I’m very happy that my copy of Rollback arrived today. It is a very different book from what you would expect. Once again, Thomas Woods dealt with a publisher that packaged his book for a particular niche market but if you pay attention to the packaging, you miss the substance. In this case, and probably once again, the target is the Tea Party. But the substance? This is the book that tracks its target like a hound on the chase, and the prey is the central government and the myths that surround it. In some way, I really do hope that Tea Party people buy it. They will leave this book much enlightened, changed, and even radicalized.
This book is certainly going to make most readers uncomfortable and that’s all to the good. It takes on both liberal and conservative conventions and their habits of mind. The objective of the work is dramatically ambitious but never quite stated outright. I would describe it this way: Woods works with relentless precision, like an intellectual surgeon, to convince the reader that the government is not what it says (the source of security, prosperity, peace, justice, health) it is but is rather the opposite and thereby we can and should do without it precisely in the name of promoting security, prosperity, peace justice, and health.
He strives to completely lift the veil that covers the state, and he does so not through rhetorical bombast or libertarian theorizing but through careful, fact-filled argumentation on the issues that most people think about.
The success of the book owes something to its extremely creative organization. He begins with the general theme and jumps straight into the big issues that are being debated right now. So the first target is health care, and here he goes back to the beginning of government involvement and takes us straight up to the present, showing that the entire sector is half-socialized as it is and it is precisely because of this that there are so many problems. Then he demonstrates the gross error of proceeding further down the socialist path, and argues for repealing the existing apparatus, not in the way that Republicans are imagining but in a way that goes beyond what anyone in public life is willing to say.
This sets up the model for the book, and this model is then applied to the economic stimulus packages and counter-cyclical policies the government has used to deal with the great recession. Here we see the full Austrian perspective in glorious display. This pattern is extended to the chapter on the Fed, which ends up being a sweeping attack on all forms of central banking and government monetary policy.
From here we move into the surprising area that is sadly neglected in reformist literature: the military. He treats the bureaucracies, programs, and policies as another species of interventionist practice, no different in its operations, dynamics, and effects than any other government program. It lives parasitically off the productivity of the people, draining capital and killing innovation, plus wrecking lives. He adds an interesting twist here by demonstrating that there does exist an anti-militarist strain within American conservative thought; his goal here is simply to extend and apply that strain.
After this, we come to the real meat of the book, and the most challenging part. Woods debunks the myth of good government and makes clear that the goal of all reform must not be to make government work better but to disengage it completely from society and economic life. Whereas the previous sections might have educated many readers on facts that they did not know, this section, the largest of the book, deals with the core of the American civic religion. This is also where the scales being to fall from the eyes. His point is that there is nothing that the government does that improves our lives relative to how freedom might handle the same issue, that there is nothing that needs to be done in society that freedom cannot do better than bureaucracies. Now, obviously, this section represents a dramatic departure from every political convention. It takes us out of the framework of “limiting government” and into the area of radical freedom.
The value added here relative to a philosophical book on anarchism are the specifics that are up to the minute in current affairs. He puts meat on the theoretical bones of the case for living without government. We might say that this is the people’s case for orderly anarchism. It is for this reason that Rollback isn’t really the right word, in fact. It is really about eliminating the federal government as we know it. In this sense, the book is rather mind blowing.
Woods draws on every resource, and the best resources too, to make the case, and never shrinks from taking on the really hard issues. He is a serious scholar with an editor’s strategic sense. He knows what issues to discuss and he knows the best arguments to explain them from the point of view of freedom. In so doing on issue after issue, he helps the reader imagine life without power. With his thousands of specifics, he demonstrates that radical liberty is not just a beautiful theory; it is a beautiful and essential practice. I can easily see this book as this generation’s Common Sense: a book that enlightens and emboldens people to see the practical urgency of liberty in our times and in our world.