Originally posted at Talk to Action.
This post constitutes my third and final reply to Thomas E. Woods, Jr.’s critique of my series on his neo-Confederate activities. In my first reply I explained why, his protestations not withstanding, he is indeed a neo-Confederate. My second reply focused on how Woods twists his opponents’ statements into self-serving red herring.
Now I get to what is as the heart of Woods’s neo-Confederate/libertarian agenda: defending the right to oppress; a critical component of which is the combination of nullification and secession.
“I am a libertarian” and “not a `neo-Confederate’” wrote Thomas E. Woods, Jr. in a verbal shell game he plays to mask the shared flaw of his chosen philosophies: the elevation of raw power over justice and equality before the law, cloaking oppression in the guise of freedom and liberty.
As I have previously noted, his advocacy of both secession and the unilateral nullification of Federal court decisions as well as Federal legislation appeals to many on the Catholic Right. What’s more, nullification is becoming a weapon in efforts to thwart the will of the American people as expressed by its elected representatives.
Some Neo-Confederates are also Libertarians
While not all libertarians are neo-Confederates, neo-Confederates of Woods’s ilk are certainly libertarians. This comes into focus when we consider the League of the South,a neo-Confederate organization with which Woods proudly identifies and whose core economic beliefs are of the aforementioned Austrian School of libertarian economics: opposition to fractional banking; a return to the gold standard; and a general distrust government regulation that often borders on anarchy. (Indeed, Woods himself is devotee of anarcho-capitalist Murray Rothbard). Woods’s strain of libertarianism argues that these are essential elements of freedom.
Austrian school libertarians even oppose the laissez-faire “Chicago school” economics of Milton Friedman — which at least considers using some government intervention in the economy through monetary policy. Austrian schoolers want government to play no role at all in the economy. After all, they steadfastly assure us, that economically speaking, everyone acts with reasonable self-interest.
Austrian schoolers also believe that the freedom to contract is absolute, regardless of the imbalance of power between parties, particularly when it comes to matters of employment. “Labor is appraised like a commodity not because the entrepreneurs and capitalists are hardhearted and callous,” Ludwig von Mises famously declared, “but because they are unconditionally subject to the supremacy of the pitiless consumers.” (Woods is a Senior Fellow at the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Alabama.) Every dollar is a ballot from their point of view; and the messy ethical considerations of government are replaced by the supposed efficiencies of the free market. Of course, if every dollar is a ballot, then those with more dollars have more ballots and the outcome of every election is predetermined.
Thus the question of freedom, is really a question of freedom for whom?
The above von Mises quote suggests that owners are free to abuse low wage workers while providing excessive executive compensation; unjustifiable stock dividend payouts; failing to invest in more efficient manufacturing equipment; and ineffective trades policies. And as the 2007 Wall Street meltdown has proven, many financial figures do not act solely out of “reasonable self-interest;” irrationality plays an outsized role along with, greed, ego and self-aggrandizement.
This gets us to the core of our dispute: That Woods’ neo-Confederate libertarianism distorts the meanings of freedom and liberty into a defense of the excesses of self-interest. He argues, referring to me:
And finally, my critic says I defend a “right to oppress.” This is preposterous, needless to say. … The point is that the federal government is far more likely to be a threat to our liberties, indeed to civilization itself, than the states — from which, in any case, exit is rather easier. There is absolutely nothing the states could do that would amount to a grain of sand on the beach compared to a new Middle Eastern war, but I am supposed to be super worried about what Montana might do next. Nice priorities.
He then added, “And of course, nothing centralized regimes do ever, ever, ever discredits centralization.”
This is typical Woods, vigorously assaulting a straw man of his own invention. (While I clearly believe that a sturdy federal government is far preferable to confederacy, nowhere have I claimed that it is a perfect; all forms of government are subject to abuse.) Quite tellingly though, Wood opposes the centralization of power in a democratically elected Federal government, but thinks the centralization of economic power in the hands of unaccountable private interests is just fine.
There is no shortage of examples to demonstrate that Woods’s definition of freedom includes the right to oppress. Woods goes so far as to oppose child labor laws. (He claims that passing laws against child labor is like passing laws against gravity.) He also opposes the recent efforts of fast food workers to achieve a living wage. “Instead of being amazed that they can earn anything at all with no skills to speak of,” says Woods, “they are enraged that they aren’t making a comfortable living performing a task as simple as fast-food preparation.”
Ignoring Facts and History
History teaches us a different lesson about child labor than the world according to Woods. Child labor in the past has been used to drive down wages by creating a surplus of workers. Beyond that, the law informs us that minors are generally considered to be legally incompetent to enter into most contracts. While Woods’s position may be honestly grounded in his libertarian philosophy it does not change the dynamics of highly unequal wage bargaining power — hence his embrace of a right to oppress children without interference from the government.
Progressive child labor laws have freed children from toiling long hours in mills full of dangerous machinery or having to dig for coal in poorly ventilated and unsafe mineshafts. At the same time, parents have received better wages because the size of the workforce was reduced. Children once unable to attend school, now have the opportunity, which in turn, creates a more sophisticated work force.
Likewise, increases in the minimum wage pegged to productivity have proven to be healthy for the overall economy – as well as being the right thing to do. Woods mischievously frames his argument against fast food workers seeking a raise, by suggesting that they want something exorbitant. It is not unreasonable for workers to seek wages that are at the very least, adjusted for inflation. Woods’ twisting of facts to fit his argument is characteristic of his method.
As if all this were not enough, there is one part of Woods’s critique of one of my pieces on nullification that I find astonishing. “There is absolutely nothing the states could do,” he claims, ” that would amount to a grain of sand on the beach compared to a new Middle Eastern war…” As someone who holds a Ph.D. in history from an Ivy League university he should know better. He must certainly be aware that his beloved (so-called) Confederate States of America’s dreams of a slave empire extending into the Caribbean as well as Central and South America. History teaches us that neither size nor form of government is a guarantee against Empire – let alone the desire to extinguish individual rights.
If the modern federal state is inherently such a tyrannical menace, why have Sweden’s armies not marched in conquest?
No Oppressor is an Island
Woods is also involved with organizations that are devoted to the right to oppress.
As I have previously documented, Woods is a founding member of the League of the South, a neo-Confederate organization that the Southern Poverty Law Center has identified as a hate group.
The League’s “Core Belief Statement” also suggests a religious supremacism of the sort that would clearly be a building block of theocracy. The League declares:
“The South still reveres the tenets of our historic Christian faith and acknowledges its supremacy over man-made laws and opinions…
If the southern Leaguers got their way in this regard, the prospects might be bleak for anyone other than officially approved Christians, and worse for minority religions and the non-religious. Freedom for religious supremacism means the right to oppress, whether at the state, local or federal level.
Woods, a convert to traditionalist Catholicism, is a regular contributor to the The Remnant . This traditionalist biweekly newspaper has been highly critical of anything Catholic since Vatican II, including Nostra Aetate, — the official Catholic statement repudiating the notion that the Jewish people are guilty of deicide. The Remnant has also been a vocal supporter of the schismatic – and anti-Semitic – priestly order of the Society of St. Pius X. For this and other examples of hostility to Judaism The Remnant has also earned a spot on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s list of hate groups.
The Remnant’s support for SSPX is a particular point of interest. SSPX has maintained ties to the Northern Italian secessionist political organization, Northern League – as does the League of the South.
Coming Full Circle
Of course, to this crowd, the main problem with a sturdy federal government is that it stands in the way of the neo-Confederate vision itself. Modern notions of civil rights as well as the legacy of New Deal economics exist to protect the rights of those who would suffer if the neo-Confederate libertarian dream were to come true.
What the agendas of secession and nullification are truly about is the frustration of various like-minded minority factions’ ambitions to oppress the majority. To that end, they want the federal government disassembled at least to the point where the religious and economic prejudices of the few are less likely to be checked by the democratically derived consensus of the many.
This happened in 1861 when proslavery forces lost their grip on the White House; and it is happening now with a small but effective gang of Christian Right activists that cannot find a constitutional avenue to impose their moral and economic views on the entire nation. It is why we see, paradoxically, the likes of the theocratic protestant Gary North (an Associated Scholar of the von Mises Institute) and Opus Dei priest C. John McCloskey embrace Woods’s brand of theocratic libertarianism. North and McCloskey are not opposed to theocracy, per se, they just want to localize it. Indeed, that is why Woods’s advocacy of secession and nullification is so appealing to them. If they cannot persuade the whole country to see things their way while playing by the rules, they will simply tear up the rulebook – as well as the nation.
This is libertarianism’s inherent fatal flaw: Its sole emphasis upon the liberty of the more powerful individual and its striking indifference to the rights of others. It fails to account for externalities — when a third person is affected by an occurrence or transaction to which he is not a party. It is a philosophy of governance that refuses to consider that the individual’s well-being is linked to the well-being of all within a given society.
I will assume that Thomas E. Woods, Jr. is sincere when he says he doesn’t personally believe in oppressing others who are different than him. But he defends a philosophy predicated upon a highly subjective definition of liberty attained at the expense of others. I would go so far as to say he also believes in maximizing the opportunities presented in such situations. Therefore, he resolutely believes in the right to oppress, and is conflating freedom with oppression.
But there is a different way of viewing freedom.
“One principle of liberty is for all to rule and be ruled in turn,” Aristotle once said, “and indeed democratic justice is the application of numerical not proportionate equality; whence it follows that the majority must be supreme, and that whatever the majority approve must be the end and the just.”
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