Rollback: Repealing Big Government Before the Coming Fiscal Collapse

In my occasional discussions with my 22-year-old son about matters political, he often expresses agreement with my general principles, but says he has problems with some of my facts. Mr. Batemarco, meet Dr. Woods. In Rollback, Tom Woods provides the full package: facts galore viewed through the prism of the best theories economics has to offer. Yet neither his facts nor his theories are likely to have as much impact on most readers as the way he frames issues. He replaces the State’s “Newspeak” with shrewd analyses of the moral and economic repercussions of its usurpations.

The book proceeds systematically—laying out the nature and severity of our fiscal crisis in chapter one, contrasting the promises of the State with its actual “achievements” in areas as diverse as job creation, health care, housing, economic stability, and national defense in chapters two through five, illustrating how the government keeps people in thrall by taking credit for benefits generated by private market activity and bribing voters with their own money in chapter six, and finally setting forth potential solutions in chapter seven.

In discussing the results of decades of financial profligacy, Woods maintains that not until the emergence of a crisis that leaves us virtually no alternatives will the country be ready for true reform. With $125 trillion (nine years’ annual GDP) of federal government debt and unfunded liabilities for Social Security and Medicare—and demographic trends leaving fewer and fewer young workers to pay for them—Woods convinces us that this crisis is here now.

Books of this type tend to be strong on identifying problems but short on solutions. Woods recognizes this, downplaying his proposed solutions as mere ideas. That might sound like a cop-out, but it’s not. Here’s why: Until there is a fundamental change in the way people view the State, no proposed solution, however brilliant and grounded in fact, has a chance of being seriously considered. The majority have long seen government as a benevolent, albeit perhaps inefficient, entity that has the common good at heart and, indeed, belongs to us. Woods’s contribution to a real solution is not his specific policy proposals so much as the power of his words to delegitimize this way of thinking about government. Key to this is his claim that there is no moral difference between the State’s legal plunder and the illegal kind.

After laying the groundwork unobtrusively in the first five chapters, he makes this point overtly in chapter six. How can an entity serve the common good when it takes on the task of creating jobs, but hobbles job-creating enterprises with disincentives; when it claims responsibility for high-quality health care, but takes actions that inevitably reduce supplies; when it promises to protect us from monopoly by creating cartels? His answer to these questions: It cannot. What it can do quite well, however, is take credit for all the accomplishments of those who eschew force as a way of generating income, while parasitically feeding off of them.

Many of the ideas Woods offers to lead us out of the morass are radical yet time-tested. Removing legal impediments to transactions using precious metals or other currencies than the dollar would reduce the scope of the deceptively labeled “monetary policy.” Nullification of unconstitutional laws by state legislators and jurors also has a long and little-known history, which the author has done much to make better known in some of his other works. Perhaps his most radical-sounding idea, repudiation of the national debt, seems a bit less radical when one realizes that the most likely alternative is not paying those debts honestly in a timely way, but rather their stealth repudiation through inflation. Indeed, the latter course of action is far more likely, since outright repudiation could have the salutary effect of smashing Americans’ trust in the State for at least a generation, something politicians will try desperately to avoid.

I wish the author had delved further into many issues he merely summarizes. Alas, so many depredations and so little time.

In a book that pulls no punches, it’s disappointing to see such inadvertent lapses as Woods’s description of the State’s commandeering of private property as a zero-sum game, when it’s actually a negative-sum game. Another disappointment is that his proposal to trade tax freedom for no dependence on government programs is restricted to people 65 and over—it is doubtful there would be many takers at an age with so little time left to accumulate enough capital to offset the earnings plundered in their peak earning years.

Those are mere quibbles about an outstanding synthesis. Rollback deserves a wide audience.

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