- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 10, 2007


By Brian Doherty

PublicAffairs, $35, 768 pages


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.”

Economists played a leading role in promoting libertarian ideas. Mr. Doherty writes: “the ideas that could explain, in ruthless but glorious scientific logic, why state intervention in people’s economic affairs was counterproductive if wealth, efficiency, and freedom were your values, were imported to America by a pair of old-world Austrians, Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich A. Hayek.”

Advocates of the so-called Austrian school backed free markets but disdained detailed mathematical modeling. Mises criticized socialism, noting that economic calculation is impossible without prices. Hayek penned the phenomenally successful “The Road to Serfdom” and won the Nobel Prize in economics.

Another Nobel laureate was Milton Friedman, who died last November. Friedman was a vaunted controversialist, writing “Capitalism and Freedom” and “Free to Choose” (with his wife, Rose), as well as a long-running Newsweek column.

Murray Rothbard was less academic economist and more indefatigable activist, a small, plump man whose savage pen belied his cheerful disposition. He was “the man known by many in the 1970s and 1980s as ‘Mr. Libertarian,’” writes Mr. Doherty.

Even less ecumenical was Ayn Rand, the autocratic, eccentric author whose novels, most notably “Atlas Shrugged,” drew many people toward libertarianism. However, Rand tolerated no dissent and excommunicated many of her closest followers.

Anyone favoring stories of the Keystone Cops will enjoy Mr. Doherty’s account of the Libertarian Party, which enjoyed its greatest presidential success in 1980. Destructive battles over philosophy and strategy soon led the Party toward obscurity. Other libertarian institutions disappeared entirely, such as the Volker Fund, the Freedom School and Libertarian Review and Inquiry magazines.

But new groups arose. Reason magazine, Mr. Doherty’s employer, has evolved into the leading libertarian periodical. The Cato Institute (with which the reviewer was long associated) began in 1977 and has become one of the top think tanks. A plethora of other groups, from the Competitive Enterprise Institute to the Institute for Justice, now actively promotes libertarian ideas in the political and legal processes.

How to assess the impact of the libertarian movement? Even libertarians disagree. Writes Mr. Doherty: “The sort of short-term policy successes, or near successes, that the likes of Cato had with Social Security or the Reason Foundation has had with municipal privatization and influencing transportation policy and becoming serious players in state and local government reform strike some radical libertarians as barely worth celebrating.”

Nor is the story over. “The eventual victory of liberty is inevitable, because only liberty is functional for modern man,” argued Rothbard.

Mr. Doherty closes his book with this optimistic quotation. But even if libertarians eventually triumph, they will not be satisfied. If “Radicals for Capitalism” is any guide, they will still find abundant reasons to argue amongst themselves.

Doug Bandow is Vice President of Policy for Citizen Outreach and the author of “Leviathan Unchained: Washington’s Bipartisan Big Government Consensus” (forthcoming, Xulon Press).

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