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RADICALS FOR CAPITALISM: A FREEWHEELING HISTORY OF THE MODERN AMERICAN LIBERTARIAN MOVEMENT

By Brian Doherty

PublicAffairs, $35, 768 pages

REVIEWED BY DOUG BANDOW

There’s something about the libertarian philosophy that seems to bring out the curmudgeonly best in people. Fascinating characters fill “Radicals for Capitalism,” Brian Doherty’s history of modern libertarianism.

Mr. Doherty, an able researcher and writer, has produced a book that is not just readable but enjoyable. Mr. Doherty’s evident passion for his subject makes the book sparkle.

What is libertarianism? Explains Mr. Doherty, its “policy prescriptions are based on a simple idea with very complicated repercussions: Government, if it has any purpose at all (and many libertarians doubt it does), should be restricted to the protection of its citizens’ persons and property against direct violence and theft.” Radical though these sentiments may seem, they mirror attitudes common at the time of America’s founding.

Nevertheless, Mr. Doherty adds: “By extending individual liberty into radical areas of sex, drugs, and science (no restrictions on stem cell research, cloning, or nanotech), libertarianism is the most future looking of American ideologies. It sells the promise of a world mankind hasn’t yet fully known, with personal liberty limited only by preventing damage to other people or their property.”

Drawing on classical liberal and Whiggish thought in Great Britain, the American colonists spoke often of liberty and property. Libertarians often turn to Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, and Thomas Paine, author of “Common Sense.” The political influence of libertarian thought became attenuated in the 1800s, though elements of individualism and decentralism were evident in Jacksonian democracy as well as abolitionism.

Mr. Doherty devotes the bulk of his book to the modern libertarian movement, beginning around the New Deal. The differences among libertarians were almost as important as their areas of agreement. “Many a movement libertarian’s favorite pastime is reading others out of the movement for various perceived ideological crimes,” he notes. These battles — philosophical, political, personal — fill “Radicals for Capitalism.”

One early libertarian was idiosyncratic journalist Albert Jay Nock who, writes Mr. Doherty, “did possess one of the most important constitutive elements of the old right/protolibertarian temperament: a contempt for Franklin Roosevelt bordering on bloody hatred.”

Leonard Read founded the Foundation for Economic Education, America’s oldest free-market think tank, in 1946. Journalist Henry Hazlitt wrote wrote the classic economics text “Economics in One Lesson,” which FEE distributed. Felix Morley wrote for the Washington Post and then helped found Human Events, a conservative flagship today.

Robert LeFevre established the Freedom School in Colorado, an unconventional enterprise many libertarians passed through, either as students or lecturers.

Raymond Cyrus Hoiles created the Freedom newspaper chain, which remains avowedly libertarian. Observes Mr. Doherty: “If Hoiles hated anything worse than unions, it was public schools (though his own children attended them). He preferred whorehouses, which, he’d point out, were voluntary, while public schools were not.”

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