The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

March 24, 2019

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Memoirs of a Superfluous Man
Fred Foldvary - 08/03/11

Memoirs of a Superfluous Man (1943) is an autobiography of the ideas and mind of Albert Jay Nock, and only incidentally of his life or achievements.

Nock’s contribution to conservative philosophy consists mainly in his analysis and rejection of all forms of statism. From the 1890s to the 1940s, Nock witnessed the growth of the state, as power became centralized and government absorbed through taxation more and more of the national wealth. Nock said he was thankful that he never had contact with any institution under state control and had not been indoctrinated with state-inspired views.

Nock looked back fondly to an America whose people had the virtues of independence, self-reliance, dignity, and diligence, virtues which flourished in liberty. For Nock, communism, the New Deal, fascism, and Nazism were merely so many trade-names for collectivist statism. Nock credits Jefferson with the insight that in proportion as the state is given power to do things for citizens, the state will do things to citizens.

In the Memoirs, Nock reports that he had been of a skeptical frame of mind since childhood. He learned Latin and Greek early and became educated in the ancient classics. His motto was always to “see things as they are,” the mark of a truly educated man who sees the reality beneath superficial appearances.

Nock refers to himself as being a “superfluous man” in several ways: superfluous in that he had no desire to change others in a society that itched to change people; in that he had been educated rather than merely trained; and in that he maintained an interest in culture and ideas amidst a vulgar society centered on an “economism” that championed material wealth.

Nock was disdainful of leftist movements for social reform and their careless superficial use of abstract terms such as “capitalism.” He regarded most of what they said as sheer nonsense. These “reformers,” in his view, failed to recognize that the evil lie in capitalists and others obtaining state-granted advantages rather than in the ownership of capital as such. Particularly noxious “reforms” to Nock included the income tax and the popular election of U.S. senators.

The social philosopher and economist that Nock especially admired was Henry George, author of Progress and Poverty (1879) and other works that analyzed the economic as well as moral damage of government intervention, especially the taxation of production and trade. George proposed a “single tax” only on land rent, which, since the land was there by nature and since its value derived from community activity, would not hamper production and investment. To Nock, Henry George was the “real thing” and the Georgist fiscal program the best path to economic freedom.

Further Reading
  • Crunden, Robert M. The Mind and Art of Albert Jay Nock. Chicago: Regnery, 1964.
  • Wreszin, Michael. The Superfluous Anarchist. Providence, R.I.: Brown University Press, 1972.
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