Real Dissent: A Libertarian Sets Fire to the Index Card of Allowable Opinion by Thomas E. Woods Jr. (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform 2014), 338 pages.
In his foreword to one of Tom Woods’s previous books, former congressman and presidential candidate Ron Paul described him as “one of the libertarian movement’s brightest and most prolific scholars.” Paul mentions his endorsement in the foreword he writes to Woods’s newest book, Real Dissent, and explains how he and Woods have “worked together closely over the years.”
Woods certainly needs no introduction to libertarians. A senior fellow of the Ludwig von Mises Institute who holds degrees from both Harvard and Columbia, Woods has made many television appearances and been a guest on hundreds of radio programs. He has penned a dozen or so books (two of them New York Times bestsellers), edited others or written prefaces, forewords, or introductions to them, contributed to encyclopedias, and been published in dozens of popular and scholarly periodicals. He really burst on the scene in 2004 when he authored The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History.
Real Dissent is Woods’s most radical and most libertarian book. It is also a unique book, since it is a compilation of 54 of his articles published during the period from March 27, 2003, to June 30, 2014. In addition to the foreword by Ron Paul, a brief but important preface and introduction precede the book. The book is divided into ten parts, which are really just chapters, with two to eleven articles in each:
War and Propaganda
Capitalism and Anti-Capitalism
Libertarianism Attacked, and My Replies
Ron Paul and Forbidden Truths
End the Fed
History and Liberty
When Libertarians Go Wrong
Books You May Have Missed
Talking Liberty: Selected Tom Woods Show Interviews
Back to Basics
The parts of the book are quite unequal and the length of the articles ranges considerably. While most of the articles have between four and seven pages, three of them have more than ten pages and six of them comprise just two pages. Owing to the nature of the book, there is no bibliography or index. The book concludes with a very personal afterword, “How I Evaded the Gatekeepers of Approved Opinion,” in which Woods describes the projects he has been working on since his last book: a weekday podcast, an educational website, and the Ron Paul home-school program.
In his preface, Woods explains that “a great many” of the articles in Real Dissent are replies to critics. That is because he feels that answering critics is also “a good opportunity to provide libertarians the intellectual ammunition they need to reply to similar critics when they encounter them.” He believes that the articles he has chosen are some of his “best and punchiest writing.” Most of the articles first appeared on LewRockwell.com, but Woods also credits the Future of Freedom Foundation and the Ludwig von Mises Institute for a number of them. In a few of the articles, Woods adds an italicized preface, explanatory material in brackets, footnotes, or a reference to another article in the book.
In his introduction, Woods states that the articles in the book “challenge the narrow band of opinion that Americans are permitted to occupy.” He describes the “gatekeepers of permissible discussion” — whom he sees on the Left and the Right — as “the thought controllers, the commissars, or the enforcers of approved opinion.” The book is aimed “against them and their attacks.” Woods sees the book as “a match” to set fire to “that index card of allowable opinion.” The introduction also contains a valuable synopsis of what is contained in each part of the book. Here we see that the articles gathered together in Real Dissent include reviews of “some helpful books in the libertarian tradition,” transcripts of interviews conducted by Woods for the Tom Woods Show, a foreword to a new edition of a book by Ludwig von Mises, and an interview he did with the Harvard Political Review.
Conservatism and libertarianism
The best and most important articles included in Real Dissent are those that demolish conservatism and defend libertarianism.
In the very first article in the book, “I Was Fooled by the War-Makers,” Woods relates that he was once “a full-blown neoconservative” who embraced “a neoconservative foreign policy with gusto.” He argues in “Twilight of Conservatism” that we see in the work of “genuine conservative” Robert Nisbet “far more caution about the warfare state than can be found in just about any mainstream conservative organ today.” Unlike modern conservatives today, Nisbet deplored the centralization of power in the federal government, the “grotesque mystique that had come to surround the American presidency,” and war and the military, which he viewed as “among the very worst of the earth’s afflictions.” In “Who’s Conservative,” Woods critiques the “Wilsonianism” of modern “national greatness conservatism.”
Conservative icon Russell Kirk is the subject of “Do Conservatives Hate Their Own Founder?” The anti-interventionist opinions presented by Kirk at a Heritage Foundation conference in 1991 “would never be permitted at Heritage today.” Woods takes on an opponent of Ron Paul’s foreign policy of nonintervention in “The Cult of Reagan, and Other Neoconservative Follies.”
Ronald Reagan has become “the Right’s Obama: a man whose every action is to be treated as ipso facto brilliant, perhaps even divinely inspired.” The foreign policy views of traditional conservatives such as Felix Morley, Angelo Codevilla, Claes Ryn, and Russell Kirk show that opponents of interventionism are not all “left-liberals.” In “Is John Yoo Trying to Deceive?” Woods takes on a particular historical distortion of Yoo, the deputy assistant U.S. attorney under George W. Bush who authored the infamous “torture memos.” Two articles are devoted to refuting the conservative warmonger and talk-show host Mark Levin.
The longest section of Real Dissent is devoted to defending libertarianism against its critics who favor government action over individual action. Here Woods takes on writers for The New York Times, Salon, The Washington Post, Slate, AlterNet, and The Weekly Standard. Part VII, “When Libertarians Go Wrong,” defends libertarianism against “regime libertarians” who, among other things, ridicule and insult the religious beliefs of millions of Americans, “thereby alienating those people from libertarianism.”
Although he is not an economist, Woods does an admirable job in of explaining and defending the free market and correcting the misinformation and misunderstanding that critics of capitalism have about robber barons, monopolies, poverty, capital, labor, the Great Depression, taxation, laissez faire, income inequality, the price system, money, the Federal Reserve, bubbles, and boom-bust cycles.
Given his close association with Ron Paul, it is no surprise that Woods devotes a whole section of Real Dissent to defending the ideas of Ron Paul, especially as they relate to foreign policy.
Other than wishing the book included even more of Woods’s valuable articles, I have only two minor quibbles. There are no page headings to indicate which part of the book you are in or which article you are reading, just the author’s name at the top of left-hand pages and the title of the book on right-hand pages. And although each article has its date of publication printed at the end, the publication in which the article initially appeared is not given.
The articles Woods has collected together in Real Dissent are mostly pithy, sometimes humorous, and always informative. In addition to their purpose as related by Woods in his preface and introduction, they serve as an introduction to the thought of one of libertarianism’s most prolific writers.