I have to confess to being interested in politics, perhaps unhealthily so. I wasn’t always. It wasn’t like I had some childhood fascination with my local senator. In truth, I think I’ve only ever voted in one Presidential election. (I may have voted for Perot, but I can’t honestly say for sure). Which is a nice way of saying that the current election cycle is a nightmare for me,* as it is for many thinking and principled Americans. It feels like the devolution of our country. To those who see politics as the public barometer of the state of a Nation, it feels like a forceful bellwether of decline, the dying gasp of a once great and moral Country.
The hair on his face is dirty, dreadlocked and full of mange
He asked a man for what he could spare with shame in his eyes
“Get a job, you fuckin’ slob” ‘s all he replied
God forbid you ever had to walk a mile in his shoes
‘Cause then you really might know what it’s like to sing the blues
Then you really might know what it’s like…
I had occasion to find myself in South Bend, Indiana, (yes, the one where Notre Dame is) for work. Driving up and down a particular main avenue running some errands, I noticed a man standing on the corner near the onramp to a highway. He was disheveled, though not too badly, and holding the ubiquitous sign that told his (alleged) story: “Homeless and I need to feed my family” read the message in red paint on the cardboard. I passed him in the afternoon without too much thought, though the prevalence of veterans among the homeless always makes me hesitate and ponder long after I’ve passed. Sometimes, if the timing is right, I’ll give what I can or have on me, though not always. I would imagine I’m like most people in both my thoughts and deeds with regard to the homeless. Perhaps better than some, certainly worse than some others. I’ve worked the odd soup kitchen or two for a church function or for a community service project that my kids had to and I rolled along.
Albert Jay Nock was a brilliant and radical philosopher of the early 20th century. Born in 1870, he lived to see the First World War and died just as the Second one ended in 1945. One of his more well-known and seminal works was “Our Enemy, The State.” Finished and published during the height of FDR’s “New Deal” in 1935, Nock believed that the most effective form of government, and protective of individual rights, was the tribal “anarchism” of the early Native Americans. In an earlier work, titled simply, Jefferson, Nock argued that Thomas Jefferson was a firm believer that the smallest possible governmental units, or wards, allowed the people to, in Jefferson’s own words, “crush regularly and peaceably the usurpations of their unfaithful agents.”
Nock’s later work in Our Enemy, The State focused on the difference between the spontaneous “social power” of individuals coming together for common cause and the forceful usurpation of social power by “State power.” His central thesis was set forth very clearly in the early part of the book and, in three short pages, Nock compels even the casual, disinterested, or even adverse reader to reconsider their entire understanding of State intervention in human affairs.
One might wonder just what the hell all of this has to do with an (apparently) homeless guy standing on a corner in South Bend, Indiana, in mid-October, as I drove by him more than once over the course of several hours. Fair question. Let me convince you by pointing to one of the most trenchant parts of Nock’s argument that stuck with me:
…just as the State has no money of its own, so it has no power of its own. All the power it has is what society gives it, plus what it confiscates from time to time on one pretext or another; there is no other source from which State power can be drawn. Therefore every assumption of State power, whether by gift or seizure, leaves society with so much less power. There is never, nor can there be, any strengthening of State power without a corresponding and roughly equivalent depletion of social power.
Our Enemy, The State, p. 5 (emphasis added).
The thesis seemed interesting to me, but I wasn’t quite sure what Nock meant by “social power” versus “State power.” I thought I quite understood the latter, but I wasn’t quite sure what the former was. Nock’s examples left me with a permanently-altered view of government attempts to intercede to “help” the citizenry. Nock provided two (then)-contemporary examples to illustrate his point more clearly.
…it follows that with any exercise of State power, not only the exercise of social power in the same direction, but the disposition to exercise it in that direction, tends to dwindle. Mayor Gaynor astonished the whole of New York when he pointed out to a correspondent who had been complaining about the inefficiency of the police, that any citizen has the right to arrest a malefactor and bring him before a magistrate. ‘The law of England and of this country,’ he wrote, ‘has been very careful to confer no more right in that respect upon policemen and constables than it confers on every citizen.’ State exercise of that right through a police force had gone on so steadily that not only were citizens indisposed to exercise it, but probably not one in ten thousand knew he had it.
(emphasis mine). We discussed the idea of a citizen’s arrest in law school, but I couldn’t and can’t recall much of what was said. My initial reaction reading Nock was to recoil at the thought that we all had the same powers of arrest as against each other as any officer of the law does, but then again, how much of the current problems in troubled neighborhoods stems from the fact that the local citizens who live there have abandoned even the most modest attempts at reducing the crime, violence, poverty, homelessness, drug abuse, etc., in their neighborhoods? The rejoinder is that the people are not armed and the drug dealers and gangs are and thus the people are at a distinct disadvantage, and hence comes the justification for military-grade police forces armed as well as or better than combat troops for the national defense; yet aren’t their some fundamental factors missing from that analysis? If the drug dealers and gang members inhabit those self-same neighborhoods, who is giving them succor? How do they put their heads on their pillows at night and feel secure in these same neighborhoods where they prowl and prey? These are, perhaps not coincidentally, the very same issues that confronted me while I was in Afghanistan, attempting to “police” a particular area that was rife with terrorism (and narco-traffickers, as well). I’ve watched many a frustrated military member talking to village elders asking, “Why are there rockets being launched from this area at our base every week? How is that happening?? Where do these people come from and sleep??”
Upon careful inspection, what one finds is: first, the police do not actually live in the same neighborhoods that they patrol. In point of fact, they live in suburban outposts, miles and miles from the streets they pass through in their cars, as distant from the citizenry they supposedly serve and protect as they are from the gangs they are supposed to be interdicting. A lot of that is economics and has to do with the pay disparity between cops and the average inner city neighborhood they’re patrolling. Second, the people are at an “arms disadvantage” specifically because the State has disarmed them! It is a well-established historical fact that modern gun control suddenly became vogue during the late-1960s after armed blacks showed up to the California State Capitol armed with – (gasp) – “assault rifles!” (and shotguns, and pistols, as the above-linked article notes). As an aside, Clayton Cramer, a software engineer, does about as good a job as a law professor could in explaining that virtually ALL gun control laws have been racist in their origins and intent. This might seem self-evident when one considers that the right of a freeman to own weapons goes back to the days of sword ownership in England. If not still convinced, the Supreme Court made this explicitly clear in Dred Scott v. Sanford, 60 U.S. 393 (1857). Yes, that Dred Scott. The case itself should be required reading as a part of any basic civics course because of just how many incredible statements of historical significance for Constitutional law are in it – including statements by the Court about what defines a “citizen” and the Congressional power to “naturalize;” the right of states to admit immigrants, the status of descendants of slaves in free states vs. those of native Americans, the limits of judicial construction, and more – but of paramount importance for this discussion is what the Supreme Court used as one of its Constitutional justifications for finding Dred Scott could not sue for his freedom:
More especially, it cannot be believed that the large slaveholding States regarded them as included in the word citizens, or would have consented to a Constitution which might compel them to receive them in that character from another State. For if they were so received, and entitled to the privileges and immunities of citizens, it would exempt them from the operation of the special laws and from the police regulations which they considered to be necessary for their own safety. It would give to persons of the negro race, who were recognised as citizens in any one State of the Union, the right to enter every other State whenever they pleased, singly or in companies, without pass or passport, and without obstruction, to sojourn there as long as they pleased, to go where they pleased at every hour of the day or night without molestation, unless they committed some violation of law for which a white man would be punished; and it would give them the full liberty of speech in public and in private upon all subjects upon which its own citizens might speak; to hold public meetings upon political affairs, and to keep and carry arms wherever they went.
Dred Scott, 60 U. S., 416-17.
To return to Nock’s point about social power and state power, what has happened in inner city black, and other minority, neighborhoods more broadly, is that the state has systematically usurped the “social power” – and the ability to wield it – that was originally resident in most neighborhoods and replaced with state power, which is only intermittently there “on patrol,” but not resident in that area.
If you’re still not sure about Nock’s thesis, he provides many more examples that will shock the modern sensibility about how this country used to work.
Heretofore in this country sudden crises of misfortune have been met by a mobilization of social power. In fact — except for certain institutional enterprises like the home for the aged, the lunatic asylum, city hospital, and county poorhouse — destitution, unemployment, “depression,” and similar ills, have been no concern of the State, but have been relieved by the application of social power. Under Mr. Roosevelt, however, the State assumed this function, publicly announcing the doctrine, brand new in our history, that the State owes its citizens a living.
Students of politics, of course, saw in this merely an astute proposal for a prodigious enhancement of State power; merely what, as long ago as 1794, James Madison called “the old trick of turning every contingency into a resource for accumulating force in the government”; and the passage of time has proved that they were right. The effect of this upon the balance between State power and social power is clear, and also its effect of a general indoctrination with the idea that an exercise of social power upon such matters is no longer called for.
Our Enemy, p. 5.
Nock’s second example involved natural disasters and this is a matter I have given some thought, particularly in light of the revelations regarding the Clinton Foundation’s actions in Haiti.
It is largely in this way that the progressive conversion of social power into State power becomes acceptable and gets itself accepted. When the Johnstown flood occurred, social power was immediately mobilized and applied with intelligence and vigor. Its abundance, measured by money alone, was so great that when everything was finally put in order, something like a million dollars remained.
If such a catastrophe happened now, not only is social power perhaps too depleted for the like exercise, but the general instinct would be to let the State see to it. Not only has social power atrophied to that extent, but the disposition to exercise it in that particular direction has atrophied with it. If the State has made such matters its business, and has confiscated the social power necessary to deal with them, why, let it deal with them[!]
I think the power of this example is that it has been repeatedly demonstrated through the modern era, considering the string of well-publicized failed federal disaster relief efforts through FEMA. A fairly comprehensive history of US disaster relief efforts proves the exact point that Nock was trying to make. Over time, as the federal government has increasingly intervened, local disaster relief efforts have tailed off and, in the ultimate slap-in-the-face, have even been prohibited and physically turned away by FEMA, most notably during the Katrina debacle in New Orleans.
Nock’s final example of this diminution of social power was the one that stuck with me, though. Writing during the horrors of the Depression, Nock opined:
We can get some kind of rough measure of this general atrophy by our own disposition when approached by a beggar. Two years ago we might have been moved to give him something; today we are moved to refer him to the State’s relief agency. The State has said to society, “You are either not exercising enough power to meet the emergency, or are exercising it in what I think is an incompetent way, so I shall confiscate your power, and exercise it to suit myself.” Hence when a beggar asks us for a quarter, our instinct is to say that the State has already confiscated our quarter for his benefit, and he should go to the State about it.
And NOW we come back around to our homeless man on the street in South Bend, Indiana. (And Thanks! for sticking around).
As I drove by him for the final time, it was past sunset, but not quite fully dark yet. He stood there in the same place holding the same sign. I couldn’t even tell if he had moved. I started to reach for my wallet but then the light turned green, so I accelerated away, leaving the man dwindling in my rearview mirror.
“Aaaaahhhh….” I looked in the mirror as I went under the overpass, headed toward the comfort and warmth of my hotel. It was a rather warm October night, one of those last gasps of Summer before Fall fully settles in, he’d be alright… I thought of Nock’s words. “Fuuuuuck….” I muttered, rubbing my chin.
I made an abrupt U-turn like any person who learned to drive in Rhode Island would, went past him, “banged another U-ee,” and there I was – and there he was – still holding his sign. It wasn’t the nicest part of town, but it wasn’t the worst, either. All I had was a ten and twenty dollar bill in my wallet.
While stopped at the light, I looked left quickly where another car had pulled up to the light. There were three young black kids, all teenagers, ranging from perhaps thirteen to seventeen. The car was a bit dented up and they were watching me as I fumbled with my money, then tried to find the window unlock button in my rental car. I finally managed it all and motioned the man on the corner over; I handed him the ten as he leaned in my passenger window. He didn’t see it at first in the dark, but as he stepped back he said, “Oh My God, thank you. Thank you!” He started to walk away and I could hear his voice crack as he said: “I’ve been standing here for hours…”
“I know,” I started to say, but it died on my lips. I’d driven by him all those times…
I looked left and the three black kids were holding their thumbs up. The young kid in back was clapping. I just shrugged sheepishly. Then the car door opened and for a moment I thought, “Aw, fuck. Here we go. He’s going to ask for what I have left.” Then it became clear as I looked at the car it was because the window wouldn’t roll down. The teen leaned out and yelled: “I wanted to give him something, but I don’t have any money!”
“Well…good on ya.” I said back. I couldn’t think of anything clever to say. “He needed that more than I did,” I yelled. “And I had it, so…” They smiled, waved, honked, and drove away as the light changed.
And that was it.
At a time when our country is rife with divisions over political parties, where we are told which lives matter, where we are no longer allowed to speak without fear of retribution if someone should be offended, where “hate speech” is now all the rage, and where I am told a car full of black teens should concern me because they are “superpredators,” where statisticians write papers claiming that abortions of black kids have helped drive down crime rates, where 1 in 4 or 5 or 7 homeless folks are military veterans, I think the “soft revolution” is what I now hope for…
I hope that people will recognize that we all could and would be far more inclined to be charitable to our fellow man if we got to keep a little more of our hard earned money, if our government wouldn’t tell us that IT is the ONLY possible solution to our problems, and if we all decided to simply act more charitably toward our fellow man – to take back our “social power” instead of waiting for the State to fix whatever the need is of the moment. Individual US citizens gave $258 Billion (yep, with a “B”) in 2014 – a record. At a time when the economy isn’t exactly humming. We should be proud of that, but how much better could we do if we got to keep more and decided to “just do it” ourselves, locally?
Regardless of which shitheel gets elected, we should ignore their grand plans to “cure” _______ (drug use, poverty, racism, school shootings, or whatever the issue du jour is) and start exercising our social power. We don’t need to be told what the right thing to do is. We don’t need government to tell us to be kind to one another.
We need to realize that we have to be the change we seek in the world and start doing it in the small ways that we can. Maybe eventually we’ll figure out we don’t need a three or four or five-letter federal agency to fake like it’s doing something while it hands out contracts to favored political donors and the people who really need help go wanting. Else I fear we risk continuing to ignore those in need among us because we have the excuse that “someone else” – like some bureaucratic agency or even the police – is going to do it. They’re not and they never have – and even if they did solve a problem, when was the last time you heard of some federal agency announcing that it had accomplished its purpose and thus was folding up so as not to waste taxpayer money? I won’t hold my breath waiting for the numerous examples…I’ll just try to exercise Nock’s social power to make the world around me a little bit better.
*This post was originally written in the lead-up to the 2016 election.