It is almost 100 years since the libertarian essayist and social critic Albert Jay Nock (1870–1945) published his essay “On Doing the Right Thing” in the pages of the American Mercury (November 1924). Nowadays, the very title of the essay may seem strange to many modern American readers. The “right thing?” Surely, the right thing is just “doing your own thing.”
Even in 1924, Nock explained that the notion of “doing the right thing” was not present in the thinking of many Americans, though he thought it was still widely prevalent in the minds of many British. Having spent some time in London, he noticed the number of times the phrase, “doing the right thing,” was used and repeated by people going about their everyday affairs. This was observed by Nock regardless of whether the people saying it were members of the working or middle class or among the upper elite.
“A dozen times a day one will hear Englishmen mutter in an apologetic tone,” Nock said, “Beastly bore, you know! — oh, dev’lish bore! — but then, you know, one really must do the Right Thing, mustn’t one?’” Nock immediately saw a connection between this notion of doing the right thing and the idea of individual liberty. In fact, doing the right thing, he said, only had relevance and reality in an environment of extensive personal and economic freedom.
Freedom and three arenas of life
Nock distinguished between three arenas of human conduct. The first was that area of a person’s life most directly influenced by government. There, the actions of the individual are constrained by the necessity to follow what the law proscribes, such things as not killing, stealing from, or defrauding others. That is, the negative constraints of a properly limited government.
The second area of life, given these legal prohibitions, Nock referred to as the matters of personal and “indifferent” choice. Will you wear a green necktie or a red one, or maybe no necktie at all. Will you dress according to social conventions or as the eccentric little concerned about how others may think? Will you furnish you home in Victorian or rustic style? Spend your weekends in a drunken stupor carousing with your equally inebriated friends or teetotallingly sober and focused on mowing your lawn or fixing that squeaky screen door? Whiling away your time in the evening in front of the television or taking night classes to earn the degree that may open the opportunity for a promotion at work?
In a free society, to use some of the lyrics of the old song, “It Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do”:
If I should take a notion to jump into the ocean,
Ain’t nobody’s business if I do.
If I go to church on Sunday, then cabaret all day Monday,
Ain’t nobody’s business if I do.
If my man ain’t got no money and I say, “Take all of mine, honey,”
Ain’t nobody’s business if I do.
If I give him my last nickel and it leaves me in a pickle,
Ain’t nobody’s business if I do….
Finally, there is the third area of life, the one, Nock said, that incorporates “doing the right thing”:
There is a region where conduct is controlled by unenforced, self-imposed allegiance to moral or social consideration. In this region, for instance, one follows the rule of “women and children first,” takes a long risk to get somebody out of a burning house, or, like Sir Philip Sidney, refuses to slake one’s own thirst when there is not water enough to go around.
Giving others their just due
In another essay written around the same time in the mid-1920s, “A Study in Manners,” Nock gave some other examples of what might be considered doing the right thing. In these instances, doing the right thing is treating others with a sense of right or appropriate conduct, even if the law does not require it and you could personally benefit by taking advantage of the situation. That is, in good conscience, does it really seem right not to act or interact in a certain way toward someone else given the circumstances and even if it would be to your advantage? Says Nock:
In stealing an inventor’s purse, let us say, one must reckon with the law; in stealing his idea, one must reckon with the sense of morals, with the common conscience of mankind; in buying up and suppressing his idea or in exploiting it without adequate compensation, one must reckon with the sense of manners, with the fine and high perception established by culture, to which such transactions at once appear mean and low. When Baron Tachnitz paid in full royalties to foreign authors whose works he republished before the days of international copyright, he was governed by a sense of manners; for no law compelled him to pay anything, and the morals of trade would have been quite satisfied if he had paid whatever he chose.
Clearly, in paying whatever might have been standard royalties to authors whose works he republished, Baron Tachnitz was doing what his conscience was telling him was the right thing, even though existing international law did not make it illegal to fail to do so. Suppose the law said that pickpocketing someone’s wallet was illegal, but seeing it fall out of someone’s pocket and not returning it was not theft under the law. “Doing the right thing” would be going up to the person who lost his wallet in this way and handing it back to him, contents intact. To do otherwise would be to take something from another that is their property, without their consent, due to the accident of circumstances.
Doing the right thing in a presidential election
In another interesting example, Nock relates a story about John Jay, one of the writers of The Federalist Papers and then governor of New York State at the time of the 1800 presidential election. John Adams had been elected the second president of the United States in 1796 and was running for reelection against Thomas Jefferson. Adams was running as the Federalist candidate and Jefferson as the Republican. Supporters of Jefferson’s vice-presidential running mate, Aaron Burr, had successfully won the New York legislative elections in 1800, meaning they would be seated as the majority in early 1801; under the then-current practice, this new Republican majority would be selecting the New York Electoral College representatives who would be voting on who would be appointed the next president of the United States, therefore helping to assure that Thomas Jefferson became the third president of the country.
Alexander Hamilton, a supporter of John Adams and strongly anti-Jefferson, wrote to John Jay proposing that as governor of New York he could call a special session of the state legislator while the Federalists still held the majority so that the method by which the electors were chosen could be changed, increasing the certainty that Adams would win a second term in office instead of Jefferson succeeding him. So bitter was the political divide in the country at the time between Federalists and Republicans that Hamilton said in his letter to John Jay, “in times like these in which we live, it will not do to be overscrupulous. It is easy to sacrifice the substantial interests of society by a strict adherence to ordinary rules.” It was not illegal for Jay to call a lame-duck session of the state legislature to change the Electoral College procedure, argued Hamilton, even though it would be seen as an act of abusive political expediency. After all, Hamilton continued, it would “prevent an Atheist in Religion and a Fanatic in politics from getting possession of the helm of State.” A bit of legislative trickery was needed to save the country “from the fangs of Jefferson.”
It seems John Jay never wrote back to Alexander Hamilton after receiving this letter. What is known is that he did not follow the course of political action proposed by Hamilton, but after Jay’s death, it was found that on the backside of Hamilton’s letter, John Jay had written, “Proposing a measure for party purposes which I do not think it would become me to adopt.” That is, while no doubt legal for him to do so as governor and ensuring a major political victory over someone Jay strongly opposed, it would not be “doing the right thing.” It would fly in the face of the legitimate elective procedures and be an inappropriate and abusive use of political power as governor of the state to reverse what otherwise would be the lawful outcome of the presidential election of 1800. Explained Nock:
Governor Jay had unusual ability and the most nearly flawless character probably, of any man in public life of that time…. In principle he was as strong a Federalist as Hamilton himself…. He had a deep distrust of popular government, and viewed the prospective triumph of Mr. Jefferson, the “fanatic of politics,” with apprehension and distaste…. He could quite legally and constitutionally have made the move that Hamilton implored him to make, for the old legislature still had tenure of office for seven or eight weeks…. With his party continued in power at Washington, the Administration would have taken royal good care of him and given him his pick of patronage. Every predilection of his own was in favor of Hamilton’s suggestion. A devout man, he might well have let the end justify the means of keeping a person of Jefferson’s well-known unorthodoxy out of the presidency. Yet he looked at the opportunity and passed it by in silence because he did not think it would be becoming to embrace it.
Cultivating doing the right thing
In the essay “On Doing the Right Thing,” Nock argued that whether it was the liberty to make those everyday choices that primarily effect ourselves or those decisions that embrace, impact, or affect those around us that require us to weigh thinking about and “doing the right thing,” the scope and range of such choices are greatly influenced by the degree to which government intrudes upon or leaves us alone to determine them on our own.
The more that government interferes with these matters, the less range there is for each of us to take responsibility for what we do and how we do it in guiding our own lives and in developing ethical and moral senses concerning our relationships and voluntary obligations and noncompulsory duties to others in society. The development and exercise of these choices, Nock insisted, depends on freedom and the confinement of government to securing each person’s liberty rather than restraining it through various forms of political paternalism. Said Nock:
The practical reason for freedom, then, is that freedom seems to be the only condition under which any kind of substantial moral fiber can be developed. Everything else has been tried, world without end. Going against reason and experience, we have tried law, compulsion, and authoritarianism of various kinds, and the result is nothing to be proud of…. In suggesting that we try freedom, therefore, the anarchist or individualist has a strictly practical aim. He aims at the production of a race of responsible beings. He wants more room for the savoir se gener [knowing how to get along], more scope for the noblesse oblige [the obligations of position], a larger place for the sense of the Right Thing.
If our legalists and authoritarians could once get this well through their heads, they would save themselves a vast deal of silly insistence on a half-truth and upon the suppressio veri [lying by omission] which is the meanest and lowest form of misrepresentation. Freedom, for example, as they keep insisting, undoubtedly means freedom to drink oneself to death. The anarchist grants this at once; but at the same time, he points out that also means freedom to say with the gravedigger in Les Misérables, “I have studied, I have graduated; I never drink.”
It unquestionably means freedom to go on without any code of morals at all; but it also means freedom to rationalize, construct and adhere to a code of one’s own. The anarchist presses the point invariably overlooked that freedom to do the one without correlative freedom to do the other is impossible; and that just here comes in the moral education which legalism and authoritarianism, with their denial of freedom, can never furnish.
Free choice and doing the right thing
In nineteenth-century America, during a time when government played a much smaller part in people’s everyday lives than is the case today, it was taken for granted that not only were personal and family affairs the responsibility of individuals but that there was a far greater sense of obligation and duty to “do the right thing” concerning the problems of society. For instance, in a famous passage in volume 2 of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (1840), he highlighted the extent to which Americans took upon themselves the voluntary forming of associations and organizations to foster and cultivate improvements in society, including hospitals, orphanages, fire departments, charities for those who had fallen upon hard times, and philanthropic activities for religious and secular education and training to assist people in becoming more self-supporting. Tocqueville believed that Europeans, so used to relying upon and turning to the state to take care of such matters, should take note of the American example of the opposite.
A Polish political dissident, Count Adam Gurowski (1805–1866), who had come to America in 1849, published a book in 1857 entitled America and Europe in which he compared the two. He drew attention to how much of the most beneficial and generous improvements in the United States had nothing to do with the government and were almost solely due to the private initiative and actions of individuals and voluntary associations. All the types of things that Nock had categorized under personal choice and doing the right thing with and toward others were what Adam Gurowski drew our attention to:
Everything great, beneficial, useful in America, is accomplished without the action of the so-called government, notwithstanding even its popular, self-governing character. Individual impulses, private enterprise, association, free activity, the initiative pouring everlasting from within the people, are mostly substituted here for what in European societies and nations forms the task of governments….
By far the larger number of monuments, works and useful establishments, for industry, trade, for facilitating and spreading tuition and mental culture, universities, schools, and scientific establishments, are created and endowed by private enterprise, by private association, and by individual munificence…. Neither individuals separately, nor the aggregated people look to the government for such creations; private associations and enterprise, these corollaries of self-government — untrammeled by government action — have covered the land [with progress]…. All this could not have been miraculously carried out, if the American people had been accustomed to look to government for the initiative, instead of taking it themselves. Without the self-governing impulse, America would be materially and socially a wilderness.
Pervasive presence of government
Nock observed even in 1924:
I remember seeing recently a calculation that the poor American is staggering along under a burden of some two million laws; and obviously, where there are so many laws, it is hardly possible to conceive of any items of conduct escaping contact with one or more of them. Thus, the region where conduct is controlled by law so far encroaches upon the region of free choice and the region where conduct is controlled by a sense of the Right Thing, that there is precious little left of either.
If this was anywhere near the truth a hundred years ago, what is to be said about the arenas of completely free action in the America of today? Our movements are surveilled, and our language is policed. Our associations with others are monitored and held up to criticism and “cancellation.” We have little responsibility for the raising and educating of our own children, and how we attempt to do it is subject to intervention by government social workers, including removal of a child from the parent’s care.
Our words and actions, past and present, hang over our heads to be scrutinized and criticized like the sword of Damocles that may fall at any time and destroy the remainder of our lives. Picking a necktie to wear can get you persecuted and maybe even prosecuted for being supposedly “phobic” about something or violating the “political correctness” of the time. And watch out about the song you hum or the joke you laugh at. You better not be caught watching YouTube videos of Rodney Dangerfield, Joan Rivers, or Don Rickles. George Carlin is okay, so long as it’s not one of his videos in which he is criticizing the environmentalists or the political and corrupt paternalistic busybodies manning the halls of government power. Otherwise, you are likely to be labelled homophobic, racist, sexist, an enemy of “the planet,” or insensitive to the feelings and “safe spaces” of others. That laugh may be your last.
At the same time, government regulates how businesses are run, and how workers employed are hired, paid, and fired. This includes what is produced, how it is produced and sold, and under what terms of sale, all of which are dictated by swarms of bureaucrats at all levels of government. Taxes consume anywhere between 25 percent and 50 percent of many people’s income, if you add together federal, state, and local taxes.
Self-responsibility and doing the right thing
The interventionist-redistributive state pervades so much of society that it is estimated that nearly 50 percent of Americans receive a monetary or “in-kind” transfer from others through the conduit of government, taking from the Peters to give to the Pauls of the country. How are people to have the financial wherewithal to take greater responsibility for their own lives and cultivate this in their children when not only education but health care, medical insurance, and retirement have been taken out of the hands of the individual and moved into the “care” of government?
This also increasingly limits the monetary means of people “doing the right thing.” More than 70 years ago, Bertrand de Jouvenel warned of the consequences in The Ethics of Redistribution (1951). Denying an individual the honest income and wealth he has earned means denying him the ability to formulate and give expression to his own purposes as a human being. You deny him the capacity to make his voluntary contribution to the civilization and society in which he lives as he sees best. Income is not merely a means for physical maintenance of oneself and one’s family, plus a few dollars for leisure activities. What we do with our income is an expression of ourselves, a statement about what we value, how we see ourselves, and what we wish and hope to be. The way we use our income also enables us to teach future generations about those things which are considered worthwhile in life. Our own earned income provides the means to perform many activities through donations and free time that are considered the foundation of the social order, from community and church work to support for the arts and humanities. In other words, the many things that make up, as a good citizen of society, the capacity of “doing the right thing.”
When government replaces the free marketplace with subsidies, cushy contracts, and trade protections from foreign and domestic competition, picking someone else’s pocket no longer becomes illegal or seems unethical. These days, a seemingly “normal” way of acquiring income is having access to other people’s money through government redistribution.
Rejecting protectionism to do the right thing
Back in the 1960s, I recall reading an article on the opinion page of the Wall Street Journal by a businessman named William Law, who owned and operated a tannery company in Wisconsin. He said that he opposed a protectionist trade bill being sponsored by other enterprises in the tannery business because it would artificially raise the price of imported goods and secure a larger market and profit margin for the domestic firms in his industry by limiting the foreign competition. He explained that he did not want to be acquiring ill-gotten gains by politically raising prices above a more market-determined price; this would amount to picking the pockets of American consumers for the tannery industry’s special interest.
Mr. Law went on to say that he would rather go out of business in a free market than prosper on a government-manipulated market at the expense of foreign rivals and domestic consumers. In other words, in William Law’s eyes, gaining profits through government protectionism would not be doing the right thing; instead, it would be the very opposite. Or to use John Jay’s phrase, it would not “become him” to endorse or accept such a political privilege at other people’s expense.
For some others, nowadays, the honesty and consistency of their words and actions no longer seem to matter. Elon Musk has insisted that he values unbridled freedom of speech as the owner of Twitter, but during a trip to China in July 2023 connected to his Tesla production and sales activities in that country, he pledged allegiance to the Communist Party’s “core socialist values” in pricing his electric cars under the dictatorial regime of Xi Jinping. “Doing the right thing” in America in rhetorically defending free speech, obviously, is different from what seems to be the right thing for his sales and profits in a fascist-type economy (government control and command over private businesses) in communist China.
Not doing the right thing in American politics
A good number of years ago, I asked a free market–oriented Texas member of the U.S. House of Representatives what had he found most surprising when he first came to Washington, D.C., after being elected by the voters in his district. He replied that it was the discovery that there were two arguments, if made as part of his remarks about legislation being discussed on the floor of the House of Representatives, that resulted in his congressional colleagues laughing at him and not taking him seriously. The two arguments concerning any legislation or other matters being debated that got you ignored and laughed at were: it’s unconstitutional and it’s immoral.
In other words, there is no “doing the right thing” in politics or not doing something because it would not be “becoming,” as John Jay decided in 1800. There are far too many in the politically connected business world that believe there is no “right thing” or anything unbecoming in following the pursuit of gains; it does not matter if it violates others’ freedom of choice and opportunity or requires cozying up to tyrants and terrorists to assure market share or protection from competitors.
But why should we be surprised? When we are told that there are no rights and wrongs in politics or life in general, that it is all about how you “feel” and what you want, with nothing constrained by custom, tradition, “good conscience,” or respect for the rights, liberty, and property of others, what else should we expect? Back in the early 1990s, I was invited to speak at several conventions of the State Farm Bureau Association. I found an interesting difference in generational attitudes among the farmers with whom I spoke to about government intervention in the agricultural sector.
If someone, at that time, was, say, over 50 or 60 years old, and I asked them if they supported government farm subsidies of various types, including being paid by Uncle Sam for not growing anything at all, many of them said, “No.” If there was a way to do away with these government programs so no one had an unfair advantage of getting government money while other farmers did not, they would, in principle, be glad to see the end of them.
However, when I asked the same question of the younger farmers, those especially under 40 years of age, they for the most part did not even understand my question. In their minds, having grown up and operated under the network of government farm programs, they could not understand why receiving subsidies and other political supports from the government was any different than revenues earned from producing and selling farm products wanted and paid for by consumers interested in what they had for sale.
The greater the intrusiveness of government over people’s lives, the smaller the areas of life left to people for freedom of choice and self-responsibility. The narrower the range of individual decision-making, the less the need for people to weigh and act upon what used to be called “doing the right thing” both in the marketplace and the wider social arena of human association. This is why it is important to halt and reverse the size and scope of government in society. Otherwise, both liberty and responsibility as ideas and in actions may disappear.
This article was originally published in the October 2023 edition of Future of Freedom.