The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

November 22, 2017

FEATURE ARTICLES
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Out of Galt’s Gulch
Gregory L. Schneider - 01/25/08

Review of Brian Doherty, Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement New York: Public Affairs, 2007), 741 pp. $35.

A few years ago while doing research in the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library I came across what I believed to be a real coup. One of Hoover’s old advisors and long time friends, Pacific Gas and Electric CEO William Mullendore, was using LSD under the care of a psychiatrist and was sounding a heck of a lot like Timothy Leary while doing it: “LSD steps up our voltage and frequency. To use the new vision thus made available one must be able to ‘plug in,’ ‘get in tune’—to ‘harmonize’ with the new environment which LSD opens up for us to ‘correspond with.’” Wow! A big industrialist using LSD, I thought. No one knows about this.

Turns out I was wrong. For this is just one of a thousand interesting tidbits that Brian Doherty covers in his massively pleasurable history, Radicals for Capitalism. Everything you ever wanted to know about libertarianism (literally)—and some things you didn’t want to know—is covered in this enthralling volume, a book so wide in scope but so lacking in theme and comprehensive thesis that it continually begs the question: What is libertarianism? And what have been its unifying features?

I would be remiss not to say that Doherty has done for libertarianism what George H. Nash did a long time ago for conservatism—he has provided a comprehensive narrative of the history of modern libertarianism. Like Nash’s work, Doherty’s volume is authoritative without being dull and dry. And like Nash’s work, it will produce a spate of graduate dissertations on the topics and subjects that Doherty can only touch on in the 650 pages of text contained in his book.

Doherty, an editor with Reason magazine, is a long time libertarian himself, and Radicals for Capitalism is less a critical and analytical history of the movement than one attempting to chronicle the freewheeling nature of libertarian thought and argument over the course of the twentieth-century. Doherty eschews a strict definition of what constitutes libertarianism in favor of a protean view that allows for a wide range of diverse, often conflicting, ideological visions. “Like obscenity,” Doherty writes, “libertarianism is something I know when I see, and other libertarians feel the same way.” That may be true for those already immersed in the movement’s history and thought, but what about those attempting to understand libertarianism for the first time? Even without a standard definition it is clear that the libertarianism Doherty describes is a “freedom philosophy” concerned with maximizing individual liberty. Rather than exploring the philosophical groundwork for such beliefs, Doherty offers a policy-grounded definition instead, stating that libertarians believe in eliminating drug laws, privatizing Social Security and minimizing (if not eliminating) “warmaking not in direct defense of the homeland.” But this is insufficient, since it could also stand as the policy statement of any number of conservative organizations that do not necessarily think of themselves as libertarian.

Doherty examines the history of libertarianism in the twentieth century by focusing on five crucial figures, three of whom are not really accepted—or did not like being defined—as libertarians. These individuals are Ludwig Von Mises, F. A. Hayek, Ayn Rand, Murray Rothbard, and Milton Friedman. But many other important (and not so important) figures are discussed in the book, including Leonard Read, founder of the Foundation for Economic Education, Charles Koch (head of Wichita-based Koch Industries), Frank Chodorov, Albert Jay Nock, and science fiction author Robert Heinlein, to name only a few.

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