Nock and Leonard Read on “One Improved Unit” and the Power of Attraction

I’ve always liked the idea–which I’ve heard from Albert Jay Nock and Leonard Read–that your primary task is to improve yourself–to strive for excellence in yourself. Then you become a bright light that attracts people; they see you are good, and successful, and worth emlating or listening to–so you win people over by the power of attraction. They come to you, and then you have more success spreading the ideas of liberty than if you go around being a boor.

[Update: see also Living a Life of Excellence and Liberty and The Golden Age of America is Now]

See the following excerpts from Nock and Read:

From A stroll with Albert Jay Nock by Robert M. Thornton:

Albert Jay Nock was not a reformer and found offensive any society with a “monstrous itch for changing people.” He had “a great horror of every attempt to change anybody; or I should rather say, every wish to change anybody; for that is the important thing.” Whenever one “wishes to change anybody, one becomes like the socialists, vegetarians, prohibitionists; and this, as Rabelais says, ‘is a terrible thing to think upon.'” The only thing we can do to improve society, he declared, “is to present society with one improved unit.” Let each person direct his efforts at himself or herself, not others; or as Voltaire put it, “Il faut cultiver notre jardin.”

From Frederick A. Manchester, Apropos of the Presidency:

The Remnant that Saves

It would appear, then, that if we want to have leaders of high quality, Presidents among them, we, the American people, shall have to increase our understand­ing in politics and related fields. It is fortunately not necessary that all of us should become thus edu­cated, but only a sizable minority—the remnant that saves. But how are we to build up this sizable minority?

Begin, says Mr. Read in the document I quoted at the begin­ning of these remarks, by genu­inely enlightening ourselves, as in­dividuals—morally as well as so­cially, economically, and politi­cally. Thereafter, if I understand him correctly, he would have us trust mainly to the power of ex­ample. “The power of attraction—of attracting others follows all self-improvement,” he says, “as faithfully as does one’s shadow.” In thus asserting this power he undoubtedly has behind him tradi­tional wisdom. “Example,” says Burke, comprehensively, “is the school of mankind; it will learn at no other.”

The Manchester article, from a 1959 issue of The Freeman,  is apparently quoting “Wake Up—It’s Tomorrow” by Leonard E. Read, Notes from FEE, January 1959, which I cannot find; similar thoughts appear to be in Read’s How To Advance Liberty: A Learning, Not a Selling, Problem, which is available in text here and in audio and video here (and below):

From Ronald F. Cooney’s Nock: An Appreciation:

True Reform Begins with Self-Improvement

Nock knew that the great appeal of reforming movements is their promise of an instantaneous and ob­servable improvement in conditions. People are drawn to them because they hold out the hope, however slight, of the quick and easy allevia­tion of social problems by modifying what Nock called the “mechanics” of society. But he knew also that the only reform worth the effort, and the only one with any chance of final and lasting success, was the difficult and painful task of each person to first reform himself:

The only thing that the psychically-human being can do to improve society is to present society with one improved unit. In a word ages of experience testify that the only way society can be im­proved is by the individualist method which Jesus apparently regarded as the only one whereby the kingdom of Heaven can be established as a going concern; that is, the method of each one doing his very best to improve one.

That statement sums up rather neatly the Nockian philosophy as a whole. I suppose that, in strictly academic terms, Nock would not be considered a philosopher at all. He didn’t construct any complicated system which proposed to answer all the universal questions. He would, no doubt, be thought of as too commonsensical. The strange thing about common sense, however, is its ever-increasing rarity. It is a com­pliment to Nock to say that he pos­sessed common sense to a quite un­common degree. His sharp and diamond-like prose refracted his thought to a high brilliance. In his works, one finds a great amount of heat, but no less amount of light.

One finds also a complete absence of what Mencken called the “mes­sianic delusion.” Nock wrote only with the aim of saying what he thought, and not swaying great masses of people or bludgeoning them into believing as he did. There was a serene integrity in Nock’s character which shows through every word he wrote. Nock wrote of “the remnant,” a group of people bound together by nothing more than their desire to achieve self-reformation, and practice of inde­pendent and disinterested thought. Nock would not have sought to be the remnant’s “leader” but the title belongs to him nonetheless. For his life and work embodied the admoni­tion that must stand as the rem­nant’s motto: “Know thyself.”

From Leonard Read’s The Essence of Americanism:

I am not at this level but I am aware of it and know some of its imperatives. One imperative is the awareness that the higher the objective is, the more dignified the method must be. If we aspire to such a high objective as advancing individual liberty and the free market, we can resort to no lesser method than the power of attraction, the absolute opposite of using propaganda, indoctrination, and half truths. A good way to test how well one is doing on the objective we have in mind is to observe how many are seeking his counsel. If none, then one can draw his own conclusions!

The sole force that will turn indifference into acceptance is the power of attraction. And this can be achieved only if the eye is cast away from the remaking of others and toward the improvement of self. This effort demanded of each individual is not at all a sacrifice, but rather the best investment one can make in life’s highest purpose.

Well, where can we find such individuals? I think we will find them among those who love this country. I think we will find them in this room. I think that one of them is you.

Update: From LeFevre’s Fundamentals of Libertyintroduction by R.S. Bradford:

“The essence of LeFevre’s philosophy he called autarchy, and his message was that self-improvement is the only means at our disposal for improving the world. Characteristic of LeFevre’s world-view was his contention that mankind is still in a state of “high barbarism,” in which we condone innumerable assaults upon our fellow man daily. The long march to civilization lies still ahead, along a path that is inaccessible to those who consider others to be their tools, or victims, or masters.

When asked whether he voted, LeFevre would smile and reply that he used neither the ballot nor other forms of violence to compel others to act as he thought they should. His books are passionate appeals to reason, nonviolence, and the intellectual (as opposed to physical) rejection of the state, as an instrument suited only to the mindless exploitation of one class by another.

“Being a libertarian,” LeFevre wrote in his Journal in 1974, “to me means a revolutionary approach to the age-old problems affecting property and social organization. The distinction that I see between the libertarian and all others is that he accepts private ownership and management of property, and accepts the fact that although he might be able to influence others, he has control over himself alone. He sees all efforts to control others, whether by direct force, political methods, or threats, as elements of coercion. And being libertarian, he resolves not to be a party to any kind of coercion, even for the benefit of others…

“Every body of thought with which I am acquainted proposes (through various methods) to compel others to acceptance. Their views are to be applied externally. The libertarian position that attracts me is to be applied internally. For the libertarian recognizes that the laws of reality dictate his own control over himself and no others. So he proposes to practice liberty regardless of what others may or may not do. He knows that by taking this course of action he is accomplishing the one, vital thing of which he is capable. He is establishing liberty within the area of his own competency.”

See also Bastiat, from The Law:

“Ah, you miserable creatures! You who think that you are so great! You who judge humanity to be so small! You who wish to reform everything! Why don’t you reform yourselves? That task would be sufficient enough.”

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  • Albert Jay Nock was not a reformer and found offensive any society with a “monstrous itch for changing people.”….The only thing we can do to improve society, he declared, “is to present society with one improved unit.” Let each person direct his efforts at himself or herself, not others…

    I can think of at least one academic who would accuse A.J. Nock of hypocrisy; by his instructing of others not to impose, he was imposing on them!