Radicals for Capitalism

Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement, by Brian Doherty: Public Affairs, 2007, 732 pages.

reviewed by Dan Clore

This voluminous tome covers in great detail  America's right-wing, free-market and private-property oriented libertarian movement in all of its phases, including Classical Liberalism, the Austrian  and Chicago Schools of economics,  libertarian-leaning conservatism, Objectivism, the Libertarian Party, anarcho-capitalism, agorism, and so forth. With a few caveats, the book can be highly recommended to all interested  as probably the definitive treatment of its subject.

The book is written using an old-fashioned scholarly style that places documentation in endnotes. That is, of course, perfectly acceptable in itself; but Doherty also includes a good deal of text in his endnotes, so that the reader must continually go back and forth between the main text and the notes.

Another caveat concerns the subject as expressed in the volume's title. While the book covers one modern American libertarian movement, this isn't the only modern American libertarian movement, as the title implies. The other modern American libertarian movement is the traditional anarchist movement, the libertarian wing of the socialist movement. Consulting the two-dimensional chart used by The Political Compass should help readers understand my point. Most of the traditional anarchist movement falls in the Libertarian Left quadrant of the Political Compass's chart; most of the libertarian movement covered by Doherty falls in the Libertarian Right quadrant and much of it in the Authoritarian Right quadrant.

This is significant, as the traditional anarchist movement had used the term “libertarian” for itself for about a hundred years before anyone even suggested using the term for the movement that Doherty covers. Doherty hardly mentions the traditional anarchist movement, usually only when it has some direct connection to the Libertarian Right. The anarcho-syndicalist union IWW (Industrial Workers of the World), probably the largest American traditional libertarian group, is barely mentioned. Noam Chomsky, the most prominent libertarian socialist of the last forty years, is only mentioned twice, both times when the Libertarian Right was reaching out to the Left. Of all the traditional anarchist movement, only the individualist/mutualist wing of Josiah Warren, Benjamin Tucker, and Lysander Spooner (which falls toward the center of The Political Compass's Left/Right axis, while the much larger collectivist/communist/syndicalist wing falls on the Left and the anarcho-capitalists on the Right) is treated in any detail.

Caveats about the use of the terms “socialism” and “capitalism” should be adequately addressed by consulting my Nolan Chart column “Socialism and Capitalism“.

Subjects treated at length in the book include individuals such as Albert Jay Nock, Frank Chodorov, Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich von Hayek, Isabel Paterson, Laura Ingalls Wilder's daughter Rose Wilder Lane (I haven't read the works of either Lane or Wilder, but it might be worth noting that as portrayed on the classic TV-series Little House on the Prairie, the town of Walnut Grove has no government of its own — if someone wants a sheriff or judge, they have to send elsewhere for one), Ayn Rand, Nathaniel Branden, Leonard Read, Robert LeFevre, Milton Friedman, David Friedman, Murray Rothbard, Robert Nozick, Thomas Szasz, etc., and institutions such as the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE), the Libertarian Pary, Cato Foundation, Reason magazine, etc.

Doherty tells a “warts and all” story, and there are many amusing parts, such as the account of Andrew Galambos, whose ideas cannot be recounted because he claims ownership over them. Ayn Rand and her Objectivism always make for entertaining reading, what with the bountiful irony of a purported ideology of freedom that starts on grounds that cannot be taken seriously by anyone with a minimal knowledge of science and philosophy, goes on to create a self-sealing belief system that simply discounts any inconvenient empirical facts while considering anyone who dares to disagree as not just mistaken but eeeevil,  and ends with a dogmatic personal authoritarianism that wreaks as much havoc in the lives of its robotized, Randroid followers as any political authoritarianism could hope to.

Given that Doherty does not treat the Libertarian Left, I could find few omissions to complain about in his book.  At first I thought I had a couple good ones to carp over — Milton Friedman's involvement with Chilean dictator Pinochet, and Loompanics Unlimited, but while these are not noted in the index, I did find them in the text. I would have liked more information on Kerry Wendell Thornley, who didn't just peter out into insanity, but produced the excellent book Zenarchy late in his life, and on Robert Anton Wilson, who deserves much more than four pages.

All in all, with its engaging style and wealth of information, I can recommend this book unreservedly to all interested in the Libertarian Right. It will probably remain the definitive account for a long time to come. Regardless of the reader's own ideology (and those on the Libertarian Left will probably not be too pleased with seeing those on the Authoritarian Right , such as free-market conservatives, continually referred to as libertarian), the book should provide an enjoyable, informative experience.

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