on June 25, 2007
What a great read! Doherty researched his subject (and subjects) almost exhaustively and gave a sometimes breezy, sometimes dense, all the time entertaining portrait of Libertarianism and its founders. Libertarians (and I count myself as one) who boast that their "time has come" are as deluded as the conspiracy nuts who KNOW that Bush is in cohoots with Osama, Saddam, Jews, Saudis, Nazis, aliens - take your pick. I've always contended that Libertarianism will never be a political force because of the very nature of the philosophy - an anti-collectivist attitude that rejecting the sublimation of the individual to the group that is the hallmark of modern politics. In this Brave New World, everything from bathroom flushes to the size of holes in Swiss cheese is politicized. Incredibly, there are those who argue these issues with the passion of the newly converted - I mark it down to the substitution of ideology for religion.
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.
RADICALS FOR CAPITALISM is a remarkably thorough history of American libertarianism, beginning with the founding of the nation and progressing through modern times. Author Brian Doherty is a libertarian himself, but he is fair and balanced in evaluating the victories, failures, eccentricities, and evolution of the libertarian movement.
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.
on March 2, 2007
Libertarians maintain that every person has sovereign ownership of his or her body and is free in his or her pursuit of life, liberty, and property, as long as they do not interfere with the pursuit of life, liberty, and property of others. This sounds like commonsense to the American ear. In fact our republic, born of the Enlightenment, was based on these principles. The problem, however, comes in when theory is translated into practice. In order to secure those rights and freedoms government intervention is required. Libertarians believe government intervention should be minimal (minarchists), others believe there should be none at all (anarchists).
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.
on February 26, 2007
Brian Doherty has done for twentieth century libertarianism what Tacitus did for first century Rome. He has captured the spirit and the personalities of the major libertarian thinkers of recent times (among them Ayn Rand, Murray Rothbard, Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek, and Ludwig von Mises) and dramatized their lives and ideas in a comprehensive, informative, and entertaining volume of history. Doherty's book covers the philosophy of liberty and individualism as it developed throughout the broad sweep of the last century. For anyone who is interested in learning about the tradition of classical liberalism (free market capitalism and minimal government), RADICALS FOR CAPITALISM is invaluable. Doherty has done an outstanding job of tying together an incredible amount of material in a single volume.
Jerome Tuccille, author, TRUMP, IT USUALLY BEGINS WITH AYN RAND, and other books
on June 23, 2007
Every movement deserves its 700 page history and Brian Doherty has written an outstanding one for the libertarian movement. He focuses on five seminal libertarian thinkers, Ludwig von Mises, Ayn Rand, F.A. Hayek, Murray Rothbard and Milton Friedman, but certainly doesn't ignore the other people who have made the movement so colorful. The book is consistently enlightening and provides biographical details of its major players that I didn't know. And, contrary to those who would rewrite history, Doherty makes it clear that Rand's "Objectivist" movement left a trail of broken lives in its wake, not the least of which was Rand's.
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.
on March 20, 2007
I have waited a lifetime for a quality history of the libertarian movement. Mr. Doherty has succeeded in this endeavour with his latest book.
One of the wonderful aspects of this book is its humour. There are so many truly hilarious moments in this book, that I had to put the book down for several minutes at a time to regain my composure before continuing. This is a refreshing change of pace, as so many fellow libertarians take things entirely too seriously. Mr. Doherty shows us how we have sometimes shot ourselves in the foot by our stoic, uptight attitudes regarding our beloved philosophy.
Since the above information summarises the book adequately, I will offer just a few minor criticisms along with a couple of accolades. On the critical side, I was hoping for more coverage of today's movement (since it will quickly become part of history.) I would have enjoyed more discussion concerning Harry Browne, for example. He solidified my devotion to the modern libertarian movement in many ways. As I mentioned, these are minor points and do not diminish Mr. Doherty's tremendous achievement.
Finally, in praise of the book....the discussions of Rand and Rothbard are sensational. Mr. Doherty strikes a welcome balance in the ongoing Rand debate. He does a good job of "objectively" representing the reality of her existence and her impact. I wanted more of this well-written, fascinating history, and I look forward to more books by Mr. Doherty.
on June 28, 2007
This book is the first comprehensive history of the American libertarian movement, from its roots in the American Revolution, to Ron Paul, Cato and beyond. Along the way, the author looks at 19th Century philosophers whose anarchism was based in a strong belief in individual liberty to the nadir of American individual in the crisis of the Great Depression and the patriotic collectivism of World War Two. In 1943, it seemed that individualism was dead, so much so that the last "classic" individual anarchist, Albert Jay Nock, entitled his autobiography "The Memoirs of a Superfluous Man."
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.
on July 18, 2007
I am not a libertarian. But I do support their stance on certain issues such as being pro-immigration, against military imperialism and for civil liberties, including the legalization of prostitution and drugs. This book is a very thorough and well researched history of the movement. But, at over 600 pages, it is not really for those seeking a brief introduction.
Doherty begins the movement's history with the Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises and proceeds, more or less, chronologically describing key libertarian figures such as F.A. Hayek, Rose Wilder Lane, Ayn Rand, Murray Rothbard and Milton Friedman. Doherty is a senior editor at Reason magazine and thus obviously a libertarian himself. But I found his overall approach to be balanced and he certainly wasn't afraid to describe the personal faults of important libertarian figures. For instance, Ayn Rand comes across as an insufferable egomaniac who turned her Objectivist philosophy movement into something resembling a religious cult (based on the worship of her) before eventually driving away nearly everyone associated with her. On the other hand, I found Murray Rothbard to be a more likable character, at least during his Circle Bastiat days.
Rothbard is also the person who was most involved in bringing libertarian ideas to the radicals of the 1960's. As someone who came of age in the counter-culture, I have always recognized that there was a link between the bohemian's and the libertarian's emphasis on individual freedom. However, the truth is that most politically minded counter-cultural types tend to lean towards a sort of leftist communal anarchism and would probably identify as "radicals against capitalism" instead of "radicals for capitalism". Still I do see some similarties there and will be interested to read another of Doherty's books - "This Is Burning Man: The Rise Of A New American Underground".
In any case, I agree with the previous reviewer that every significant political philosophy deserves it's own written history and this one is very well written, detailed and worthy of being read.
on November 2, 2007
When the 20th Century was still young, things didn't look good at all for the ideas of individual liberty and self-government that had been the spark that lit the American and French Revolutions. Intellectually and politically, collectivism, of both the right and the left, was on the march. In Europe and most of the rest of the world it manifested itself in either the dictatorships of Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, and Franco, or the supposed freedom of "social democracy." In the United States, it manifested itself in a boring New Deal consensus that seemed to accept as inevitable the idea that the state would become more and more involved in the daily lives of it's citizens.
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.
on October 13, 2010
I'm enjoying this book very much, but the Kindle edition contains dozens (if not hundreds) of typographical errors that were presumably introduced during the conversion process to the Kindle's Topaz format. Most of the errors are in the form of ommitted spaces, extra spaces, superfluous hyphens, and misplaced quotation marks. It makes me wonder if there was any human supervision or proofreading involved in the creation of this Kindle edition. This adds frustration to an otherwise pleasurable read.
A good publisher obviously won't tolerate even a few typos in a published book. I don't see why the same care can't be given to ensure an error-free electronic edition. I support the right of publishers to charge whatever they want for e-books, but when a computer file costs thirteen bucks, I would at least hope that it would be a mistake-free e-book.