Some books and essays require regular rereading. In the course of our busy lives, we can allow their subtle wisdom to fade into the landscape and lose their initial effect. A work of this kind is easy to spot: It is fresh and sparkling on every subsequent reading; each encounter with it feels like the first.
For me, Albert Jay Nock’s masterly essay “On Doing the Right Thing” is one of those works. (Written in 1924, it is reprinted in the Nock collection The State of the Union: Essays in Social Criticism, edited by Charles H. Hamilton and published by Liberty Fund.) Nock (1870-1945) was an exquisite essayist, individualist, and libertarian, whose book Our Enemy, the State (1935) is just what one needs to change from a youthful enthusiast of freedom to a mature advocate of the free society.
Nock’s essay on the Right Thing is a reminder that the advocates of the paternalistic state, whether “left” or “right,” have it backward: good conduct isn’t a precondition of freedom; it is a consequence of freedom. He contrasts the “region of conduct” regulated by force, that is, by government, with the region regulated by the individual’s sense of doing the Right Thing.