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?
TW: Well, sure. The crazier the federal government gets, the easier it is to propose alternatives and be listened to. Whether you ultimately agree with the thesis of my book or not, I don’t think anyone will finish it and say, ‘Well, that was just insane.’ Unfortunately, for a long time in our current political environment if you didn’t fall somewhere within this little three-inch area between Mitch McConnell and Hillary Clinton, then you were, by definition, crazy. It becomes easier to turn that argument around on people when you can say, ‘Wait, you’re calling me crazy? They’re the ones who are proposing the following twelve insane things. But I’m crazy because I say, “Maybe we should have a chance to opt out”‘?
TAS: One last question: Regarding your previous book, Meltdown, I’m curious, are things now better, worse, or as bad as you thought they’d be when you finished writing that book?
TW: It could have been worse. I’m not sure how. [Smiles.] I’m thinking of Young Frankenstein — ‘It could be worse, could be raining!’ I didn’t realize the Obama deficits would be quite so bad as they are, but the rest of it — I can’t say I’m shocked. They have managed to hold on to and continue the narrative of ‘We, the government, are just innocent bystanders in all of this, except for the failure to regulate enough under the last guy.’ Even that Obama has abandoned a little bit since the campaign trail where he just kept saying, ‘Deregulation, deregulation, deregulation.’ Probably because people started to ask, ‘What specific deregulation?’ They tried Gramm-Leach-Bliely for awhile, but it wasn’t really completely applicable, and if you dig too deep people find out Clinton and Biden supported it. Now it’s more like, ‘It was a failure to be proactive.’ Of course! After the fact anyone can say, ‘If we hadn’t let this happen, it wouldn’t have happened.’ So what does that mean for the future? At least there is, thanks to the Internet, a competing version of events people can access. In 1975 we wouldn’t have had that. People don’t have to just pick between the narratives of the New York Times and the Washington Post anymore.
TAS: Has the growing skepticism of the public toward government during a time of economic crisis surprised you at all?
TW: I’m surprised, frankly, more people didn’t swallow the line — ‘This is regrettable, but we have to do this to save the system from collapse.’ People were against those bailouts from the beginning. And that was amazing because that line was being pushed on the public so vigorously, by so many sources, and anyone who disagreed was denounced as a total ignorant hick. Yet people defiantly held to that skepticism. And that truly does give me hope that maybe people are tuning those voices out and things will get better.