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
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
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.
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