Other readings in this series…
For some reason lately, I can’t seem to get the seven or eight hours of sleep I’m used to. I can’t seem to finish everything I’m working on until midnight, and then I’ll stare at the ceiling until almost two. But the dog wants his walk promptly at seven every morning, so making up those winks in the morning isn’t much of an option. So since all I’m getting is 4 1/2 or five hours of sleep a night, I’ve taken to filling up that time doing some reading.
In the last couple of weeks I’ve knocked out five books, and this week I’m going to tell our readers about them. First up today is a very thought-provoking piece by historian Tom Woods called Nullification: How To Resist Federal Tyranny In The 21st Century.
Woods has become a rather big name of late among the constitutional conservative crowd, as his work has been geared toward discrediting the Progressive experiment and the move toward what he calls the “modern state” – centralized, tending toward the totalitarian, regulatory and oligarchical. The results of this opposition have yielded him a few recognizable titles – among them Meltdown: A Free-Market Look at Why the Stock Market Collapsed, the Economy Tanked, and Government Bailouts Will Make Things Worse, which he released early last year, 33 Questions About American History You’re Not Supposed to Ask, released in 2008 and The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History, released in 2004.
Running through all Woods’ works is a preference for small government broken up into small, and largely independent, jurisdictions. Woods believes that Western civilization’s great advances came about as a result of Europe evolving, following the fall of the Roman Empire, into a loosely-woven quilt of city-states, principalities and small kingdoms. When tyrannical princelings set up shop in Bavaria, for example, merchants and artisans could pick up stakes and move to Westphalia. If Venice’s taxes were too high, traders could base their operations in Genoa instead. It was that competition among small states which ultimately galvanized into the rule of law and limited government – the great migrations to America came largely, according to this theory, as a result of centralizing – and thus increasingly tyrannical – governments in Britain, Ireland, Italy, Germany, Russia and elsewhere.
And Woods’ theory applies to America as well, for he goes into painstaking detail to point out that the United States was conceived as just that – a group of independent states united under a compact known as the Constitution. Woods says that the Constitution isn’t a pact among the American people; it’s a pact among the individual states representing their citizens.
And that’s where nullification comes in.
When the federal government undertakes actions which violate the constitution, Woods, says, the way to view such circumstances is through the lens of states evaluating whether those actions are what the states bargained for when joining the union. If not, the nullification theory goes that the states have the right to essentially say “this ain’t what we agreed to, so we’re not going to do it.”
Woods notes that this isn’t as novel a theory as you might think. It was first brought to a head in 1798 with the Kentucky and Virginia resolutions, both written by Thomas Jefferson. In the early days of the Republic states repeatedly refused to go along with federal actions they disagreed with, including the New England states ignoring a trade embargo Jefferson himself attempted to enforce while president and Southern states balking at high tariffs which favored Northern manufacturers and hit agrarian Dixie hard. The federal Fugitive Slave Act was nullified by many Northern states, and particularly Wisconsin, just prior to the civil war.
Of course, the “states’ rights” movement took on a more sinister tone in the late 19th and early-to-mid 20th centuries, and Woods does seem to gloss over some of the abuses of individual rights practiced upon racial minorities by politicians using arguments similar to the ones he makes in his book. Those abuses gave, in the current conventional wisdom, a bad name to the Spirit of 1798 – and we’re taught from middle-school Civics class all the way through law school that the federal government is the ultimate protector of civil rights.
That said, Woods makes a very strong case for strengthening state and local governments at the expense of the feds. After all, when states like New York, California and Illinois founder on the rocks of fiscal insanity and an overweening public sector, the best punishment for such abuses lies first at the ballot box but also in states like Arizona, Texas, Indiana and Florida, which are better-run and manage to provide public services without imposing undue burdens on wealth or freedom. When a New Jersey ceases to be economically competitive with a Virginia, for example, it’s not long before the citizens and their elected leaders notice it. And that’s a strong incentive to change directions – as we see Chris Christie attempting to do.
But when the states don’t have the power to experiment, make alterations or set policy as they see fit, the competition for population and capital is no longer within our borders but international. The increasing lines in London for Americans giving up their citizenship to avoid harsh federal taxes only follow a steady drip-drip-drip of corporations departing for foreign shores. That’s what happens when an unchecked federal government unleashes torrents of regulations, taxes, “green” initiatives, social engineering projects and other abuses – with an eye toward achieving conformity among our 300 million citizens.
Woods notes that there are modern-day instances of nullification. The federal government passed the Real ID Act in 2005, for example, and the states ignored it. Obamacare and the federal government’s bizarre policy on immigration have unleashed a contemporary wave of state activities seeking either to expressly or in practice nullify federal law, which makes Woods’ book a Johnny-on-the-spot timely work.
He notes that nullification is actually a very moderate stance for states to take, as it sits between full submission to an overarching federal government, and secession – which he does NOT call for.
At a time when the American people are disgusted with a Washington political class run amok and a media elite stuck in the same formulations and petty games with put the country on the bumpy road we’re on, it does appear Woods is on to something in revisiting the checks and balances which served the country well in its first 150 years.