Author Thomas Woods pens the guidebook to nullifying federal tyranny.
Amidst economic collapse, Thomas Woods challenged readers in his 2009 book Meltdown, as TAS associate editor W. James Antle, III aptly put it, “to embrace fairly radical notions about the New Deal, the Federal Reserve and the government’s role in the economy.” Now, with a gonzo federal government nudging — someone send Cass Sunstein a quarter — ever-increasing numbers of Americans towards a serious apprehension of centralized power, Woods returns with Nullification, a provocative and enlivening new tome spelling out the historical, constitutional, and moral arguments for states simply rejecting unconstitutional laws the federal government attempts to impose. “I wanted to write a book explaining what nullification is and justifying what it does,” Woods explained to TAS during an interview at the Mises Institute booth shortly before he gave a rousing FreedomFest lecture on the topic, “and also to create a ready resource for people to combat the inevitable smears from the drones and zombies.”
TAS: How did Nullification come about?
Thomas Woods: I’m interested in political decentralization as a way of bridging ideological divides, even if I realize that for most on the left federal supremacy is like their bread and butter.… Still, the Kirkpatrick Sales of the left do exist — people who favor farmers markets and say things like ‘Small is Beautiful’ — and there is a growing number on the right who also feel the political scale has gotten too big. That is what needs to be cultivated on both sides. It can be done. You know, I bet I could find some Vermonters who basically want to let Vermont be Vermont.
TAS: There is a pretty healthy, or at least brash and noisy, home-rule/secessionist movement in Vermont.
TW: Yeah, they’re an example of it. And obviously in Vermont those ideas have nothing to do with racism or slavery.
TAS: It has to do mostly with big box stores and SUVs, far as I can tell.
TW: Right. So they have their priorities, I have my priorities. Why shouldn’t we each pursue our own priorities rather than clawing at each other every four years to see who gets to impose a single view on the whole country? That’s the idea behind nullification. It’s fascinating to me how easily demonized this position is. There’s nothing in the apportionment of powers that has any necessary connection with racism or oppression… but when you challenge federal power a lot of people who support that power want to shout at you about lunch counters and have that be the end of it. These aren’t left/right issues, though. It should be a structural question: Do you want to live in an imperial society or a self-governing one?
That’s not to say states can’t use power badly. Of course they can! But at least you have some recourse when they do. Nobody can control Washington, D.C. This is obvious. Everybody who voted for Obama thinking anything would change — it’s the same damn thing! State legislatures are not a huge improvement, but they’re some improvement.
TAS: Nullification, as you explain in detail, is not radical in a historical context, but would you agree it might seem radical to a lot of people in a contemporary context?
TW: Yeah, it does, because it is the excluded possibility. The possibilities we usually get are, ‘Should the federal government do this or should it do that?’ The question is never, ‘Should the federal government have a policy on this?’ or ‘Why can’t states set their own education polices?’ Everything in America is now immediately referred to people we have zero control over, civics text platitudes to the contrary notwithstanding.
TAS: At the same time, we have a bipartisan problem in this country whereby people are generally only interested in abuse of power and civil liberties when their party is out of power. Those who spent the eight years of the Bush administration praising dissent and obstruction did a pretty quick about-face once Obama was elected, and we could obviously have used some of this tea party skepticism much earlier in Bush’s term. In light of that, how likely really is a long-term, trans-partisan movement to decentralize federal power?
TW: It’s hard to say because there is some kind of psychological hold party affiliation seems to possess on the human mind. People want to be part of something. They don’t want to be on the outside or be viewed as outliers. There are people who are going to favor decentralization because Bush is in power or because Obama is in power, but not as a general way of living. Perhaps as a sense of political helplessness grows — the more people realize no matter how much they oppose some crazy thing the federal government wants to do the federal government does it anyway — they might come to the default position that living on a scale smaller than a single 309 million person unit might at least give them a prayer of influence.
TAS: There’s obviously some concern about this catching on when ‘tenther’ — i.e. someone who believes in the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution — becomes an increasingly popular liberal slur.
TW: That’s so stupid. The historical record is 1000 percent on the side of people who support the Tenth Amendment. It just shows how out to lunch these people are. Thomas Jefferson was the original tenther. Is that really the argument they want to have? If you hate Thomas Jefferson, please, please, please come out and tell the country that. None of them have the guts.
TAS: Is the scope of what the federal government attempted under both Bush and Obama since this economic crisis began, often against mainstream public opinion, made people more open to concepts like nullification?
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