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Life without Our Wise Overlords

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Tags Free MarketsPhilosophy and MethodologyPolitical Theory

02/25/2011Thomas E. Woods, Jr.

The first 24 hours after a book becomes available to the public are anxious ones for an author. Will people love the book, hate the book, or be indifferent? And so you wait.

I was in that very position earlier this month. And then I read what Jeffrey Tucker wrote about my new book, Rollback:

Woods works with relentless precision, like an intellectual surgeon, to convince the reader that the government is not what it says (the source of security, prosperity, peace, justice, health) but is rather the opposite and thereby we can and should do without it precisely in the name of promoting security, prosperity, peace justice, and health. He strives to completely lift the veil that covers the state, and he does so not through rhetorical bombast or libertarian theorizing but through careful, fact-filled argumentation on the issues that most people think about. … I can easily see this book as this generation's Common Sense: a book that enlightens and emboldens people to see the practical urgency of liberty in our times and in our world.

That was a relief.

The book proceeds as if peeling layers from an onion. The first layer involves facts and interpretations that are in effect disputed by no one. (You can read the first chapter online.) Here is the fiscal crisis Americans are facing. It will force us to make wrenching changes. The situation, though, is an opportune moment to go back and reexamine the myths by which we were sold the ongoing expansion of government in the first place. I announce at this point that I intend to describe the crisis as an opportunity to be seized, not a calamity to be deplored.

What the book is saying, in short, is this: given the collapse that is staring us in the face, we can't afford to think about government like sixth graders anymore, even if we should want to. And what we were taught in sixth grade about our allegedly selfless and indispensable political class was a pack of lies anyway. It is not the case that without the political class (1) we'd have no art or science, (2) our limbs would be blown off by exploding consumer products, and (3) we'd all be working in a mine for a dollar a day.

The book then proceeds to one of its least controversial claims: the policies of Barack Obama have been a disaster. I probably don't need to elaborate on this here.

Government has a habit of blaming the private sector for its own failings while taking credit for advances we in fact owe to the private sector. The financial crisis is the classic case of the former (though I discuss others), and that is the onion's next layer. Why, it was lack of oversight by our wise public servants that caused the problem! And wherever would we be without government stimulus to see us through economic downturns?

This chapter is not merely a rehash of Meltdown, my New York Times bestseller from 2009, which gave an Austrian overview of the financial collapse. Rollback adds additional lines of inquiry, including a substantial section on financial deregulation and its connection or lack thereof to what happened.

As long as we're on the financial crisis, the next layer is the Federal Reserve System. What is it? What does it do? Has it been successful? Hasn't there been more stability, as well as fewer and shallower recessions, since the creation of the Fed? Doesn't the Fed protect us against "deflation"? And so on through most of the common arguments in support of the Fed.

Then come the functions we think of as being essential to our very notion of government. Thus I have a chapter on the military, which covers (1) the neglected and unknown economic effects of the military state on the civilian economy; (2) the truth behind the weapons-acquisition process; (3) the missing trillions at the unaudited and misnamed Department of Defense; and (4) the real cost of the military establishment.

By the final chapter I am offering rather unconventional approaches to dealing with the situation — a couple policy proposals, yes, but primarily things like agorism, jury nullification, the Free State Project, and other suggestions along those lines.

The book is, unfortunately, being pitched all wrong — as if it were primarily a book on cutting the budget. Well, sure, the budget would be low to nonexistent if people adopted the views I defend here. But my aim is far more ambitious than that. I am inviting the reader, step by step, to rethink the view of government and society he has imbibed since childhood. A tall order, to be sure. But I'm throwing everything I've got at it.

(You can also watch this video on YouTube.)

A sampling of the topics discussed in my book includes,

  • Could we survive without the welfare state?
  • Was the Industrial Revolution a disaster for workers and an evidence of the wickedness of the free market?
  • The market vs. global poverty
  • How the market, in spite (not because) of government, leads to higher living standards for everyone
  • How the market leads to improved working conditions and does away with child labor
  • Federal education programs: a critique
  • Doesn't Sweden prove a large welfare state is compatible with lasting prosperity?
  • If government shrinks, won't big business fill the void and oppress the public via predatory pricing?
  • Why it's impossible to design a wealth-redistribution program that does not cause net harm
  • The truth about "affordable housing" programs
  • Iceland and the financial crisis: a case study of free markets run amok?
  • California energy "deregulation" — proof that free markets don't work?
  • Is the Savings & Loan (S&L) crisis evidence of the failure of free markets?
  • The real record of Sarbanes-Oxley
  • The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and workplace safety
  • The Food and Drug Administration
  • Don't we need to make an exception for government science funding?
  • A primer on the War on Drugs
  • Obamacare: the problems and the solution
  • Why "stimulus" programs make things worse
  • How prudential regulation contributed to the financial crisis
  • Are some firms "too big to fail"?
  • Did the "repeal" of Glass-Steagall contribute to the financial crisis?
  • The real story of "deregulation" and the financial crisis
  • Is Paul Krugman right to absolve Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac of blame?
  • The Pentagon's impact on the US economy
  • Has the Federal Reserve really made the US economy more stable, as so many proponents claim?
  • What caused the bank panics of the 19th century? Are they evidence of the need for a central bank?
  • The separation of money and state
  • Do we need the Fed to protect us from deflation?
  • Regulation as an anticompetitive device

Now here is a modest side effect I hope the book might have: pushing conventional conservatives toward a Misesian/Rothbardian outlook. My publisher caters to just such a constituency, and I hope those people who buy it in the expectation that it will supply them with arguments against Obama will find it gives them a lot more food for thought than that.

I don't think this is a pipe dream. My 2010 book Nullification (see my interview with Jeff Tucker and my interview with a zombie) reached quite a few people outside my usual libertarian constituency. In Idaho, to give just one example, the governor read the book, as did many state legislators. And following a hearing on nullification at the state house, a hearing attended by hundreds of people, a nullification bill passed 49-20. (See this ABC News report on the book for a quick summary.) Elsewhere, nearly 50 tea party and related groups cosponsored a letter to the leadership of a certain state legislature urging them to meet with me to discuss nullification as an option. (That meeting is being scheduled right now.)

This all occurred without any major media exposure for that book, and without any of the would-be handlers from DC, who claim to speak for these groups, saying a single word — kind or otherwise — about the idea. That means some grassroots people are thinking in completely unconventional and unapproved ways, in defiance of the official range of allowable opinion. That has to count for something.

I am all too aware of the problems with the tea parties. Some of their political heroes are quite appalling, and their foreign-policy views differ little from the bipartisan consensus. There is no point in pretending otherwise. But those were once my own views, some 20 years ago. And I abandoned them in favor of Rothbardian antistatism. Having managed to reach these groups in one area, therefore, I'd like to take a crack at reaching them on everything else.

I have seen sparks of hope here and there. The New York Times reported — for purposes of ridicule — that some tea partiers were reading authors like Frédéric Bastiat, the great 19th-century French economic thinker. I'd say that's a pretty good start. When I've been on their radio programs and the Federal Reserve has come up, they have been universally critical, and more than open to the total abolition of the Fed. This is no small thing.

These people are told to read Dick Morris, the former Clinton confidante turned GOP cheerleader, whose books are the usual pap you might expect, and who seeks to channel tea-party energy into predictable and conventional outlets. They could use something with a bit more zing, to say the least. So I wanted to write a book that would be of interest not only to libertarians, but that could also pull conventional conservatives along the same philosophical path I myself traveled.

A book like this is unlikely to get much, if any, big media behind it, so if you enjoy it, I'd sure appreciate your help in spreading the word. I have written five books in five years, and after this one I intend to take a break.

I wanted to throw everything I had into one final project, and then take a breather while doing other things (like teaching US history at the online Mises Academy and starting a regular videoblog).

I had a chance to speak about this book at the 2011 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). I closed with this:

The propaganda with which we are flooded regarding how indispensable the political class is — why, they are selflessly devoted to "public service"! — is unworthy of a fifth-grader. We would not die instantly in the absence of the Joe Bidens and Mitch McConnells. We would flourish. And here's the proof.

Shield icon interview