I think this minor classic boils down to a handful of points:
1. State power comes at the price of social power. If the state will take care of something, then people won't. As social power collapses, so does society. This is Nock's best insight, and upon two minutes' reflection, is so obviously true that I'm kind of embarrassed I'd never articulated the thought before. For years I've lamented that the welfare state kills charity, but I never reached the larger point: an increasing state gradually kills all social endeavors. (You ever wonder why the social fabric of Russia is in complete tatters?)
2. There is a fundamental difference between the “state” and “government.” Government is good. State is bad. I agree with the latter assertion, but I'm still struggling with Nock's idea of good government. It's libertarian to the core: “Based on the idea of natural rights, government secures those rights to the individual by strictly negative intervention. Making justice costless and easy of access”; “the business of government [is to maintain] freedom and security.” Anything beyond that, Nock said, and the government starts to morph into the state. Like I said, I'm still pondering this. As a corrective, I'm re-reading Orestes Brownson's The American Republic. Brownson believed government is a great good and didn't assign it such a limited role. I'll be weighing Nock against Brownson for the next couple of weeks.
3. The American state is built on the principle that whatever promotes commerce prevails (he calls it “the regime of contract” and the “merchant state,” and says ours is a government whose “primary” function is to “help business” and its “primary intention is to enable the economic exploitation of one class by another”). I agree with Nock, but I'm not quite as cynical. He says the American constitutional convention was all about protecting the merchant classes to the detriment of the agrarian classes, and that the constitutional assembly didn't care about freedom nearly as much as it cared about constructing a system that advances its own economic interests. I think Nock is right to an extent: the American system founded by the constitution promotes commercial progress, and its methods are often dishonest, disingenuous, and/or dastardly. But I'm not prepared to say that the founders' primary intent was to set up such a system and the rest of the stuff was, at best, window dressing and, at worst, a smoke screen to cover up what they were up to. Maybe, but I don't know.
4. Perhaps the most timely part of the book is at the end: Chp. V, Part IV: “The Party System.” It's easily summed up: If your country is ruled by a state, it doesn't matter what political party is in power. Both parties are merely going to abuse the power for their own benefit. It's inevitable. If you, like me, were optimistic after the Republicans took over Congress in 1994, consider reading this section of the book (I can't find the book online, but it might be out there). You'll understand why you, like me, were foolish back then and will better understand why the Pelosizing of Congress was inevitable.