Albert Jay Nock on the Dangerous Illusion of Diffused Ethics

NWTRCC’s video contest has gone live.

Everyone is invited to create a 30-second to 2-minute video on war tax resistance. Of those videos received by the deadline, three will be selected as winners of cash prizes. All finalists will be distributed as televised public service announcements and will be posted on the web.


The folks over at the Ludwig von Mises Institute have posted to the web Albert Jay Nock’s insightful “Anarchist’s Progress” (which was originally published in H.L. Mencken’s American Mercury in ). It included this meditation on ethics that struck a chord with me:

Once, I remember, I ran across the case of a boy who had been sentenced to prison, a poor, scared little brat, who had intended something no worse than mischief, and it turned out to be a crime. The judge said he disliked to sentence the lad; it seemed the wrong thing to do; but the law left him no option. I was struck by this. The judge, then, was doing something as an official that he would not dream of doing as a man; and he could do it without any sense of responsibility, or discomfort, simply because he was acting as an official and not as a man. On this principle of action, it seemed to me that one could commit almost any kind of crime without getting into trouble with one’s conscience.

Clearly, a great crime had been committed against this boy; yet nobody who had had a hand in it — the judge, the jury, the prosecutor, the complaining witness, the policemen and jailers — felt any responsibility about it, because they were not acting as men, but as officials. Clearly, too, the public did not regard them as criminals, but rather as upright and conscientious men.

The idea came to me then, vaguely but unmistakably, that if the primary intention of government was not to abolish crime but merely to monopolize crime, no better device could be found for doing it than the inculcation of precisely this frame of mind in the officials and in the public; for the effect of this was to exempt both from any allegiance to those sanctions of humanity or decency which anyone of either class, acting as an individual, would have felt himself bound to respect — nay, would have wished to respect.


Before “Abu Ghraib” and “Guantánamo” and “extraordinary rendition” became the shorthand ways of referring to America’s torture policy, those in the know used the phrase “School of the Americas” to mean much the same thing.

The School of the Americas (now officially renamed “WHINSEC” in the same tried-and-true bad-publicity-fleeing method that saw Philip Morris transform into “Altria”) helped to train “our sons-of-bitches” during the cold war — the various military juntas and contras and such that helped keep Latin America from falling victim to Communism, organized labor, or democracy.

This training included instruction on how to use “torture, extortion, censorship, false arrest, execution and the ‘neutralizing’ of enemies” to defend the fringes of the Free World. School of the Americas graduates have been implicated in many atrocities.

The annual vigil by thousands of School opponents has become, in addition to a statement of protest against such U.S. policies and an opportunity to do some crossing-the-line style civil disobedience, a networking opportunity for the anti-imperialist set.

A group from NWTRCC was at the event. Robert Randall reports that there was a lot of interest in war tax resistance, with over a thousand people filling out NWTRCC’s survey:

I think it was one of the most exciting presences we’ve had at SOAW. Asking people to fill out the survey gave us much more interaction with folk than the leafleting which we’ve done in past years. (Our message did get out to everyone even more than if we had leafleted, though, as Ruth [Benn] put an ad in the SOAW printed program, which was handed out to all of the 20,000 people who came; we even found it available in the lobbies of the motels in town.) People asked questions, got a little on-the-spot mini-counseling, were given the materials they needed (most often the new flyer on W-4 resistance, which we used up and had to re-copy), and sometimes went away with local folk to contact from our network list.

About 50 people signed up for introductory packets, and we got 16 names on the “Don’t Pay for War in Iraq!” call to tax resistance. Our lit sales matched the best we’ve done in the past.

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