Tom Woods’ book Real Dissent draws a sharp distinction between authentic and insignificant political discourse. His central thesis in the book is that the opinion-molders in the media have narrowly defined the “legitimate” debate in this country to being between the positions held by the popular Republican and Democratic candidates. Those who suggest radical change or question fundamentals in the functioning of the system are mocked and ridiculed for being outside the acceptable range of opinion. These are those that dare say something that’s not on the 3×5 card of allowable opinion, the metaphor Woods uses to describe the perceived acceptable topics of debate. He goes after the false left/right paradigm and exposes, with compelling arguments, how the left and right are often in basic agreement on many issues. The more substantive debate can be found in the Libertarian position and historically in the work of classical liberals and paleo-conservatives.
The book is divided into 10 parts, each one explaining the libertarian position on a subject and refuting misconceptions and common arguments raised against the position. This review will be structured similarly, with each part describing the corresponding part of the book. Real Dissent reads like a libertarian guidebook, with each chapter consisting of an article or refutation written by Tom Woods between 2003 and 2014. Although the book is made up of former writings, it’s clear that they are carefully selected and are pertinent to today’s political discussion.
Many of the reasons we find the country in its current position stem from the actions of the Bush administration in the wake of the environment of abject fear that hit Americans after the 9/11 attacks. Obama has done little to curtail these infringements, and in some cases has expanded on them. The results have been nothing short of disastrous for the economy and our freedoms. Tom Woods’ writings during this period paint a picture of not only the acquiescence of those liberties but also of the movement for liberty that has been inspired to rise up as a result of these actions and demand that their voices be heard. Woods tackles the influence of war propaganda in the first part of the book.
Part I – War and Propaganda
In the opening chapter of the book, Woods tells the story of his transformation from a pro-war neoconservative to an ultimately anti-war libertarian. This serves as a good introduction for conservatives who are interested in reading a libertarian viewpoint on war. The following chapters discuss the positions of the old conservatives (also known as paleo-conservatives), who often wrote in opposition to war, executive power, and an expansionist foreign policy. The writings of these traditional conservatives (Russell Kirk, Robert Nisbet, and Richard Weaver are mentioned) are seen as being in stark contrast to the modern neoconservative ideas about war. Woods correctly points out that the old conservatives were generally opposed to wars early in the 20th century and it was the left who were usually pounding the war drums. It was Woodrow Wilson who wanted to enter World War I to “make the world safe for democracy”. This line can be very easily imagined as coming from President Bush prior to the US invasion of Iraq. Woods draws a great distinction between the position of neoconservatives and the paleo-conservative view of a less interventionist foreign policy. Who are the real conservatives when it comes to this topic? The reader is left to decide.
Part II – Capitalism and Anti-Capitalism
The next section of the book deals with arguments against capitalism. Woods tells of a time he was lambasted by a critic on Twitter for “indoctrinating” a group of high school students with a pro-market presentation. The arguments given against capitalism are some of the more common used in the lay public and reflect a few knee-jerk reactions to the market. These vary from the idea that the market is promoting survival of the fittest (social Darwinism) to the complaint that market players are overly focused on short term considerations. Woods delivers his brief responses in his typical straight-forward-with-a-hint-of-sarcasm manner.
He goes on in the next chapter to address the argument that capitalism reduces society to only materialistic concerns. Presented is a contrast between how the state and market treat individuals. Woods points out that the free market necessarily involves voluntary transactions between consenting adults, while the state uses force and coercion to achieve its ends (the military draft). There is a quick chapter on why we can’t tax the rich to provide for everyone else’s needs.
Woods finishes off this part of the book by giving a thorough treatment to monopoly and the robber barons of the late 19th century. Though many of these “barons” improved the lot of society greatly by lowering prices and increasing output, we are told exactly the opposite in public schools today. Woods goes on a case by case basis showing that each one of these now infamous individuals provided an enormous increase in the standard of living for the average consumer. This includes lowering the price of steel rails(Carnegie), kerosene(Rockefeller), and steam boat rides(Vanderbilt). When it comes to monopoly, he shows that predatory pricing schemes have rarely, if ever, been practiced in history and the requirements of engaging in such activity would almost certainly result in a loss for the business attempting it. On the contrary, the true monopolist is not a free market actor but an individual who receives a government grant of privilege in a certain sector, and uses that privilege to restrict other potential market entrants from participating. Woods includes the story of Vanderbilt undercutting such a government backed monopoly to illustrate how even this situation can be defeated by an entrepreneur whose intent is to serve the consumer.
Part III – Libertarianism Attacked, and Woods’ Replies
The next part of the book deals with Woods’ replies to his critics, and critics of libertarianism in the mainstream media. It consists of brief chapters where Woods basically tears down a number of empty arguments originating in Salon, the Washington Post, and other mainstream publications. The authors of these attack pieces generally are from the progressive perspective. As he shows, it’s being kind to call many of these legitimate criticisms. The majority of the attacks he deals with involve simply throwing the insults “fringe”, “extremist”, or “crazy”. Then the defender of the mainstream position simply holds that up as the obvious answer or points to an event in history that supposedly refutes the libertarian position.
This type of attack started showing up in the media during Ron Paul’s candidacy for the president back in 2008, and it’s a testament to his influence in spreading the libertarian message that the these pieces are now commonplace today. It’s questionable whether Woods needed to spend any time addressing these criticisms in the book. However, I understand why he did. If this is the first book picked up by a reader casually interested in the libertarian position, he might have only been exposed to the attacks seen in the more mainstream publications. He might be interested in digging past the empty responses often given against the position to read something substantive on the topic. He will leave more informed as a result of reading Real Dissent.
Part IV – Ron Paul and Forbidden Truths
Woods chose to devote the next part of his book to Ron Paul’s influence and his candidacy during the 2008 presidential campaign. Woods praises Paul for his courage to stand on principles in the face of near relentless attacks from both the left and the right sides of the political spectrum. Paul was excluded from a number of debates and blacklisted by the Republican establishment, and Tom Woods does an admirable job describing this in his writings at the time.
He recounts a very significant exchange that took place during a debate in South Carolina. This exchange between Ron Paul and Rudy Giuliani highlighted a major difference in views on foreign policy. A number of former leaders in the military and a few conservatives defended Paul’s view that the concept of blowback plays a role in the recruitment of terrorists. Woods includes their quotes in this section. He also castigates the public for their unwillingness to consider alternatives to the more establishment candidates. In his chapter “26 Things Non-Paul Voters were Basically Saying”, Woods lists a litany of principled reasons to support Paul by showing the absurdity of supporting the opposite of his positions.
Woods recognizes Ron Paul as the driving force in the surge of libertarianism in this country, and gives credit to him for having the resiliency to withstand constant media attacks during the 2008 campaign.
Part V – End the Fed
Woods’ purpose in the next section of the book is to argue against the Federal Reserve System and its supporters. He gives Ron Paul the sole credit for bringing this topic into public debate in the first place. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine this receiving much press absent Paul’s stance during his 2008 run for president.
Woods goes into detail about several banking panics prior to the Federal Reserve and shows, with recent historical studies, how the new consensus on such topics among even mainstream economists supports the libertarian, anti-Fed position. Many of the older studies and papers on the subject tended to minimize the post-Fed era crashes and overstate the pre-Fed panics. This gave credence to the common argument used for the Fed as stabilizer of the economy. However, Woods shows that the common thread running through all these panics and market crashes is a prior period of credit expansion by government in one form or another. He backs up this position by going into further detail about the specific pre-Fed panics and detailing issues with banking laws during the pre-Fed period.
Woods points out the central problem with many defenders of the Fed, they assume that booms and busts are intrinsic to the market. Woods references Friedrich A. Hayek a number of times in this section of the book, and gives an overview of the topic of Austrian Business Cycle Theory (commonly abbreviated ABCT) as a more probable explanation for the boom, bust cycle that the economy repeatedly endures.
Part VI – History and Liberty
In the next part of his book, entitled “Liberty and History” Tom Woods gives arguments in defense of doctrines that were part of America and the interpretation of the Constitution originally but that modern precedent (and presidents) has trounced on and shoved aside. He deals with the topic of presidential war powers by giving an example of an exchange he had with Mark Levin on the subject. Levin, rather than respond in kind to Woods’ points and questions, consistently side-stepped the ultimate question: Is the President of the United States allowed to start offensive wars without first being authorized by Congress? Woods holds that the answer is a firm “No” because of the way the Constitution was originally written and intended. He takes down arguments made by those such as John Yoo (lawyer for the Bush Administration), who deemed that the President could do essentially anything he wanted in regards to war.
Next, Woods tackles the subject of state nullification and points out that states have historically used this right to declare laws damaging to liberty unconstitutional, and have rarely used it for nefarious purposes. He falls back on the compact theory of the United States, the states and the people therein are the sovereign entities that existed prior to the Federal government, and this fact supports the idea that states have the right to nullify unconstitutional laws. Here Woods has done a great job responding to a list of arguments against nullification in an organized fashion and with relevant historical citations.
Part VII – When Libertarians Go Wrong
Woods not only trumpets the merits of the libertarian position, but also points out that there are those in the movement who he believes have strayed from the core message. He chides those he calls “sweetie-pie libertarians” for being too eager in accepting the official narrative of American history and seeking to appease those in the media. Lincoln’s presidency is a key issue with this group, and the media often declares those who point out Lincoln’s violations of civil rights and other problems with his presidency as being pro-slavery or neo-confederates.
The view of Lincoln as savior and he who could do no wrong is very common among historians today. Woods points out that, while slavery was officially ended on his watch, Lincoln oversaw a massive war with huge American casualties. Other nations saw a peaceful end to slavery but the US became mired in war over the preservation of the union. Woods argues that this is consistently pointed to as a reason to always oppose secession and support centralized governments, and has led to the giant and centralized authority that we now have in Washington. Woods even includes a quote from Robert E. Lee stating that the consolidation of the power of the states will lead to a government that is “sure to be aggressive abroad, and despotic at home”.
In one chapter, Woods defends well-known libertarian Julie Borowski. Borowski dared to make the case in an article that the reason there are so few libertarian women is because of significant differences in the way men and women think. This position was immediately attacked by the more politically correct “thick” libertarians. These are those in the movement who believe that to be libertarian you must be countercultural, merely accepting the non-aggression principle in not enough. Woods casts these politically correct libertarians in an unfavorable light by showing that they are inconsistent in how they react to many topics, including religion. He also cites George Mason University professor Bryan Caplan, who shows that there a huge gap between men and woman on the Myers-Briggs personality test on Thinking/Feeling measures.
Part VIII – Books You May Have Missed
In the next section of the book, Woods reviews recent books he believes to be significant to the libertarian movement. Laurence Vance’s Christianity and War is the first such book, described as “eviscerating the self-justifying nonsense that passes for moral reflection among so many Christian supporters of war”. Vance, although not a pacifist, believes that Evangelicals and other right wing branches of Christianity have developed twisted justifications for pre-emptive war from scripture. This is a lengthy book that handles a number of pro-war arguments from Christians and counters them within a libertarian framework. Vance recognizes that there are legitimate alternative interpretations of the scripture which point to a much less aggressive position on war. Woods notes that there are a number of typos in the 2nd edition of Vance’s book, but they do not detract considerably from the overall message. Vance uses a straight forward style and smashes the Christian arguments for pre-emptive war to bits.
Woods devotes a chapter to the Bill Kauffman book, Ain’t My America which discusses the anti-war conservative tradition and cites names like Russell Kirk, Robert Taft, and James K. Vardaman. These individuals do not fit into the categories typically ascribed to those who are anti-war. They are not leftists, but rather come from a conservative movement that once opposed imperialism abroad. Kauffman dedicates part of the book to the figures of the Anti-Imperialist League, some of whom have been derided for being racists. However, in the grand scheme of things Kauffman views imperialism as a being a greater sin than the racism of that era. Woods praises Kauffman’s book as being one of the first tools he would use in order to transform a neoconservative.
The next book reviewed by Woods is Kevin Gutzman’s James Madison and the Making of America which includes a detailed description of Madison’s role in drafting the Constitution. Although Madison preferred a more nationalist government, he honestly acknowledged that this was not what came out of the ratifying conventions. He stood against Alexander Hamilton’s agenda of a national bank and realized that this action was not justifiable under the Constitution as ratified. Gutzman includes an important account of the Virginia ratifying convention that spells out the understanding by the people that the federal government’s power would be limited. Gutzman also analyzes important entries drafted by Madison in The Federalist.
The final book Woods reviews in Real Dissent is Marco Bassani’s Liberty, State, & Union: The Political Theory of Thomas Jefferson. Bassani uses this scholarly work to defend the view of Jefferson as a man who believed deeply in the natural rights tradition of John Locke. He argues that instead of placing Jefferson in the correct category of a classical liberal, other scholars have attempted to pigeonhole him into “republicanism”, which holds a different view of the revolutionary generation. Bassani argues that this view is largely unsupported by evidence from Jefferson’s writings. He goes on to say that Jefferson spent his entire life reflecting on ways to curtail and oppose the concentration of political power. Woods proclaims that this book by Bassani is an outstanding guide to the real Thomas Jefferson.
Part IX – Talking Liberty – Selected Tom Woods Show Interviews
This section of Real Dissent includes five (5) interviews from the Tom Woods Show, Woods’ daily libertarian podcast covering economic and historical issues. Rather than give specific details from these, I will provide a list of each with a very brief summary of the topic discussed as well as a link for reference. All of these interviews are archived at tomwoods.com.
Episode 100: Are there any Good Arguments for the State?
(Guest: Michael Huemer)
Woods and Huemer discuss whether there are legitimate arguments to be made in favor of the state and the unique political authority they possess. Huemer defends anarcho-capitalism.
Episode 149: The Unfashionable Dissenter: Copperhead, the Movie
(Guest: Bill Kauffman)
Woods and Kauffman talk about the film Copperhead, which tells the story of a boy in Civil War America, and Kauffman’s role in it.
Episode 151: The Myth of the Rule of Law
(Guest: John Hasnas)
Hansas argues that the “rule of law” is not an objective metric by which people are judged but is subject to the various interpretations by those with different presuppositions.
Blog Episode: War and the Fed
(Guest: David Stockman)
Woods and Stockman discuss the relationship between the Fed and the warfare state.
Episode 189: The American Revolution: The Real Issue
(Guest: Kevin Gutzman)
Gutzman and Woods discuss the history of the American Revolution and its true meaning.
Part X – Back to Basics
Tom Woods spends the concluding part of Real Dissent discussing the the basics of the position of classical liberalism. It is important to note that the liberalism being discussed by Woods here is of the classical form and is not related to the current views of liberals in the United States. Woods alludes to the non-aggression principle (NAP) when asking the question: “under what conditions is the initiation of force to be considered legitimate?” He notes that the classical liberal sets a very high threshold to be met before violence can be done to an individual.
Woods discusses the vital contribution of Ludwig von Mises to the classical liberal tradition. Mises wrote about social cooperation and the division of labor as being foundational to human advancement. He saw private property as an essential part of this cooperative system and wrote and spoke out against any coercive means to subvert the market by government. Mises understood that the wealthy are not particularly content under a true free market system, constantly seeking that government protections be enacted or competition restricted to protect their positions. He understood that reason and logic and what underpins the libertarian position, and these should never be abandoned for appeals to emotion.
In Real Dissent, Tom Woods runs the gamut on libertarian topics, discussing everything from war propaganda to the Fed and early banking panics. His arguments are well constructed in these writings and he rarely stays on what he calls “the index card of allowable opinion”. Instead, he opts to get to the truth of the matter with real, core arguments carefully crafted within a libertarian framework. This is a book that can be read and easily understood by libertarians and non-libertarians alike, although the later will undoubtedly find Woods’ work to be controversial. Woods realizes the need for revisionism in the study of history due to the strong pro-government bias that ends up permeating textbooks. Real Dissent is a great collection of writings and an excellent resource for libertarians or those interested in the libertarian position.