Exclusive Interviews
Thomas Woods, Jr. on Popularizing Freedom and Why Real Libertarian Conservatives Are Anti-State and Anti-War
By Anthony Wile - January 17, 2010

Introduction: Dr. Woods is a senior fellow at the Ludwig von Mises Institute. He holds a bachelor's degree in history from Harvard and his master's, M.Phil., and Ph.D. from Columbia University. He is the author of nine books, including two New York Times bestsellers: Meltdown: A Free-Market Look at Why the Stock Market Collapsed, the Economy Tanked, and Government Bailouts Will Make Things Worse and The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History. His other books include Who Killed the Constitution? The Fate of American Liberty from World War I to George W. Bush (with Kevin R.C. Gutzman), Sacred Then and Sacred Now: The Return of the Old Latin Mass, 33 Questions About American History You're Not Supposed to Ask, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, and The Church and the Market: A Catholic Defense of the Free Economy. His writing has appeared in dozens of popular and scholarly periodicals, including the American Historical Review, the Christian Science Monitor, Investor's Business Daily, Catholic Historical Review, Modern Age, American Studies, Intercollegiate Review, Catholic Social Science Review, Economic Affairs (U.K.), Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics, Inside the Vatican, Human Events and many more.

The Daily Bell is pleased to publish an interview with the distinguished libertarian scholar, Thomas E. Woods, Jr.

Introduction: Dr. Woods is a senior fellow at the Ludwig von Mises Institute. He holds a bachelor's degree in history from Harvard and his master's, M.Phil., and Ph.D. from Columbia University. He is the author of nine books, including two New York Times bestsellers: Meltdown: A Free-Market Look at Why the Stock Market Collapsed, the Economy Tanked, and Government Bailouts Will Make Things Worse and The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History. His other books include Who Killed the Constitution? The Fate of American Liberty from World War I to George W. Bush (with Kevin R.C. Gutzman), Sacred Then and Sacred Now: The Return of the Old Latin Mass, 33 Questions About American History You're Not Supposed to Ask, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, and The Church and the Market: A Catholic Defense of the Free Economy. His writing has appeared in dozens of popular and scholarly periodicals, including the American Historical Review, the Christian Science Monitor, Investor's Business Daily, Catholic Historical Review, Modern Age, American Studies, Intercollegiate Review, Catholic Social Science Review, Economic Affairs (U.K.), Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics, Inside the Vatican, Human Events and many more.

Daily Bell: Thanks for sitting down with us. It is an honor to interview you.

Thomas E. Woods, Jr.: My pleasure.

Daily Bell: Can you give us some background. How did you come to be a leading libertarian scholar – if that's an acceptable term.

Thomas E. Woods, Jr.: I appreciate that, though it isn't false modesty when I say I'm uncomfortable with that kind of designation. Right now I think of my task as presenting important material to the general public and to students in a way that's easily understandable, and in a way that minimizes the amount of reading people need to do to get up to speed on (primarily) American history and Austrian economics. I have written some things that I think constitute original contributions to my field, like my book The Church Confronts Modernity, published by Columbia University Press, and The Church and the Market, on Catholic social teaching and Austrian economics. But these days I'm looking mainly to synthesize and explain.

Having said that, I've been really thrown for a loop by what's happened over the past 18 months or so. Suddenly I attend a conference and people know who I am, want their books signed, want pictures with me [!], and so on. I speak at a college campus and a good crowd shows up. I could not believe the reception I got at Ron Paul's CPAC event last February.

A lot of it has to do with being in the right place at the right time. A lot of people bought Meltdown when it came out, and I think the combination of that book, a few high-profile speeches, and the continuing growth in readership at LewRockwell.com (where I have an article archive) led to this quite unexpected situation.

Daily Bell: Can you summarize the basic points of The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History?

Thomas E. Woods, Jr.: That book argues that the received version of American history is a laughable, ideologically driven distortion of the truth, but one that benefits the state apparatus and its hangers-on. Naturally they want us to believe (among other things) the following:

1) Political decentralization is always bad. Anyone who favors it surely has sinister intentions. Real freedom comes from ceding all powers to the central government, which will employ those powers on behalf of progressive causes.

2) Without government, we'd all be mercilessly exploited by the wicked private sector, and scraping by on subsistence wages. That's what happened under the "robber barons" of the nineteenth century.

3) All the federal government's wars have been glorious and just.

The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History smashes all of these, and a great deal else.

Daily Bell: Can you do the same for Meltdown?

Thomas E. Woods, Jr.: I wrote Meltdown because I could see the conventional wisdom – that the free market had caused the financial crisis, and that these blinkered laissez-faire ideologues needed to be put in their place – beginning to ossify. I wanted to make what to me was the obvious case for interventionism as the culprit in the crisis, and the market as the equally obvious solution. (Also, you'd have to be seriously deluded to consider Larry Summers, Robert Rubin, and monetary central planner Alan Greenspan to be laissez-faire ideologues.)

I was seeking to do two things: (1) get the free-market, or "Austrian," point of view before the public, so it would be clear that a plausible (and indeed compelling) alternative to the conventional wisdom existed; and (2) give supporters of the free market the understanding and the ammunition they needed to defend themselves against the inane claims being made by advocates for the state.

Daily Bell: Can you give us the top five books that someone interested in freedom and free-markets needs to read?

Thomas E. Woods, Jr.: I recommend Henry Hazlitt's Economics in One Lesson, Murray Rothbard's What Has Government Done to Our Money?, Ron Paul's The Revolution: A Manifesto, Lew Rockwell's The Left, the Right, and the State, and Hans-Hermann Hoppe's Democracy: The God that Failed. You will never look at things quite the same, and I'm pretty sure you'll be hooked.

Daily Bell: We consider the regulatory malpractices you identify in Meltdown to be somewhat incidental to the main culprit, which is central bank money manipulation. Agree? Disagree?

Thomas E. Woods, Jr.: I agree, which is why I emphasize the Fed and the monetary system in my public speeches. Still, regulation can intensify the effects of the Fed's policy, and I think that's what happened here.

Daily Bell: What was it like going to Harvard? We consider that, in some ways, the "belly of the beast." Is that unfair? What was your experience like?

Thomas E. Woods, Jr.: I had an absolute blast. The students were by and large on the left, as were the faculty. But there was so much to do, so many interesting people who came to speak, and so on. And yes, there were some propagandists on the faculty. You learned to avoid them. At some schools, particularly in the top tier, there is still respect for good work, solid research, and the integrity of one's discipline. People probably expect me to say that my years at Harvard and Columbia were miserable, that all I got was left-wing propaganda. But that isn't true – I got an excellent education at these institutions. And I had fun as a member of various student groups that forced alternative views into the campus conversation.

At the same time, there's plenty I wasn't taught in the classroom, and I had to learn an awful lot on my own. These days, anyone with contrary opinions has to expect, to some extent, to be an autodidact.

Daily Bell: How did you find out about the Mises Institute? How did you get involved? Can you characterize your involvement today for our readers and explain a bit more fully why the Mises Institute is so important to freedom?

Thomas E. Woods, Jr.: I saw an ad for its week-long summer program, Mises University, in a magazine. That week was the most intellectually explosive of my academic career. And now I have the privilege of teaching at it. Right now I'm a resident scholar and senior fellow with the Institute. I write, speak, participate in the Institute's programs, and so forth.

The significance and scope of the Institute's work can hardly be overstated. Check out Mises.org for yourself: thousands of hours of free audio and video in the form of lectures, courses, conferences, audiobooks, debates, documentaries, all of them promoting the free-market Austrian School of economics. We have a great many books available online in their entirety, fully searchable. We have the entire print runs of major publications. We have articles on every subject under the sun. We have discussion forums, an excellent blog, an online store, you name it.

And that's just what we're doing online – again, available entirely for free to anyone who wants to learn. We also have programs for students, like Mises University and our Rothbard Graduate Seminar. We have the Austrian Scholars Conference, our annual scholarly conference. (My book The Church and the Market began as a paper at one of these.) We have one-day events around the country. Much more is planned. It's an honor to be a part of it.

Daily Bell: Is the Internet making a difference?

Thomas E. Woods, Jr.: A huge one. And it disproportionately helps our side. People could have all the Keynes they wanted even before the Internet. But you had to search out the Austrians, if you even knew they existed. Now we have Mises.org, which I just mentioned, to say nothing of the huge YouTube presence of people like Peter Schiff, Ron Paul, and others. Students all over the country are challenging their professors over business cycle theory. It is a glorious thing.

Daily Bell: We think one of the main challenges facing America today is the growth of the so-called pro-military conservative movement. We believe the movement almost purposefully confuses people about Jeffersonian classical liberal thought and is far more challenging to the growing Misesian free-market ideology than the Democrats. Agree? Disagree?

Thomas E. Woods, Jr.: I think they're both pretty awful. I used to be one of these "the Pentagon can do no wrong" conservatives until I realized a few things: (1) the contradiction at work in my holding up this one government institution as beyond reproach; (2) the fact that government lies surrounding foreign policy are especially egregious and embarrassing, if we're going to be honest about it; (3) I would have had a field day if the Soviet Union had tried to pull off some of these lies, but when it's "my" government I instead searched around for supporting evidence to back up the lies; (4) no supporter of the free market can look at military procurement and the military-industrial complex in any detail (and I am confident most conservatives haven't) without recoiling in utter disgust. And that's not to mention the unspeakable and completely avoidable devastation and loss of life wrought by this wing of the government in adventures that had more to do with fueling imperial ambition than with actually defending the country. No conservative, especially those who lecture the world about moral relativism, can support Bill Clinton's sanctions on Iraq, for example. Sanctions always hurt only the subject population. Everyone knows that. A century ago the policy would have been condemned as an act of barbarism.

One of the nice things about Ron Paul's book The Revolution: A Manifesto is that he holds up what historian George Nash calls the three most significant traditionalist thinkers of the postwar conservative revival – Russell Kirk, Richard Weaver, and Robert Nisbet – and notes that all three were anti-militarist to one extent or another. This is totally unknown to American conservatives today, who think it's "liberal" to be antiwar or to consider it overkill to spend more on so-called "defense" than the next several dozen countries put together. Among other things, those people ought to read Bill Kauffman's book Ain't My America: The Long, Noble History of Antiwar Conservatism and Middle American Anti-Imperialism, which I reviewed last year.

If I may continue with my Kauffman boosting for a moment, I insist people watch his speech (Ron Paul Rally For The Republic, Bill Kauffman) from the great Rally for the Republic Ron Paul held during the week of the Republican Convention. (The first 10 or so seconds of Kauffman are a bit garbled, but it's worth the wait.)

But the Democrats are a train wreck as well; it's as if their goal is to wreck the economy with the greatest possible dispatch. And they're not even sound on war, the issue we're supposed to believe touches their deepest principles.

Daily Bell: What do you think of Sarah Palin? On the one hand, it seems to us, she espouses firm free-market beliefs. On the other, she speaks a great deal about patriotism and her support of the military, generally Homeland Security and the various wars on terrors. Isn't this somehow a contradiction?

Thomas E. Woods, Jr.: People like her, I think, because they see in her a normal, plain-speaking American who doesn't gratuitously ridicule what they believe, and because she is packaged as a maverick of some sort. If only she were. At the slightest prompting she immediately adopted the neoconservative line on foreign policy (and in fact she canceled a meeting with representatives of her pro-life constituency during the GOP convention so she could attend a meeting with AIPAC officials). During the campaign she supported the financial bailouts. Oh, but she had to, someone could reply. All right, then what kind of maverick is she?

What has struck me most about her is how intellectually insubstantial she is. When (for example) she was asked about why she objected to Roe v. Wade, and whether she could name other Supreme Court cases of which she disapproved, she just sputtered. That should be the easiest thing in the world for a reasonably educated conservative. In other words, she's yet another politician who can read a speech well, but who just isn't that bright. Unfortunately, as we've seen, that's no obstacle for the party loyalists.

As for the military, well, this is where conservatives suddenly become deeply reverential toward government and government employees, and where they believe every word of the Ministry of Propaganda they'd just condemned as liars and scoundrels not ten seconds before.

Daily Bell: Do you think the Fed will be properly and fully audited in your lifetime?

Thomas E. Woods, Jr.: I honestly don't know. What I do know is that whether or not the audit ever happens, the composition of public opinion has already undergone a significant change. There has never been a visible anti-Fed presence in American life. No question it's still very tiny as a percentage of the population, but it now not only exists but is growing all the time. And it's persistent. It won't go away. It's a permanent feature of American life. There will be an anti-Fed voice in the conversation more and more. You can't put a price tag on that.

Daily Bell: What are you working on now?

Thomas E. Woods, Jr.: I'm working on a book for fall 2010 release. I'm keeping the subject matter under wraps for now, but let's just say it goes for the jugular.

Daily Bell: Thank you for the fascinating interview. We consider you one of the finer minds of freedom working today — as do many others — and eagerly await your next work.

Thomas E. Woods, Jr.: Thanks for having me.

After Thoughts

We were most delighted with this interview with Thomas Woods because he is truly one of the most brilliant libertarian writers and popularizers of his generation. His books on freedom issues are wonderfully literate and his background from America's prestigious academic elite institutions gives him added gravitas. But in this interview, because our readers may be aware of some of his views, we wanted to press him a bit on what is going to be the most significant issue of the early-to-middle 21st century from our perspective – the erosion of the Anglo-American (especially the American) military-industrial complex.

We know that sounds like an audacious statement but when we claimed last year that the Federal Reserve was facing great difficulties, it was likely not yet easy to discern. Yet we knew it was true, for we could see the Fed had been under attack too long and it had no weapons with which to defend itself. Mid-year it trotted out an inspector general whose appearance before a Congressional committee has to rank as one of the single worst outings of a senior executive in the history of such presentations. She literally could not justify a single aspect of the Fed's secrecy, price-fixing and profligacy.

The millions of views of this particular video debacle since then on Youtube and the blistering comments show quite clearly that this particular promotion continues to crumble. The curtain has fallen away. And today, the US Federal Reserve, as an institution, faces determined opposition such as it never has before. What many in our opinion don't quite "get" (Daily Bell readers excepted) is that this opposition will only get worse. There is no damage control to be done, no "crisis" to overcome. The crisis the elite faces is the rapid transmission of human knowledge via the Internet, the power of ideas and the resultant prolonged dying of the elite's promotional campaigns of fear and control. This is a process that has already taken place and is gaining momentum. It has decades to travel. It will be a truly miserable era for the power elite that had much to enjoy in the 20th century when it could wage world wars at will and rewrite history as it chose.

Of course, power elite promotions will cling tenaciously to the life they have. Global warming will stagger along. Fiat money will continue to be flogged and the dollar propped up, at least to a degree, mercantilism will continue to be confused, purposefully, with capitalism. But the whole point of promotions is to brainwash the masses into cooperating in giving up additional wealth and control in return for authoritarian solutions – and the masses are beginning to reject the dominant social themes that worked so well even 50 years ago.

The power elite is tiny. Its wealth is massive and pervasive, but it relied on the secretive tentacles of control to disguise its relative lack of breadth and depth. Its mechanism is the very central banking meme that is under such attack. Its secondary line of defense is authoritarian (the use of various repressive security forces). But as the history of the Gutenberg press shows us, authoritarian solutions – which are truly a last gasp – are only trotted out in truly dire straits. There are billions of average human beings in the world. There are what – maybe a couple of thousand individuals and family members in the upper and lower ranks of the power elite, if that. Using force is a losing deal for an elite, certainly in the West. If it were not, then why bother with promotions?

Thus it is, we believe, that sooner or later the security/war/safety meme that power hungry governments (they all are these days) use to justify their most outrageous actions will eventually come under the same kind of attack as the central banking monetary meme. We believe this next decade will see the same sort of opposition to the Anglo-American military industrial complex. In fact, in Britain, as we have regularly reported, it has already begun, with the hearings on the antecedents of the Iraq war, which are revealing a litany of top-level military and political lies both in Britain and America. These hearings will not be the end of it. They are an opening volley as it were though certainly the British elite is hoping that the hearings will close the Bush-Blair/Iraq chapter.

For this reason, then, because we think the "war on terror" is another promotion falling to pieces even now, we wanted to elucidate Woods' views not just on financial freedom but on the issues of fundamental freedom, which includes America's (and Europe's) fixation with security and a vast military and internal security apparatus. It will, over the next years in our opinion, turn into the most significant issue the West faces. The Anglo-American axis and the elite that operates it may retain its power, but in our opinion it will be a most reduced posture, and one that will receive an ever receding "buy in."

Anyway, Woods point of view about the US military and the country's increasingly invasive domestic quasi-military domestic and international security efforts are dead on target. The most revealing part of this interview is where he points out his own conversion from someone who gave kneejerk obeisance to America's militaristic posture to someone who understands that the outrageous procurements, secretive waste of billions, faux-patriotism and endless ginning-up of security "threats" are no more worthy of unquestioning support than America's failing command-and-control economic system.

Woods works for a group that has made a great difference with its affiliated anti-war site, anti-war.com. Anti-war.com is responsible for raising the level of understanding about promotion that is the Western war on terror. The blood of a million innocents has again been spilled over the last decade in the Middle East for ill-defined objectives that are merely trotted out to conceal the real interests of the increasingly desperate Western power elite – expanded global domination. Everywhere America goes it builds another gigantic military and domestic base – Kosovo, Iraq and, no doubt, should the latest war work, Afghanistan.

We will close with an excerpt from a remarkable column by William Pfaff featured earlier this month on Truthdig. We think Thomas Woods would approve the sentiments expressed herein. Just as frustration mounted – and continues to mount – over central banking, so frustration is mounting over the essentially lawless and ruinous activities of the unaccountable Anglo-American military. Over the next years, we predict this issue will move center stage as the Internet exposes the full scope of what is transpiring.

Here's the excerpt. We recommend the full article at Truthdig.com. (Ed. Note: We've read in a number of places that the number of US military bases is closer to 1,000 than 700.)

It is time to ask a question that virtually no one in an official or political position in the United States is willing to contemplate asking. For a person in a responsible public position to pose this question would be to risk exclusion from the realm of "serious" policy discussion. It could be, as they say in the bureaucracies, "a career destroyer." It would be like declaring that after long analysis you had come to the conclusion that the world is indeed flat, and not round. A round earth is merely an illusion, which everyone has accepted, and adapted to-and fears challenging.

My question is the following. Has it been a terrible, and by now all but irreversible, error for the United States to have built a system of more than 700 military bases and stations girdling the world? Does it provoke war rather than provide security? Each of six world regions now has a separate U.S. commander with his staff and intelligence, planning and potential operational capabilities. Central Command, based in Florida, currently is responsible for America's Middle Eastern and Central Asian wars. The other five commands-Atlantic, Pacific, Southern (for Latin America), Africa and Europe -oversee in detail what goes on in their assigned portions of the world, generating analyses, appreciations, and scenarios of possible reactions to a myriad of perceived or possible threats to the United States.

Each commander also makes contact with regional government military forces, so far as possible, cultivating good relations, professional exchanges and training. Each promotes training missions to the U.S. and military aid, and supports equipment purchases. Each regional commander controls "main operating bases" abroad, which in turn support fully manned "forward operating sites," usually including permanently stationed American forces and an air base. Beyond them, "cooperative security locations" are established, shared with the forces of allies or clients. The hegemonic implications and intention of all this, which provides the military structure from which to conduct global interventions (or indeed a third world war), are readily acknowledged in Washington, and motivated by what Washington considers internationally valid and constructive reasons.

The unthinkable question [is] whether all of this has been a ghastly mistake. Many Americans question or oppose this system, but ordinarily with anti-militarist motives, or because they see it as imperialist, or part of an interventionist or aggressive foreign policy outlook that they oppose. My reason for questioning it is that it generates apprehension, hostility and fear of the United States; frequently promotes insecurity; and has already provoked wars- unnecessary wars. …

Amen, brother.

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