. They run to the government about it. Then the textile people want one, then the glassmakers, then this-and-that type of industrialist follows suit. Then the shipping concerns and the railroads want interventions. They run to the government. Then the farmers want one, organized labor wants one, the ex-soldiers want one, the unemployed want one, the hoboes want one, and when each of these interests thinks it can muster force enough – force of numbers or of money or of political influence to make an impression on the machine-crew, it runs to the government.
The technique of procedure is always the same. The machine-crew is a purely professional organization; it is interested in helping no business but its own. It does not care to listen to considerations of the general welfare of business or of anything else. Dealing with it is a pure matter of quid pro quo. It is interested in votes, in campaign funds, and in patronage. It is governed mainly by fear; therefore it is especially interested in colorable threats ofopposition-in other words, blackmail. It is easy to recall how horribly it was harried by the lash of the Anti-Saloon League, and we are now seeing it kept awake nights by dread of the Townsendites, Sinclairites, Olsonites, La Folletteites, share-the-wealthers, and other irreconcilables.
Therefore the seekers after State intervention must propose satisfactory terms of brokerage in one or another of the foregoing ways, and if they are able to do so, the intervention is forthcoming.
The employment of this technique brings about a condition that invites unscrupulous exploitation. Consequently, whenever the State makes a positive intervention, it is at once urged to make another one to regulate or supervise this exploitation on behalf of persons or groups which are unfavorably affected. This second intervention is found in turn to be exploitable, interested persons proceed to exploit it, and the State makes another intervention at the request of influential groups who are being squeezed. Then further exploitation, another intervention, then another and so on indefinitely, pyramiding set after set of exploitable complications, until the whole structure falls to pieces at a touch, as our banking structure did three years ago.
I was interested to see that the new banking bill proposed last summer by the Senate covered almost four pages of the Wall Street Journal! If the State had never made any positive interventions upon the banking business or any other business, a perfectly competent banking law could be set up in ten lines, nonpareil. The action of the State in trying to check exploitation of one positive intervention by making another and another in a series of ever-increasing particularity, is like the action of a horse that has stepped in quicksand-each succeeding step only sinks him deeper.
The State, however, is always glad to take advantage of these collisions of interest, because each positive intervention widens the scope of its own jurisdiction, enhances its prestige, and adds to its accumulation of power. It cuts down the individual's margin of action, and pushes up the State's margin. These gains are all made at the expense of society, so it may be said that, in the social view, the State's positive interventions are a mechanism for converting social power into State power; the reason being that there is no other source from which State power can be drawn. All the power the State has is what society gives it, or what under one pretext or another it confiscates from society; and all the power thus transferred which is spent on expanding and maintaining the State's structure is just so much out of what society can apply to its own purposes.
This can be illustrated in terms of money. There seems to be an impression in some quarters that the State has money of its own. It has none. All the money it has is what it takes from society, and society gets money by the production of wealth; that is, by applying labor and capital to natural resources. There is no other way to produce wealth than this, and hence there is no source but production from which money can be got. All the money that the State takes by way of taxes, therefore, must come out of production, for there is no other place for it to come from. All it takes, then, leaves society with that much less to go on with.
The same thing is true with regard to the rest of society's resources. We all know that certain virtues and integrities are the root of stability. Wealth has relatively little to do with keeping society's head above water; the character and spirit of the people is what does it. Every positive intervention of the State tends to reduce the margin of existence, which the individual is free to regulate for himself; and to the extent to which it does reduce it, it is a levy on character.
Independence of mind, self-respect, dignity, self-reliance- such virtues are the real and great resources of society, and every confiscation of them by the State leaves society just so much poorer.
For instance, in 1932, when Mr. Roosevelt announced the doctrine that the State owes every citizen a living, the State, under his direction, took advantage of an unusual contingency to bring about a wholesale conversion of social power into State power. As we all know, it made a prodigious levy on social money-power, but that is relatively a small matter. Society will never get it back—the machine-crew, operating under whatever political label, will see to that—but further levies may, for a time, be somewhat checked, though probably very little.
What America does not realize is that the intervention of 1932 put a levy on the character of the people, which is beyond any estimate and beyond any possible hope of recovery. There are millions of people in the country today who not only believe that the State owes them a living but who are convinced that they will never get a living unless the State gives it to them. They are so despoiled of the moral resources that alone keep society in vigor that one may say they look to the State to validate every breath they draw.
In the foregoing, I have tried to show a few of the signs and roadmarks on the way to collectivism, and to give an idea of the distance America has already gone along that way, and also to show what the stimulus is that is driving us continually further. Collectivism means the absorption of all social power by the State; it means that the individual lives for the State. As an individual, he ceases to exist; he can think of himself, as so many millions of our people now do, as only a creature of the State. The free, intelligent exercise of those virtues and integrities, which are the capital resources of society, is replaced by a wholly irrational and canine obedience to the minutia of coercive State control.
Collectivism is the orderly and inevitable upshot of the course we have taken from the beginning. The country is committed to collectivism, not by circumstances, not by accident, not by anything but a progressive degeneration in the spirit and character of a whole people under the corrupting influence of a dominant idea-the idea that government exists to help business.
I have already several times said publicly-and I have been much blamed for saying it, when I have not been merely ridiculed - not only that I firmly believe America is headed for out-and-out collectivism, but that the momentum we have gained in a century and a half is now so strong that nothing can be done about it. Certainly, nothing can be done about its consequences. In saying this, I have been guided only by observing the dominance of this one idea throughout our history, by observing the marked degeneration in character and spirit which I speak of, and by perceiving the natural necessity where-by the one must follow upon the other. It strikes me that any thoughtful American may well and prayerfully take notice of where we have come out on the deal by which we got the thing symbolized by the stars and stripes and E Pluribus Unum in exchange for the thing symbolized by the rattlesnake flag of the horse-and-buggy days, with its legend, Don't Tread On Me.
An acquaintance told me the other day that he did not believe the country could stand another four years under Mr. Roosevelt. I said I had no opinion about that; what I was sure of was that no country could stand indefinitely being ruled by the spirit and character of a people who would tolerate Mr. Roosevelt for fifteen minutes, let alone four years. I was, of course, speaking of the generic Roosevelt; the personal Roosevelt is a mere bit of the Oberhefe which specific gravity brings to the top of the Malebolge of politics. He does not count, and his rule does not count. What really counts is the spirit and character of a people willing under any circumstances whatever to accept the genus, whether the individual specimen who offers himself be named Roosevelt, Horthy, Hitler, Mussolini, or Richard Roe.
A republic is adjusted to function at the level of the lowest common denominator of its people. I take it that among many pretty clear indications of where that level stands in America, one is the fact, if it be a fact, that twelve million signatures have been subscribed to petitions for the Town send Plan. I have only a press report as authority for this, so let us discount it fifty percent for journalistic enterprise, and say six million. Here then, apparently, is a good share of the population which not only does not want the government to stop making positive interventions upon the individual, but is urging it to multiply them to an extent hitherto unheard of. Then on the other hand, there is what in the popular scale of speech is called the business world. I can not imagine that there are a baker's dozen in that world who would regard a government that really kept its hands off business --- which is what some of them pretend to want — as anything but an appalling calamity, worse than the earthquake of Lisbon.
We can almost hear the yells of horror that would go up from every chamber of commerce, bankers' conference, and Rotarian lunch table, if they were suddenly confronted with a governmental announcement that the policy of positive intervention was hence-forth and forever in the discard. Suppose the next President, whoever he may be, should say in his inaugural address: "No more positive interventions of any kind. The Department of Commerce and the Department of Labor will shut up shop tomorrow. No more concern with any form of business except to see that it is run straight, and no more legalism about that, either. Beginning tomorrow, the Department of Justice will cease being a Department of Law, and become a real Department of Justice." Would the business world welcome a statement of policy like that? Hardly. Thus it would appear that the level of the lowest common denominator is in this respect pretty low. In other words, practically no one wants the uniform policy of positive State intervention changed for a uniform policy of purely negative intervention. Each would probably be willing enough to see that policy vacated in the case of all the others but to see it vacated for him is simply something that will not bear thinking about.
Very well, then, the question is, how can America insist upon a policy of taking all the successive steps which lead directly to collectivism, and yet avoid collectivism? I do not see how it can be done. Nor do I see how it is possible to have collectivism and not incur the consequences of collectivism. The vestiges of many civilizations are witness that it has never yet been done, nor is it at all clear how the present civilization can make itself exempt.
Crossing the ocean last year, I struck up an acquaintance with a lawyer from New York. Our talk turned on public affairs, and he presently grew confidential. He said:
"I could work five times as hard as I do, and make more than five times the money I do, but why should I? The government would take most of my money away, and the balance would not be enough to pay for the extra work."
One can generalize from this incident, insignificant as it is. The cost of the State's positive interventions has to be paid out of production, and thus they tend to retard production, according to the maxim that the power to tax is the power to destroy. The resulting stringencies, inconveniences, and complications bring about further interventions which still further depress production; and these sequences are repeated until production ceases entirely, as it did at Rome in the third century, when there was simply not enough production to pay the State's bills.
I repeat that I can see no better prospect than this as long as the tendency to collectivism goes on unchecked, and as I have shown, there seems to be no discoverable disposition to check it - the prevailing spirit and character of the people, on the contrary, seem all in its favor. Well then, I should say agreement must be made with the conclusion of Professor Ortega that "the result of this tendency will be fatal. Spontaneous social action will be broken up over and over again by State intervention; no new seed will be able to fructify. Society will have to live for the State, men for the governmental machine. And as after all it is only a machine, whose existence and maintenance depend on the vital supports around it, the State, after sucking out the very marrow of society, will be left bloodless, a skeleton, dead with the rusty death of machinery, more gruesome than the death of a living organism. Such was the lamentable fate of ancient civilization.”
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