Nullification: Federalism, Societal Innovation, and the Church


Historian Thomas E. Woods has a new book out titled Nullification: How to Resist Federal Tyranny in the 21st Century, in which he argues for a return to the Jeffersonian idea of nullification.

For those who are unfamiliar with nullification, Christopher Oppermann provides a good description in his review of the book:

The concept of nullification is simple, yet powerful: That individual states can and should refuse to enforce unconstitutional federal laws; and that the states, not the federal government, should have the final word on constitutional interpretation.

If you’re interested in learning more about Woods’ perspective, I recommend watching his interview with Jeffrey Tucker (courtesy of the Mises Blog):

I have yet to read the book, so for now I’d simply like to use this as a springboard for discussing the merits of federalism when it comes to societal innovation.

Woods’ primary argument for nullification is that it provides a check on the federal government, but nullification can also enhance competition among the states.

As an example, Woods points to Virginia and Kentucky’s nullification of the Alien and Sedition Acts. In this case, the argument for nullification was that the acts were in violation of the First Amendment. Even though nearly every Northern state disagreed with Virginia and Kentucky, nullification allowed them to take a different (and I would say, correct) approach to free speech. In retrospect, the acts are now largely seen as unconstitutional, even though they expired before they could reach the Supreme Court.

The general point is this: When we are allowed to compete at local levels — in both economic and social policymaking — it is much easier to correctly identify what works and what doesn’t, and thus we are better equipped to innovate when it comes to societal governance.

But let’s move away from the Constitution for a moment. Within the last century of American history, we’ve seen an increasing amount of federal intrusion into matters of morality (and I would argue, spirituality). Whether we’re talking about wealth redistribution or any number of social policies, we have continuously seen domineering majorities suffocate the voices of diverse locales.

This isn’t to say that the federal government (or some other majority) won’t get it right sometimes. But what happens when it doesn’t?

Having local competition in matters of public policy will lead to innovative steps among the very cultures that such policies impact. Effective solutions will not only become more evident, but local populations will be much more empowered to actually shape the policies that define their world.

I have thus far been speaking from an entirely secular standpoint, but I also think it’s important to consider what an extremely federalist society would imply for the Church.

Nullification by Thomas E. WoodsChristians have been one of many groups that have rallied to impose their moral views from a federal standpoint (George W. Bush comes to mind). But I would argue that such efforts are unpersuasive at best, and unbiblical at worst.

To put it plainly, force is not the answer if we are looking to build a genuine and faithful Christian culture. If we are serious about reaching the Lost and changing lives, we need to enable and empower Christian individuals on the ground. Once we do that, a real Christian culture can emerge and the Church will actually be able to effectively compete with whatever the world has to offer.

In a truly free society, the actions and beliefs of Christian individuals would be more transparent, and I am confident that when seen accurately, such actions and beliefs would handily win the so-called “culture wars” without government assistance.

If we are looking for sweeping cultural transformation, it is not going to happen from the top down. Radical federalism is a promising tool for empowering individuals, and nullification seems like a great place to start.

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