Tue 6 Mar 2007
Brian Doherty’s 741-page “Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement” was a long time coming, but it is well worth the wait. Doherty says the idea was first suggested to him by Chris Whitten — founder of the much-mourned Free-Market.Net — back in the early 1990s. The decade-plus Doherty took to research and write the book was well spent, because it not only brings to life the visionaries, oddballs and enigmas who built this country’s libertarian movement but it unearths material that is likely to surprise even the old hands. Doherty’s years in the archives at the Foundation for Economic Education, the Hoover Institution, the Institute for Humane Studies and more did not go to waste. The footnotes alone – almost 100 pages — are nearly worth the book’s purchase price!
After a somewhat perfunctory chapter summing up the precursors to America’s modern freedom movement — Jefferson to Nock, more or less — Doherty dives right in with Mises and Hayek as the first two of the five giants he views as having molded 20th-century libertarianism. The other three — Rand, Rothbard and Friedman — come as no surprise and yet Doherty’s decision to frame the book this way was an excellent narrative decision. He drops storylines as appropriate — there’s that 14-year gap between “The Fountainhead” and “Atlas Shrugged,” for example — and picks them up later without so much as a hiccup.
A boatload of other characters come shining through in Doherty’s telling. There’s Leonard Read’s mystic free-marketeering, Robert Lefevre’s peculiar pacifist libertarianism, David Koch’s enigmatic philanthropy, and Karl Hess’s back-to-the-woodshed leave-me-the-hell-aloneism. There is so much more, and Doherty covers it all with grace, color, and evenhandedness. We know Doherty writes for Reason magazine, for example, and not Backwoods Home Magazine, yet he doesn’t obviously pick a dog in the various internecine battles he chronicles.
Nonetheless, he seems to take the most delight in chronicling Murray Rothbard’s never-ending search for a purist cadre of believers who won’t sell out to the allure of mere Friedmanism, all the while searching for a larger political movement through which he could smuggle his brand of anarcho-capitalism.
The book is imperfect, as by nature it must be. Jeff Riggenbach spots a few minor errors at this extensive personal take in Rational Review and says Lefevre is the one person who doesn’t get a fair shake. I, for one, hope future editions include photos of the major players and a corrected index.
“Radicals for Capitalism” is a great read for libertarians, though I’m a little mystified by who else would enjoy reading it. I don’t know enough to say whether political scientists, anthropologists or whomever would find this useful as a study of fringe 20th-century American political movements. But for libertarians, it is not only a fascinating peek into our past but a chin scratcher too.
Doherty bookends his tale with Dubya’s early 2005 push to inject some choice into the Social Security system. To start the book, it’s a sign of how far the libertarian movement has come. Our idea to remake and perhaps eventually remove the New Deal’s tragic legacy was getting a prime-time sales job from a newly re-elected president. How far we had come from the dark days of the Depression when anybody who cared about freedom corresponded with every other person who thought the same. These men and women were out of place and out of time. To close the book, the dismal failure of Dubya’s push — whatever its cause — is a heartening lesson (as if we needed one) of how much farther we have to go.
Still, today, we are looking for a place. We are no longer comfortable with the increasingly theocratic, war-mad, anti-immigrant, big-government right yet uneasy and unwelcome with a left that hikes the minimum wage at first blush and whose leading presidential candidate’s biggest accomplishment by libertarian lights is that she succeeded peerlessly at making the idea of nationalized health care a political dead end.
Doherty ends with a quote from Rothbard, who says libertarians “should remain of good cheer” because “history is on our side.” I am not so optimistic as that, though it is obvious that we ought to take a long view of things if only because the short-term view is too depressing. Each of us American libertarians is lucky to be where we are, when we are. We stand on the shoulders of giants, Doherty’s fine history makes plain. And we have so much work left to do. We might as well whistle while we work.