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.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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At points it feels unnecessarily long (I sometimes fell like I am getting a too detailed account of the history of the libertarian movement), but on the other hand it is interesting to learn about what went on behind the scenes: the rivalries and alliances, the friendships and betrayals. And of course, as a libertarian, it is interesting for me to learn about the moral character of the thinkers who have influenced me. How they treated their friends, and more importantly, how they treated the ones who disagreed and defied them. It seems to me that, according to Doherty's account, a lot of the current divisions in the libertarian movement can be traced back to bilateral falling outs.
It is at that point that the story really picks up. For also in 1943, three remarkable women, Isabel Paterson, Rose Wilder Lane and Ayn Rand each published works that would rally believers in individual liberty. The following year, Frederick Hayek would publish "The Road to Serfdom" and the battle against government control would begin. Doherty makes many stops along the way, addressing the many disparate strands that are American libertarianism. From the respectable businessmen who joined the Foundation for Economic Education, to the students at the Freedom School, to the anarchism of Murray Rothbard, the radicalism of Karl Hess and the back to the land movement, Doherty shows the characters, the freewheeling, and the backstabbing.
While the term libertarian is still somewhat loaded, thanks to the sometimes strange people that inhibit the Libertarian Party, Doherty also shows how libertarianism has gone mainstream. While early Austrian economists Mises and Hayek had trouble finding academic berths in the United States, the "Chicago School" has built a network of academics. Milton Freidman advised presidents and one of his disciples now sits as head of the Federal Reserve (ironic as Friedman wanted to abolish the Federal Reserve). Whereas in the early 1960s, libertarian ideas were often passed around in mimeographed newsletters, today, it is discussed in libertarian think tanks and in glossy magazines.
Doherty really did his homework. Much of the book contains personal remembrances gleaned from an incredible number of interviews conducted over about 10 years. And as the book comes to present day, Doherty, an editor at Reason Magazine and connected with many modern libertarian organizations, takes on a very conversational tone.
In short, the book is well researched, easy to read and fun. I highly recommend it.
And god help you if you happened to dissent from the prevailing orthodoxy. Academically and politically, advocates of ideas that used to be the prevailing philosophy of the nation were treated as if they were troglodytes. And, as World War II dawned, the prospects for freedom seemed dim indeed.
That, roughly, is where the story begins in Brian Doherty's Radicals For Capitalism, a massive 700 page history of the libertarian movement in the United States. As would be expected, Doherty gives plenty of coverage to the intellectual giants of libertarian thought whose names should be familiar to most contemporary libertarians -- Hayek, Mises, Rand, and Rothbard -- as well as plenty of the lesser-known names who have contributed to the growth of libertarian ideas and the libertarian movement. Since most of us weren't around during those days, it's valuable to learn how we got to where we are today.
As with any good history, Doherty's book also teaches a lesson or two.
First, as he points out in the concluding chapter of his book, there is tendency among libertarians to believe in the worst of all possible outcomes, and a failure to recognize just how much progress toward human liberty has been made in the past 50 years or so. Before the libertarian movement came into it's own, American males were drafted into the armed forces when the turned 18, marginal tax rates exceeded 70 percent, Americans were legally forbidden from owning gold in any form other than jewelry, airline travel was heavily regulated by the FAA to the point where consumer choice was virtually non-existent, and socialism in one form or another was on the march throughout the world.
All that's gone now, in part thanks to the ideas put forward and the world done by libertarians. Are things perfect ? Of course not, but they're better than they have been, and they're better here than most other places in the world.
Instead of recognizing progress, though, libertarians seem to wallow in gloom-and-doom and seem especially susceptible to some of the far-right scams that suggest people who disagree with libertarian ideas aren't just adversaries, they are enemies out to enslave us, and that the day of gulags in the southwestern desert is just around the corner. More often than not, that leads to rhetoric and policy ideas that, to the average American, sounds just a little nutty -- which is part of the reason that something beyond the waterted-down libertarianism of "fiscally conservative, socially liberal" that, I would submit, most people outside the movement mean when they refer to themselves as libertarian, isn't likely to succeed in the United States in the short term.
If you doubt me, and as Doherty points out, then tell one of these newly-professed libertarians that their philosophy also requires them to advocate legalizing all drugs, legalizing prostitution, closing the public schools, and privatizing the roads and see how long they keep calling themselves libetarians.
The second lesson that can be drawn from Doherty's history is that, partially because of the personalities that have populated the movement and partially because of the philosophy itself, libertarians have always seemed to have a tendency toward infighting and, for lack of a better word, tribalism. Two of the movements greatest philosophers -- Ayn Rand and Murry Rothbard -- were both guilty of banishing people for insufficient orthodoxy, often in a mean-spirited manner. While that may have been a function of two very strong personalities, it's also evident elsewhere in Doherty's book -- for example, there's been almost as much purging and infighting in the Libertarian Party in its 35 years of existence as one would expect to see from a bunch of communists.
And, it's something we still see today.
Libertarians who dissent from what someone perceives to be the accepted orthodoxy on a given issue have been written out of the movement, or subjected to personal attacks, or simply just marginalized even when they're on the same side of an issue. For example, and this is probably an oversimplification, the guys at Lew Rockwell don't like the guys at Cato, even though they're on the same side of the Iraq War issue. At The Liberty Papers, a group blog I contribute to, a post questioning the effectiveness of Ron Paul's Presidential campaign, challenging his ideas or pointing out that someone else happens to be in the lead, draws comments that border on personal attacks, which draw comments in response that border on the same -- all of which accomplishes nothing.
Just as the gloom and doom is unwarranted given that America circa 2007 is indisputably a freer country than America circa 1960 was, the advance of freedom around the world, all of this infighting is ironic considering that libertarians are still, decidedly, a minority in the political system.
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.
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