Interviews | August 16, 2011 at 7:38 pm

Thomas E. Woods, Jr.


Thomas E. Woods, Jr. ‘94 is a Harvard alumnus who contributes to modern libertarian thought: a rare combination. He received his bachelor’s degree in history, and then moved on to Columbia, where he earned his master’s, M.Phil., and Ph.D. Today, Dr. Woods is a senior fellow of the Ludwig von Mises Institute and continues to add to his credentials, both as a traveling scholar-orator and as a New York Times bestselling author of eleven books, dissecting a broad range of topics spanning states’ rights, Church history, and the causes of the economic meltdown. Dr. Woods keeps company with liberty-minded luminaries such as Ron Paul (who wrote the foreword to Woods’s book Meltdown) and Judge Andrew Napolitano, and the Harvard Political Review is delighted that he has taken time out of his busy schedule to sit down with us.

Harvard Political Review: To start this off, here is a rather simple question: how was it to attend Harvard University as a libertarian intellectual and when did your views take shape? You concentrated in history, so did you ever get into disagreements with professors who offered a different interpretation of events?

Thomas E. Woods, Jr. '94

Thomas Woods: I entered Harvard as a middle-of-the-road Republican, the very thing that drives me most berserk today.  I began to move in a libertarian direction with the passage of time.  The intellectual climate of Cambridge could be stifling, and indeed it began pushing me even farther in the other direction.  By the time I completed the Ludwig von Mises Institute’s summer Mises University program (which introduced students to the Austrian School of economics, which has enjoyed quite a renaissance since its economists predicted the Panic of 2008) in 1993, I was a full-fledged libertarian, which with the exception of a few phases and deviations here and there, is what I have remained to this day.

I learned a lot from my professors at Harvard, and did not consider myself as an aggrieved party unjustly put upon by left-wing radicals.  To be sure, a few people on the faculty simply had to be avoided; they disgraced the institution by more or less openly using the classroom as a propaganda machine. I found out about them and avoided them.

At the same time, though, I did have to learn an enormous amount on my own.  You are not going to read Murray N. Rothbard’s book America’s Great Depression at Harvard, for instance, even though in a just world you would.  But the Harvard library system was a great place for someone to be an autodidact.

HPR: The debate over the national debt has been quite vociferous of late in Congress, and does not seem to have any end in sight, even with the most recent compromise, if you will. However, members of the Cato and Ludwig von Mises Institute, along with many in the Tea Party, demand deeper budget cuts that a good portion in Congress have yet to acknowledge; a glance at the failing of Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) modest plan is all the proof one needs. This raises the question: what are the ramifications of Congress’s relative intransigence for our future as a nation?

TW: I don’t see it as a question of intransigence because I don’t think the general public wants serious cuts.  Even the vast majority of self-identified Tea Party voters want entitlements off the table.  As for the rest of federal spending, The Economist did a poll of Americans in late 2010 in which respondents were asked which in a list of spending categories they would cut.  The only one that a majority of Americans would cut was foreign aid, which amounts to a fraction of one percent of the federal budget.  In no other area did even 30 percent of Americans say they wanted cuts.  That means default.  What else could it mean?

The politicians are not defying public opinion.  They are reflecting it.  With the unfunded liabilities of Social Security and Medicare in excess of twice the GDP of the entire world, this has to end badly.  And how is the federal government going to fund trillion-plus annual deficits as far as the eye can see?  Because that’s what we’re going to have.  Even if the phony $4 trillion spending cut we’ve heard about were to be implemented, that’s spread out over ten years, which means $400 billion a year.  That’s not even one third of the current deficit.  And the cuts won’t be evenly spread out over ten years.  They will be back-loaded.  Since no Congress can bind a future Congress on spending, they are meaningless.  Whenever you hear the words “over ten years” in a budget debate, substitute the word “sucker.”

HPR: As a senior fellow at the Mises Institute, you have your fingers on the pulse of current policy debates. Which policy debate has interested you the most and what is your proposed solution to it?

TW: At the Mises Institute we are not keen on the term (or the concept) “public policy.”  According to Lew Rockwell, the Institute’s founder, “Among the greatest failures of the free-market intellectual movement has been to allow its ideas to be categorized as a ‘public policy’ option. The formulation implies a concession that it is up to the state – its managers and kept intellectuals – to decide how, when, and where freedom is to be permitted. It further implies that the purpose of freedom, private ownership, and market incentives is the superior management of society, that is, to allow the current regime to operate more efficiently.”

In other words, the very notion of “public policy” assumes that people’s lives and property are to be disposed of by the political class in pursuit of the goals of that class.  This we reject on moral (and economic) grounds.

I think of myself not as solving society’s problems one at a time via well-formed “public policy” but as doing what I can to pursue justice.  And yet, as luck would have it, justice does indeed wind up solving problems far better than busybodies or central planners ever could.  That’s the implicit lesson of Rollback, my latest book.  In this connection I also recommend Jeff Tucker’s engaging new book, It’s a Jetsons World: Private Miracles and Public Crimes.

HPR: You have argued ardently for states’ rights in your book Nullification, and the uphill battle between Virginia’s Attorney-General and the Federal government will certainly be crucial to the states’ rights movement. Yet, we have always been taught that the Supremacy Clause of the United States Constitution readily dismisses any individual state’s nullification attempt. Why do you feel that the states’ rights argument is sound, given the counter-argument?

TW: This particular argument is in fact quite weak, so I don’t find it threatening to my view.  It’s the kind of argument a law professor would make, and I don’t mean that as a compliment.

Thomas Jefferson was not unaware of, and did not deny, the Supremacy Clause.  His point was that only the Constitution and laws which shall be made in pursuance thereof shall be the supreme law of the land.  Citing the Supremacy Clause merely begs the question.  A nullifying state maintains that a given law is not “in pursuance thereof” and therefore that the Supremacy Clause does not apply in the first place.

Such critics are expecting us to believe that the states would have ratified a Constitution with a Supremacy Clause that said, in effect, “This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in pursuance thereof, plus any old laws we may choose to pass, whether constitutional or not, shall be the supreme law of the land.”

I think there are stronger arguments against nullification than the misplaced one from the Supremacy Clause.  But I have replied to those as well.

Discussing state nullification in front of progressives is, unfortunately, like waving a crucifix before Dracula.  Despite its horrific persecutions of minorities, its totalitarian revolutions, and even its genocides, they demand we believe the centralized modern state is a wonderful, progressive force.  Whoever questions it is a crank.

But why is it obvious that centralization is a progressive’s friend?  The New Left had its doubts about that.  And would it really be a tragedy for the Patriot Act to be defied?  How about the grotesque injustices that go on every day in prosecuting the federal government’s war on drugs?  What if the states could have nullified the incarceration of the Japanese in America during World War II?

The New Left historian William Appleman Williams once said that the closest we ever came to having truly humane communities in this country was under the Articles of Confederation.  Kirkpatrick Sale, who famously wrote Human Scale, insists that issues of size also apply to political units.  This strain of progressivism is all but extinct.  It has been replaced by left-nationalists who make excuses for Barack Obama no matter how many times he betrays their alleged principles.  A single city hands down infallible decrees for 310 million people, and we are to believe this is the most humane form of political arrangement.  The old progressive slogan question authority is long, long gone.  Practically no conventional belief is ever seriously questioned by progressives.

HPR: The 2012 race is beginning to heat up, and unlike 2008, libertarians have two Liberty-minded candidates: Ron Paul and Gary Johnson. Do you foresee this choice as dividing libertarians and inimical to the “liberty movement” or as an encouraging harbinger of things to come?

TW: It hasn’t been a big issue so far.  I myself support Ron Paul, but I respect Gary Johnson for the courageous positions he has taken.

HPR: Your writings have at times reflected your religious convictions as a Roman Catholic. How does your faith impact your understanding of government, and do you think it adds to or detracts from your policy interpretations?

TW: I don’t think it requires much beyond the simple exercise of reason to perceive the gross injustices and immorality that permeate – indeed define – the regime in Washington.  To be sure, the Catholic intellectual tradition includes a commitment to subsidiarity, which teaches that tasks ought not to be delegated to distant authorities unless more local institutions are absolutely incapable of carrying them out, as well as the just war tradition, by which the federal government’s foreign interventions may be held up to informed moral scrutiny.  But as I say, we are dealing with thievery and killing on so grand a scale that it would take a concerted effort not to see it.

I wrote about some of these questions in my 2005 book The Church and the Market: A Catholic Defense of the Free Economy.

HPR: Thanks again, Dr. Woods, for being so availing of your time with us today.

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