Brian Doherty. Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement. New York: PublicAffairs, 2007.
I saw this book several years ago in a public library. At least I think it was this book—-I know that I saw some history of libertarianism. I wanted to read it because the topic interested me, but I was not sure if I wanted to make a commitment to reading over 700 pages. Well, I finally read it. And I am glad that I read it.
The book primarily focuses on the history of American libertarianism from the New Deal period to the time that the book was written. The author sometimes discusses events before the New Deal, as when he goes into the backgrounds of the libertarian figures he profiles, or has a chapter detailing the history of support for limited government from Confucian and biblical times through the founding days of America. Because the book was published in 2007, there are significant aspects of libertarianism’s history that are not there. The Tea Party movement was not yet prominent, and Rand Paul had not yet become a Senator.
The book was excellent in detailing the diverse approaches and personalities within the libertarian movement. Libertarianism has been far from monolithic. It ranges from those who believe in complete anarchy, to those who want to confine the government’s role to defense and/or protection, and even to a few who support some social safety net (I think here of Hayek). Some are purists and lament that libertarianism’s growing popularity and access to power have diluted the libertarian message, whereas others are more realistic politically. Many libertarians liked Barry Goldwater in 1964 because Goldwater was popularizing the libertarian message of less government, but there were libertarians who felt that Goldwater did not go far enough and that some of the things that he supported actually coincided with more government power rather than less. One prominent libertarian criticized Goldwater’s support for right-to-work laws, for who is the government to step in and forbid businesses from setting up a closed shop if that is what the employers and employees want? This libertarian also criticized Goldwater’s hawkish Cold War stance and support for the military-industrial complex. While some libertarians (i.e., Ayn Rand) were supportive of the Cold War and military buildup, many were not. They questioned whether the Soviet Union indeed had an expansionist agenda, feared growing state power in America more than the Soviet Union, believed that war negatively augmented the power of the U.S. Government, and alienated the hawkish American right while building bridges with the anti-war Left.
You may have heard of Austrian economics and Milton Friedman’s Chicago school. They are different. Ludwig von Mises, an Austrian economist, focused on the decisions of consumers rather than macro-economics and math; he believed that state planning was unhelpful to the economy because it did not efficiently distribute resources to where they needed to be, whereas the free market would demonstrate what people wanted and were willing to buy. Hayek looked more at social trends. And Friedman’s focus was more on macro-economics and monetary supply. I should also mention that Friedman was instrumental in convincing President Richard Nixon to end the draft, and that there were libertarians who believed that Friedman was not libertarian enough (i.e., Friedman supported educational vouchers, whereas many libertarians did not believe that the government should give students money to attend the school of their choice).
The book also detailed the personalities within libertarianism. These include Mises, Hayek, Friedman, Ayn Rand, Murray Rothbard, Rose Wilder Lane (the daughter of Little House author Laura Ingalls Wilder), the infamous Koch brothers, John Stossell, Neal Boortz, and the list goes on. I was not always clear as to why some of these people became libertarians, but Doherty was effective in describing how people saw them and what happened in their life story.
In terms of policy issues, the book did a good job in its discussion of libertarian stances on environmental issues. There are libertarians who question doomsday scenarios because they encourage a greater role for the government, but there are also libertarians who maintain that government promotes pollution and that the free market can reduce it. The government allows pollution in common areas (i.e., water) because it believes some of it is necessary for economic growth, but suppose we did not have that and people could sue polluting companies. (Of course, these libertarians support a court system, whereas some believe the court system should be private, and that people should pay to use it!) Would that encourage those companies to come up with cleaner technology? The book talked some about the issue of poverty and how libertarians tried to come up with a private social safety net, but I wish that the book addressed that more. The book also could have used a discussion of libertarian proposals regarding health care. I cringe when I read libertarians describe those who receive government assistance as takers or as moochers, but I am happy when they try to come up with ways to help society’s vulnerable.
The book also gave me background about other books I was wondering about. When I was in high school, I was doing a project with some students, and we went to someone’s uncle’s house. On his uncle’s bookshelf was John Bircher material, but also a book entitled The Roosevelt Myth, a book that was critical of President Franklin Roosevelt. Well, I learned from Radicals for Capitalism that The Roosevelt Myth was written by John Flynn. I found the book!
Doherty’s book talked some about the question of whether big industrialists finance the libertarian movement because libertarian policies would further their economic interests, albeit not as much as I liked. My impression is that Doherty was arguing that certain industrialists simply had an interest in libertarianism (as one might be interested in stamp collecting), even if their own interests (i.e., protective tariffs, crony capitalism) did not always coincide with libertarian ideology. There may be something to that, but could it be the case that they support libertarianism while expecting the parts of it that are conducive to their economic interests to become policy, while the more eccentric parts (or parts contrary to their interests) do not?
I myself am not a libertarian, for I am not absolutist in my beliefs regarding the government’s role. I support the social safety net, and I am open to national health insurance. I do not believe that government always does things poorly, or that the private sector always does things well. I do believe, however, that libertarianism raises important considerations: the importance of competition, the need to make sure the government does not infringe on personal liberty, areas in which government policies make matters worse rather than better, how crony capitalism is evil, etc.
Good book. I should also mention that the author had an ironic sense of humor, which is another factor that made the book worth reading.