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Radicals for Capitalism
A Freewheeling History Of The Modern Libertarian Movement
By Brian Doherty
HC, 768 pg. US$35
ISBN: 1-5864-8350-1

It began in the Nineteenth Century

By Daniel M. Ryan
web posted February February 12, 2007

Radicals for CapitalismDespite the complaints by early libertarians, it's actually a good thing that libertarianism has been shoved out the door by modern liberalism. Classical liberalism, as we know it, was rooted in eighteenth-century mechanistic analogies, and often smiled on an enlightened Crown. The former blind spot proved to be the Achilles Heel of classical liberalism, as liberals felt a need, thanks to that tradition of theirs, to "keep up with progress" by letting in Social Darwinism. It was Social Darwinism that proved to be the beginning of the end of the liberals' staunch defense of minimal government. "Survival of the fittest," despite attempts by proto-libertarians such as Herbert Spencer and William Graham Sumner to mesh it with minimal government, proved to be more fitting for a policy of continual government intervention, to "improve the race." The current love affair between liberals and social democrats is, in large part, fueled by guilt over the consequences of the earlier marriage between liberalism and Social Darwinism. And, as is usual, the conservatives were blamed for it all. The parcel-passing is easy to detect if you put together what liberals cast the conservative movement as; we seem to be the only group on Earth who are simultaneously creationists and hard Darwinists.

Libertarianism has a completely different theoretical worldview, hence it is deserving of a distinct name for itself. If there is any "science" that is the intellectual backbone of libertarianism, it is economics, of a specific kind: one that eschews any rote borrowing of methodologies from the physical sciences. Libertarianism is humanist in a way that liberalism never was.

Brian Doherty has produced an engaging history of the libertarian movement, the kind of tale that may make you wish you were there at the time. Although he pays attention to the nineteenth-century antecedents of modern libertarianism, most of his narrative discusses the movement in its post-New-Deal phase. In doing so, he's done a largely comprehensive job, up to the point where he fills in certain holes. One of the more interesting unearthed historical lacunae is the revelation of a full-blown LSD cult surfacing amongst the Faith and Freedom worthies in California, in the early 1960s, which explains a certain affiliation between libertarians and the counterculture.

There are colorful characters in this book. Doherty is the first libertarian I know to devote more than a brief mention of a well-known character by the name of Andy Galambos, a Californian. If you read the book, you'll be surprised when you learn which prominent libertarians were Galambosian. He ain't the only character, either; keep a close eye on Robert LeFevre.

There are other, more activistic, characters in the book, such as Karl Hess, who went from hard Goldwaterism right over to left-wing socialism as the ‘60s turned into the ‘70s, and then retreated to a more quietist kind of antigovernment stand, one probably inspired by his income tax resistance. Since libertarianism is primarily an intellectual movement, though, the spotlight is reserved for those with colourful ideas – ones somewhat more mainstream than Galambos'.

Every libertarian intellectual of note is discussed here, and several of them whose works have been forgotten. Ayn Rand; Isabel Paterson; Murray N. Rothbard; Milton Friedman, with mention of David; Ludwig von Mises; Friedrich von Hayek; and, quite a few others. One long-neglected thinker mentioned by Doherty is Rose Wilder Lane. Her libertarianism encompassed the frontier dweller's sometimes-chosen right to be lazy, provided that he or she was self-supporting while being so.

It isn't just the suppliers of ideas that are discussed, either. Doherty devotes a lot of effort to unveiling the goings-on in the distribution end of libertarianism, primarily in the Foundation for Economic Education, headed for decades by Leonard Read. His strategy of distributing pamphlets and books, free for the asking with simple and parable-driven message in the bulk of them, proved to be the entry point for many a libertarian thinker who would otherwise have languished in obscurity, and for many a kid who wound up libertarian. Doherty also spends some time discussing the workings of the Volker Fund, another source of desperately needed funding for struggling libertarian scholars in the 1950s and early 1960s. When it wound down in 1962, libertarians were left largely on their own until the Koch brothers, also discussed in the book, filled the gap. Another colorful figure included in Doherty's work is R.C. Hoiles, anarchistic proprietor of the notorious Santa Ana (now Orange County) Register.

As is usual with a history of this kind, there are certain questions that are prompted by the book's overall comprehensiveness. Doherty did not include Persuasion, a short-lived libertarian magazine endorsed by Ayn Rand in the 1960s. Undoubtedly, other periodicals, characters, and events were not included either. You may find out what they are by tracking down the complaints that will accompany the spread of this book. ESR

Daniel M. Ryan is a regular columnist for LewRockwell.com, and has an undamaged mail address here.

Buy Radicals for Capitalism at Amazon.com for only $23.10 (34% off)

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