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Books and Culture

Paul Beston
Freedom Fighters
Brian Doherty’s comprehensive guide to American libertarianism
20 April 2007

Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement, by Brian Doherty (Public Affairs, 768 pp., $35)

In 1969, at the annual convention of an organization passionately committed to political change in America, tensions between radicals and traditionalists ran high. The traditionalists tended to be buttoned down, with shorter hair, and they felt protective of their movement’s ideas and the responsible exercise of them. The radicals announced their rebellious attitude with clothing, hairstyles, speeches, and—infamously—with a burning of mock draft cards. A schism opened in the movement that remains to this day.

If you think this episode is the 1969 conference of Students for a Democratic Society, when radicals split the caucus—some later forming the bomb-wielding Weathermen—think again. In Brian Doherty’s Radicals for Capitalism, it’s one of the decade’s much less noted, but nonetheless important, ruptures: the gathering in St. Louis of Young Americans for Freedom, where traditionalist conservatives clashed with hard-core and in some cases anarchistic libertarians. The conflict emblematized the libertarian movement’s essential character: passionate about ideas, skeptical of compromise, and willing to be unpopular in defense of principle.

Doherty, a senior editor of Reason, has written what should be the standard intellectual history of libertarianism for many years to come. Most laymen can probably offer a reasonably accurate definition of libertarianism’s core premises: maximum personal and economic liberty, so long as it’s not harming others, with government power restricted to such functions as defense or the administration of justice (though not all libertarians concede even those). But Doherty’s history makes clear that libertarianism is a political philosophy anchored in a robust intellectual tradition.

His examination of that tradition is both comprehensive and insightful. He traces the American roots of libertarianism to Thomas Jefferson himself, and along the way reintroduces nineteenth-century figures like Lysander Spooner, who viewed the state as inherently evil and at one point set up his own alternate post office, which Congress proceeded to shut down. The main focus, however, is on the movement’s leading twentieth-century figures. For Doherty, there is a Big Five: the Austrian economists Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek, who provided highly influential theoretical defenses of free-market economics as well as devastating critiques of socialism; Milton Friedman, whose work has had the most direct and visible influence on public policy, from abolishing the draft to exchange rates; Ayn Rand, the most pervasive libertarian cultural influence through the millions of novels she has sold worldwide; and Murray Rothbard, by far the least well known of the group, advocate of anarcho-capitalism and, for Doherty, “the most uniquely and characteristically libertarian of libertarians.”

The intellectual positions that Doherty documents can be a bit airy—for example, the insistence by adherents of the Austrian school of economics that the logic of free markets and smaller government was self-evident, requiring no scientific or historical data to prove. General readers will likely sympathize more with the rigorously empirical Chicago school, anchored in Friedman’s belief that an economist’s job was to discover what worked. They may feel closer still to Rand’s argument that the main justification for free markets, smaller government, and individual liberty was neither logical nor empirical, but moral.

Doherty calls his book a “freewheeling history,” but it can also be an overwhelming one. He devotes an extraordinary amount of space to the inner workings, personal infighting, and financial struggles of obscure (if influential) libertarian organizations. In providing partisans with their bible, Doherty occasionally anesthetizes general readers with abundant detail.

Fortunately, Doherty’s clear, wry prose lightens the sometimes leaden subject matter, especially when he delves into the personalities behind libertarianism. And what a crew! Doherty examines the movement’s many odd detours and eccentric characters, including the briefly influential Joseph Galambos, a professor who considered his ideas “primary property” for which he was to be reimbursed, even if they merely came up in conversation. There’s Karl Hess, who, while remaining a libertarian, somehow journeyed from Old Right to New Left, in the process taking on the appearance of a revolutionary, including a Castro-like beard that led one observer to dub him “the field marshal of the revolution.” There are plentiful spiritual seekers as well, like the lawyer for a libertarian advocacy group who had a sudden religious illumination, decided he was possessed by the spirit of his dead daughter, and adopted (shades of Prince decades later) a glyph as his new identity.

For sheer weirdness, though, it’s hard to top the inner circle of Rand’s Objectivists in the 1960s. Their “implicit premises,” according to Nathaniel Branden, her designated intellectual heir, included the following:

“Ayn Rand is the greatest human being who has ever lived.

Atlas Shrugged is the greatest human achievement in the history of the world.

“Ayn Rand, by virtue of her philosophical genius, is the supreme arbiter in any issue pertaining to what is rational, moral, or appropriate to man’s life on earth. . . .

“No one can be a good Objectivist who does not admire what Ayn Rand admires and condemn what Ayn Rand condemns.”

Radicals for Capitalism evokes a similarly comprehensive treatment of American conservatives, George Nash’s Conservative Intellectual Movement in America since 1945. Nash’s book has several advantages over Doherty’s: he does a better job of situating his intellectual subjects against the backdrop of historical events like the Cold War, Vietnam, the War on Poverty, and 1970s stagflation, while with Doherty, we often feel a bit untethered from the external world. And Nash’s history forms a dramatic narrative arc, culminating with Ronald Reagan’s 1980 election and conservatism’s subsequent political success.

The conservative narrative also has the Cold War to recommend it, which happens to be the greatest fault line between libertarians and conservatives in the decades before the fall of the Soviet Union. William F. Buckley’s National Review led the intellectual charge against Soviet communism; on the libertarian side, many argued against U.S. interventionism abroad and fretted over the domestic cost of anticommunism. Libertarian objections to conservative hawkishness were best encapsulated by Leonard Read: “Communism or socialism—or the same thing, state interventionism here at home—is a philosophy to be despised and explained away. It is not a military threat to be feared and shot away.” Murray Rothbard even went as far as pinning the blame for the Cold War on America. For conservatives and libertarians of all stripes, the current war on terror has sounded distinct echoes of the earlier dispute.

If conservatives have been more successful in gaining political power, libertarian ideas have nevertheless exerted enormous influence. As Doherty’s epilogue makes clear, American society has changed in many ways that libertarians can applaud: a global economy in which people can access, and spend, their assets from almost any point on the map; a social climate more tolerant of difference and personal choice than could ever have been imagined; and a tax structure that, while still oppressive, is at least taking much less from citizens than it did half a century ago. While some libertarian ideas—such as Rothbard’s concept of private security companies to replace national defense—will probably always be difficult for nonlibertarians to accept, in other areas the movement’s principles may be very much in line with the demands of our age. Doherty provides a compelling exposition of free-market environmentalism, for example, in which property rights and the price system would be the driving forces in environmental policy, rather than government mandates.

Because of the longstanding American ambivalence about government power—complaining about taxes and regulatory intrusion but expecting the government to do quite a lot nonetheless—it is likely that libertarian ideas will never fully eclipse statism, but that statists will to continue to coopt and adapt those ideas. Which isn’t such a terrible thing; Doherty is fair-minded enough to concede that “despite the megastate, life for most in the West is grand and in most ways getting better.” Whether a life of material prosperity and individual freedoms translates to spiritual contentment, let alone wisdom, for the majority of people is another question entirely.

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