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A Magazine of Ideas

Perfectionists for Freedom

Monday, February 5, 2007

Brian Doherty’s new history finds that each libertarian is unhappy in his own way.

Radicals for CapitalismRadicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement, by Brian Doherty (PublicAffairs, February, 2007)

Libertarians—people who think the proper role of government is to defend property rights and public safety, and little else—would seem to have reason to be cheerful these days. Many more of the world’s people have political and economic freedom today than did 50 years ago; formerly Communist countries boast flat taxes. In the United States, industries from banking to airlines to telecom have been deregulated. Marginal tax rates are well below their peaks; no one is likely to try widespread price controls again. More Americans are working for themselves, implying that barriers to entrepreneurship have fallen to negligible. And the venue of many of the newest businesses—the Internet—is a libertarian’s dream. Online, people have nearly infinite choice of products and lifestyles. They largely self-regulate.

But are libertarians happy? Hardly. Some “consider the Constitution itself … a betrayal of America’s tradition of decentralized liberty,” notes Brian Doherty in his sprawling Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement. Don’t get them started on the recent Kelo Supreme Court decision, or No Child Left Behind. 

Libertarians have made tremendous strides in the “pursuit of happiness” over the years. But you get the sense, reading Radicals for Capitalism, that at any given time three-quarters of the movement felt the world was going to hell in a handbasket. Doherty, a senior editor at Reason, describes the movement’s heroes with reverence, from Ludwig von Mises to F.A. Hayek, Ayn Rand to Milton Friedman. Though many of its leading lights were born elsewhere, libertarianism has always been a quintessentially American movement; its heroes are people who chose to become American because this country was founded on freedom from government interference. Yet an unwillingness to admit, much less celebrate, progress has been a defining characteristic of the modern libertarian movement.

Libertarianism—not unlike communism—might work better if people were different than they are.

Doherty traces this wearying perennial pique to two problems. First, it is hard to build a movement out of people who march to their own drummers. Changing the world often involves changing institutions. That necessitates the kinds of compromises libertarians take great glee in ferreting out like “dead rats” in a cherry pie, to use libertarian author Rose Wilder Lane’s phrase. “Many a movement libertarian’s favorite pastime is reading others out of the movement for various perceived ideological crimes,” Doherty observes. Moreover, because libertarians earn legitimacy by being more radical than the next guy, they have a tendency to tweak people in a way that precludes mainstream acceptance. Newspaper magnate Raymond Cyrus Hoiles used to delight in telling audiences that he preferred whorehouses, which were voluntary, to public schools, which were not.

Doherty observes that Hoiles in fact sent his own children to public schools (and, one presumes, not to whorehouses). That contradiction reflects the second problem, which is that libertarianism—not unlike communism—might work better if people were different than they are. Many Americans are eager to rail against the power of the state, but few people—libertarians included—can muster much criticism of state power that furthers their own interests.

This near-universal hypocrisy has meant that libertarian progress comes in fits and starts. Hearty yeoman farmers complain about taxes while lobbying for farm subsidies. American voters demanded an end to welfare, perceived as giving money to poor black people, while Social Security and Medicare, which give money to (politically influential) old white people, expand unchecked. Americans value religion and tradition—at least their own religions and traditions—so attempts to legalize drug use and prostitution go nowhere. The fact that middle-class white Americans are seldom incarcerated for these infractions only adds another bee to the libertarian bonnet. And the greatest indignity? Libertarians have to beg for those hypocrites’ votes in order to achieve any results at all.

Doherty recounts the history of this tension between ideological purity and necessary compromise in absorbing detail. We learn that one Lysander Spooner tried to launch a private mail company in 1844 (it was driven out of business by Congress). Ayn Rand, author of The Fountainhead, made a “standing offer” to vet all Foundation for Economic Education publications for dogmatic soundness. She then went apoplectic when Milton Friedman wrote that rent control was inefficient, because he didn’t call it immoral as well. Edward Crane ran for student government president at Berkeley on the platform of… abolishing student government.

Like many weighty movement histories—Taylor Branch’s books come to mind—Radicals for Capitalism sometimes gets bogged down in the particulars. Doherty could have left out the hundredth round of movement infighting at one think tank or another in, say, 1973, with no loss to the story. And while it’s clear that Doherty, bless him, truly loves words, after a while the liberal usage of such bons mots as “synecdoche” and “limn” start to grate like the tales of infighting.

Largely, though, Radicals for Capitalism maintains its momentum, illuminating a quintessentially American story that has not yet found the audience it deserves. Doherty’s fascinating and, indeed, freewheeling history reminds us that curmudgeonly people can shape the world too—even if they never quite work themselves out of their snit.