Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement
© 2008 Brian Doherty
Libertarianism has been in the news recently: Julian Assange referred to its rising wave in the Republican party as America’s best hope for halting the advance of the police state, and Chris Christie (governor of New Jersey and rumored as a presidential contender in 2016) scoffed at it, causing a bit of a row between him and libertarian-leaning Senator Rand Paul. American libertarianism is distinct in holding as sacred something the first libertarians regard as suspect: property. While historically, libertarianism was born out of the left’s distrust for the state, authority, and coercive power — power created by property and the acquisition of wealth — American libertarianism is more a renaming of classical liberalism, of the idea that the government should stay out of the economy and out of people’s lives. But this survey of American right-libertarianism is not limited to Adam Smith. It is is a work of economics, yes, but realm of thought covered here delves into questions as old as philosophy: what is a person’s proper relationship with other people? This expansive volume, which seeks to do for right-wing libertarianism what Russell Kirk did for conservatism in The Conservative Mind, ranges from the mild, traditional F.A. Hayek to ranting ideologues who dream of being Nietzschean supermen. Although most helpful in summarizing the contributions and sharing the lives of a wide range of individuals, many of whom history has forgotten entirely, its size may scare many off: at 740 pages, it’s no brief read. The author, as a contributor to Reason magazine (“Free Minds and Free Markets”) is wholly sympathetic to his cause, of course, but his being a true believer doesn’t diminish the volume’s value: there is a far wider variety of thought in right-libertarianism than one might expect and Doherty is helpful in analyzing the thoughts of conflicting individuals, discerning their shared beliefs and examining why they later came to oppose one another. Sometimes the narrative wanders into the realm of the obscure, especially when discussing economic esoterica, but Radicals largely lives up the the promise of being “freewheeling”. This is not a question of editing: Radicals isn’t rough around the edges, only written with a deliberate breeziness that seems out of place with the topics being discussed. Referring to “bullshit arguments” and employing ‘natch’ for ‘naturally’ does not inspire confidence in the author’s seriousness.
Radicals for Capitalism briefs readers on the lives of scores of persons, some more significant than others. While Hayek, Ludwig van Mises, and Murray Rothbard are names which get a lot of traffic, ‘furies of liberty’ like Isabel Paterson and Rose Wilder Lane are probably unheard of outside the realm of libertarian historians. The great variety of forceful and opinionated personalities here are generally divided into two groups: economists and philosophers,with some mutual crossover Whatever their focus, all emphasized the importance of property and the rights of the Individual as supreme. The basic ideas are not new, and Doherty accordingly begins with Enlightenment which birthed classical liberalism. Radicals is a history of how these ideas were fleshed out and expressed in the contexts of their time, as well as passed on to other generations. The right-wing libertarian movement, judging by this account, seems to have crystallized around opposition to the New Deal. Most of the book’s action takes place in the middling decades of the 20th century, in which the American public became increasingly comfortable with the rising role of the state in their lives (through Social Security, conscription, federal involvement in mortgages, transportation, and food, etc).
Although the libertarians here often worked together in opposition against the rise of the state, they were hardly monolithic. Some, like Hayek, wrote books debating economic policies, and engaged in weekend conferences and discussion groups (Mont Pelerin Society, Circle Bastiat) to study the problems they faced together, and articulate why they thought government policies ill-considered, others like the Foundation for Economic Education sought to educate the populace more directly, by mailing out pamphlets defending the free market. Some wrote novels with libertarian themes (Rand, Robert Heinlein), and still others — entertainingly — infiltrated the radical student left and tried to convert their energy into furthering the libertarian cause. This book was worth reading just for the idea of staid economists s getting high and then waxing poetic about the beauty of liberty — then ditching their suits for fatigue jackets and wandering into riots to fight the Man. (And then there are the many attempts of libertarians to buy islands and build their own nations, which read like a series of wacky Wile E. Coyote misadventures.) While men like Hayek and Mises advocated a marginal role (at best) for the government in economic matters for various reasons (government influence caused corruption, economies are too complex to plan efficiently or fairly, etc), others like Ayn Rand and Rothbard were libertarians for ideological reasons, to the point that Rand berated Mises for being a socialist because he didn’t condemn government economic involvement for the ‘right’ reasons. The infighting sapped their energy, but theirs is still a cause on the march: Reagan and Bush may have only given lip-service to it by the advocates’ standards, but lovers of the “freedom philosophy” were admitted in the court of presidential politics in the form of Milton Friedman and others Although the Libertarian Party (the history of which is chronicled here) is not presently strong contender for national elections, the 20th century produced influential libertarian think-tanks like the Cato Institute, and the growth of the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street both demonstrate a rising popular contempt for the government’s constant intrusions into their lives and business policies.
Radicals for Capitalism is a book to be considered, if carefully. Doherty doesn’t write to convince: the arguments for libertarian here are not aimed at the reader, but are presented for cross-comparison and examination. Presumably, those willing to read seven hundred pages on a single subject are sympathetic to it to begin with. Those who are interested in learning about the philosophy will find the history worth their while, and be entertained by the unexpected antics of these personalities along the way. This mostly makes up for the grating effect of some of the thinkers featured, like the dazzlingly self-righteous Ayn Rand, who appears early and never seems go away. (Doherty doesn’t seem particularly sympathetic to her, despite the fixation.) Rothbard is another mildly obnoxious star, asserting late in the book that children have no right to expect care from their parents, who are perfectly within their rights to let the little parasitic bastards starve. I was personally impressed by the variety of thought and people featured within the book, and though it grew wearisome, the thoughtful contributions overcame the manic ones, and the book makes it easier to appreciate right-libertarianism as something more than a sinister tool of big business to free itself of restrictions. The men and women chronicled here came by their ideas honestly, they believed them sincerely, and they argued for them passionately. I would still avoid some of them at a dinner party in real life, but an age of bank bailouts and PRISM, even maniacs for liberty can sound sensible. The book would benefit from being a little less freewheeling, and it focuses more on free markets than on civil liberties.
If you want an idea of how across-the-spectrum the book is, RationalWiki’s article on Murray Rothbard is a kind of case study, and is much shorter at one page. (That’s Rational as in part of the modern skeptics movement, not rational as in linked to Reason magazine.)