Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement Paperback – May 27 2008
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From Publishers Weekly
Modern libertarians see themselves as the loyal opposition to the totalitarian tendencies of centralized power, in an American tradition reaching back to the anti-Federalists. Doherty's astute history shows where that consensus comes from and where it fractures along personal, political and practical lines. As a procapitalist and antistatist philosophy, libertarianism has had its greatest impact in economics. But Doherty shows that modern libertarianism since the 1940s, and increasingly since the 1980s, has been politically and ideologically influential, too. Whether believers in a small state regulating only contracts and national defense, or no state at all (like self-described âanarcho-capitalistâ Murray Rothbard), libertarians have rooted themselves in a number of institutions—from schools, publications and think tanks to the Libertarian Party, the country's third-largest ticket. Reason magazine senior editor Doherty conveys an insider's understanding in clear, confident prose. However, his sympathies resist questioning the fundamental assumption uniting diverse ideas, personalities and institutions: the belief in the power of completely unfettered markets to bring about the best possible society. Though partisan and sometimes hagiographic, Doherty's well-researched history avoids polemics in outlining a vital political orientation that cuts across the political spectrum.
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Libertarians are critical thinkers, intelligent and questioning. Even a casual perusal of this work makes that evident. They somehow found the intellectual fortitude to reject the overwhelming majority belief in a nanny State. The movement has the highest percentage of atheists of any political group and yet, for all their smarts, they are constantly battling one another. They can only agree on the broadest and vaguest concepts - non-coercion, limited government, individual and property rights. Maybe it's the absence of the ubiquitious "Vote for me and I'll start a program" politics that voters need. The personalities in the book are heavy hitters - Von Mises, Rand, Rothbard, Hayek, Freidman and then there are all the others - Ron Paul, Popper, Brown, etc. Rand is mainly discussed through her fiction although her non-fiction is almost highlighted. Hayek's advocacy of freedom along with the brilliant but turgid von Mises is contrasted with the almost sunny, public Friedman.
Libertarianism arose in the GOP and it remains almost exclusively in that realm. (Paul says that Republicans were the original Libertarians.) The only "leftist" thread in Libertarianism is the anarchist leaning of some. The Democrat embrace of group rights, the nanny state, high taxes and (until recently) foreign intervention has prevented the rise of any movement from that side. The common thread, the glue that holds the book together is Rothbard. His decades-long search to find his philosophical base was both repelling and fascinating as he switched allegiances, picked fights, protested this or that perceived slight and yet remained in the spotlight. One is suspicious that this was his real goal at times. His claim never to have changed views is absurd and yet his machinations give the book a well-needed "spine" that allows the action to flow chronologically. As in most books about Libertarianism, the subjects of economic and human rights arise since there is a direct correlation between the two.
Doherty strikes a fine balance between theory, biography, gossip and commentary. In many books like this, either the ideology or the personalities receive short shrift. I found the reading incredibly interesting but for others it will be a chore. In the end one is both awed at the human effort that has been expended toward the idea of freedom and saddened that so few seem to grasp those ideas.
Although the book begins with "individual anarchists" who considered themselves part of the worldwide socialist movement of the nineteenth century, Doherty mostly focuses on the post-WWII libertarian movement, which he examines through the lives and thoughts of five eminent figures: Ludwig von Mises, F.A. Hayek, Ayn Rand, Milton Friedman, and Murray Rothbard. This is not to say that these are the only figures dealt with in depth - Rose Wilder Lane, Leonard Read, the Koches, etc. are also surveyed at length - but through the proxy of these five libertarian giants, Doherty does a remarkable job at encapsulating the movement's history.
The dominant themes of this 619-page tome (740 pages in all - but over a hundred pages are in footnotes, the index, etc.) are the external clash between libertarianism and conservatism, and the internal clash between anarchism and minarchism. Conservatives were natural allies of the libertarian movement during the New Deal, but time and time again, they proved to be duplicitous partners. I was surprised to learn that both the National Review and the even more right-wing Human Events were both originally (at least partially) libertarian organs, but were soon purged of independent thought by cold-warrior traditionalists. Especially telling is the 1960s clash between the "trads" and "rads" in the Young Americans for Freedom organization, in which libertarians ("radicals") were violently expelled by the conservatives ("traditionalists").
Within the movement, the dominant conflict is between anarchists - those who think that all government is illegitimate; and minarchists - those who believe in the necessity of a Constitutionally limited government. Going even further is the virulent debate between rights-based libertarians (who believe government is immoral) and utilitarian libertarians (who believe that government doesn't work). Ayn Rand, for example, was a minarchist but she would not tolerate anyone who even made utilitarian arguments - even if they were rights-based thinkers!
Ludwig von Mises is the oldest of the five giants and he influenced Hayek, Rand, and Rothbard. An economist, Mises was a pre-eminent Austrian theorist, a rights-based minarchist, and essentially non-political. He died before libertarians were truly a force in politics.
Rand excommunicated herself from the libertarian movement, called libertarians her "enemies," and was also essentially apolitical.
Murray Rothbard, known as "Mr. Libertarian," was easily the most political of the five giants - and he is also, by far, the least well known outside of the libertarian movement. He voted for Strom Thurmond in 1948, supported Adlai Stevenson in subsequent elections, opposed Goldwater in '64, ended up joining the socialist Peace and Freedom Party in the sixties, ran the billionaire Koches out of the Libertarian Party in the eighties, and ended up a "paleolibertarian" supporting Pat Buchanan in 1992. All the while, he claimed that his views never changed.
Friedman and Hayek, of course, are the most respected libertarians outside of the movement - but not surprisingly, given the movement's crabs-in-a-barrel attitude, many envious libertarians deny them the political distinction. Friedman is easily the most disconnected of the five giants from the others - even beyond Rand. Rand admired Mises and was acquainted with Rothbard. But Friedman's only connection to others in the movement was to his fellow scholar, Hayek. Friedman's Chicago School of economic thought was utilitarian, and he was dismissive of Austrian economics and rights-based moralists.
I picked up this massive book and wondered if I'd ever get through it, but once I began reading it, I couldn't put it down. On a final note, the book is also a wonderful vocabulary builder, as interesting words like Shibboleth, Portentously, Redoubt, Crepuscular, Vitupertation, Atavistic, Limned, Recondite, and Desultory pepper the pages. RADICALS FOR CAPITALISM is a thought-provoking and enjoyable book; one of the best I've read all year.
As other reviewers have noted, perhaps a few too many mistakes crept into this book and there are certainly some questionable judgments, but this is "our history" and all libertarians should be grateful to Mr. Doherty.
Brian Doherty, editor of the libertarian magazine Reason, has written a very long and informative history of the libertarian movement. He focuses, in the first part of his book, on five key thinkers who kept the movement alive during the era of big government - an era which we are still in. Those five were Ludwig von Mises and Freidrich Hayek of the Austrian school of economics, novelist and philospher Ayn Rand, philosopher Murry Rothbard, and economist Milton Friedman.
Libertarianism was actually synonymous with classical liberalism of the 19th century, both advocating minimal government and free market capitalism. In the 20th century, liberalism became identified with the Progressive movement in the US and socialism in Europe. As people began to agitate for "more rights," more government meddling was welcomed. In Europe, coming out of a depression, this led to Nazism in Germany and Communism in the Soviet Union.
The Austrian school was a backlash against these two collectivist movements, which von Mises and Hayek saw as the greatest threat to human liberty. Ayn Rand, who was born in Russia, also witnessed some of the worst excesses of collectivism. Upon coming to US, she became a strident advocate of capitlism; in fact, "radicals for capitalism" was originally her slogan. Likewise the writings of Murry Rothbard and Milton Friedman, though both born in America, were a response to the dangers of big goverment and its threat to freedom and economic development.
Libertarianism sounds like such a sensible philosophy that one wonders why the movement never became politically popular. As Doherty shows in some of his research of the movement's eccentric characters, they were extremely individualistic, and, as such, very dogmatic and uncompromising. One of the libertarian's favorite pastimes, according to Rose Wilder Lane, was showing how other libertarians were not ideologically pure and excommunicating them. It has been said that libertarianism would have worked better if people were different than they are. They made the assumption that human beings are essentially benevolent; however, the behavior of some of its leaders proves otherwise. Doherty seems to relish all the infighting amongst the members, he has endless anecdotes of groups splintering into different factions.
Many libertarians rail against the intrusiveness of the state, yet they remain silent when the state protects their interests. Therein lies the central paradox. The power of the state is necessary to moderate the freedoms of all so that all can be free. The growth of government may be the logical outcome of the libertarianism on which this republic was founded. Doherty has done a wonderful job of showing how this paradox has played out within the movement and how it has contributed greatly to slowing down the growth of government and keeping it humble.
Jerome Tuccille, author, TRUMP, IT USUALLY BEGINS WITH AYN RAND, and other books
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