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Hugh Hewitt Throws a Tantrum About the Austrian School (and Much More)

By: Ryan McMaken

In an oddly jumbled article for the Washington Post, Hugh Hewitt last week somehow managed to group together both opponents of the Export-Import Bank and supporters of so-called sanctuary cities as enemies of the “rule of law.” 

Nevermind, of course, that the arguments againt the Ex-Im bank and the arguments for sanctuary cities have nothing in common. Hewitt, however, faced with the opportunity to attack his enemies in WaPo decided he’d find some way to mash them all together as targets for his attack. 

First, he goes after those who oppose untrammeled federal power by nullifying federal laws at the local level, and he throws in the states that have legalized marijuana use for good measure: “Sanctuary cities and marijuana legalization statutes are examples of local and state governments ignoring federal law,” Hewitt says. 

RELATED: “Immigration: The Left Again Embraces Nullification of Federal Laws

Much to Hewitt’s consternation, federal attempts at rounding up immigrants and drug users alike are being confounded by the refusals of locals to expend their own tax dollars to do the bidding of federal police. This is all to be blamed on “the general idea — spreading like kudzu — that duly enacted laws can be ignored by federal, state and local officials when inconvenient to the perceived ‘will of the people.'”

Hewitt says that like it’s a bad thing, but he also throws in a little unintentional comedy when he states that he only real concern here is the preservation of “constitutional government.” Hewitt conveniently forgets to mention that federal laws against marijuana are clearly unconstitutional in the first place. 

RELATED: “When Nullification Works, and When it Doesn’t

Then Hewitt gets even more odd. 

Hewitt Against the Austrian School

He goes on to accuse the opponents of the Export-Import bank of being in the same boat as those who nullify federal law because they have used the bank’s own institutional rules to prevent the approval of numerous deals spreading around billions in corporate welfare. 

And who’s to blame for this unforgivable opposition to the Ex-Im’s cronyism? Apparently, it’s the Austrian economists. Hewitt sneeringly writes: 

Then there is Ex-Im. A small slice of conservatives — the sort who enjoy “Hayek/von Mises” cruises on the Danube — hate the bank with a passion. Most ordinary Americans don’t know what Ex-Im is, while most of those who do say that of course the U.S. government should use “export credits” — subsidies — to favor U.S. companies fighting for international business against foreign competitors backed by their own governments’ subsidies. Ex-Im levels a lopsided international trading field. It operated for decades — in the black, without controversy — until purists decided they needed a ritual sacrifice to the Austrian school. They fought hard to kill Ex-Im. Fine. That’s their right. But they lost. And it wasn’t close.

Hewitt, it seems, is angry that not only have some followers of the Austrian school managed to raise some opposition to the Ex-Im Bank, but now they’re availing themselves of other avenues in opposing the bank’s ongoing corporate favoritism. 

And again, Hewitt manages to come down in favor of subsidies and cushy government loans, presumably in the name of — yet again —  “constitutional government.” If Hewitt will kindly cite which section of Article I of the US constitution authorizes anything like the Ex-Im Bank, perhaps he can win over some of those conservatives he so clearly despises. 

Until then, it seems, Hewitt will continue to throw in with trade experts such as Hillary Clinton and Harry Reid who demanded that the bank be re-authorized in 2015 lest too much freedom in trade “cost tens of thousands of American jobs.”

Is Federal Law Supreme Always

The answer to all of this inconvenient anti-federal opposition, Hewitt contends, is simply more obedience to the federal state. Says Hewitt: 

[S]tate and local governments should obey federal law on every subject. (It is not called the “supremacy clause” of the Constitution for nothing.) You can’t call yourself a conservative if you don’t stand with the Constitution over your personal preferences. I’m not sure you can even brand yourself a good citizen if you view the laws of the land like choices on a menu.

It’s unknown how many supporters of legalized marijuana or readers of Ludwig von Mises consider themselves to be “conservative,” so the relevance of such a claim remains unclear. 

What we do know, however, is that we’ve heard absolutist claims like Hewitt’s before, especially during the mid-19th and late-18th century controversies over the Fugitive Slave Acts and the Alien and Sedition Acts. When we examine Hewitt’s arguments, we find they would have been heard quite regularly in 1855 when the slave-drivers of old were demanding that federal agents come down hard on citizens and policymakers who refused to comply with federal acts in regards to slavery. 

It was, of course, the pro-slavery South Carolinians who complained bitterly that northerners were refusing to enforce federal laws and that “an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery, has led to a disregard of their obligations, and the laws of the General Government have ceased to effect the objects of the Constitution.” 

Hewitt merely updates this argument for modern ears, stating: The answer, of course, is to apply the federal law as passed — in every case — and for the president and the Justice Department to insist on it… Do we really want government, at any level, to pick and choose which of the Constitution’s provisions will apply today?”

Some readers might claim I’m indulging in a reductio ad hitlerum of sorts, and many will protest that “surely Hewitt would not support slavery.” Yes, Hewitt’s modern-day position does not equate to support to slavery precisely because the modern constitution outlaws slavery. However, it is also true that Hewitt’s absolutist position does necessitate condemnation of the people who were courageous enough to refuse to enforce pro-slavery laws when they were the so-called “law of the land.” And, by extension, anyone who today employs the methods of the abolitionists is equally guilty. Thus, if the central government rounds up, say, all citizens of a certain ethnic group and send them to internment camps, no state or city or community could refused to assist the federal kidnappers. Similarly, if the federal government were to demand that American citizens be imprisoned and fined for criticizing the government — as happened under the Alien and Sedition Acts — anyone who attempted to disregard such laws (as did Thomas Jefferson) would be no better than a promoter of  “lawless obstructionism.” 

To Hewitt’s credit, he seems blissfully unaware of all American history that occurred before the Obama Administration. He seems to have never even considered the issue of how refusals to enforce federal laws were obviously the correct and moral position in many cases over the course of American history. 

Perhaps this casual relationship with history explains Hewitt’s most absurd statement of all in his column when he concludes “Let’s stick with the Constitution. It has worked since 1789.”

Although Hewitt has conveniently forgotten about it, more adroit students of history might remember the 1860s as one period when the US Constitution failed spectacularly. 

But then again, perhaps this proves Hewitt’s point. Conflict over enforcement of federal slavery laws clearly played a part in the unfolding of the crisis we now know as the Civil War. Perhaps those who opposed slavery should simply have followed Hewitt’s demands, rounded up escaped slaves, and returned them to lifelong bondage on plantations. After all, why follow your conscience when you can obey federal law?

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