Radicals for Capitalism

The New York Times reviews Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement. The review has met objections from many libertarians, and a discussion of their objections can be found at Cato-at-Liberty. I have not read the book yet and therefore cannot comment on some aspects of this disagreement, but I found it interesting enough to point out. There are also some aspects which could be commented upon based upon these articles.

Take any group which is out of the mainstream have a major newspaper write about them and I can virtually guarantee there will be factual errors. In addition to true factual errors, there will also be aspects many will disagree with when there is a wide variety of individuals such as exists in the libertarian movement. While there are many lines in the review which I can understand why libertarians would object to, there are also many comments which show the influence of libertarian ideas.

While describing some of the odd aspects of the group surrounding Ayn Rand, which many libertarians would agree with, reviewer David Leonhardt also states, “the group left a deep imprint on the culture in the years to come.” Examples of that “deep imprint” are then discussed, such as the impact of Alan Greenspan and Martin Anderson. Moving beyond the influence of Rand, Leonhardt writes, “The story of the American libertarian movement, like the story of its most famous salon, has been a combination of small numbers and big influence.” Leonhardt recognizes the impact of libertarianism on current politics in writing:

In the nearly three decades since, libertarian arguments have enjoyed a nice run. Tax rates have been reduced; once-regulated industries have been opened to competition; any two consenting adults, including those of the same sex, can now marry in some places. One of today’s most fashionable political labels, “socially liberal and fiscally conservative,” Doherty shrewdly notes, is “the basic libertarian mix.”

David Boaz of Cato objects to the statement that, “Libertarianism has its roots in the writings of a pair of major 20th-century Austrian economists, Ludwig von Mises and F. A. Hayek.” This is an oversimplification, but not entirely false. Boaz writes:

Key libertarian ideas emerged out of the struggles for religious freedom in the late Roman Empire, the Middle Ages, and the early modern period. American libertarianism certainly finds its roots in an earlier period than Mises and Hayek: the American Revolution, abolitionism, the fight against imperialism, war, and prohibition.

There certainly are influences on the libertarian movement beyond von Mises and Hayek. Libertarian articles and blogs often include discussion of the thoughts of a wide variety of intellectual of the 1800’s and other eras which are unknown to most people.

Libertarianism stems from more than just a belief in laissez-faire capitalism, but it is also understandable that many outsiders would see this as the defining view. While many libertarians have spoken out against the war and other abuses of the Bush administration, libertarians all too often portray themselves more as advocates of eliminating taxes and restrictions on business, and their other beliefs in freedom often appear like a footnote. I’m not saying that this is what they believe, but that this is the impression that they give to others, as many view libertarians simply as “Republicans who have smoked marijuana”. This emphasis on economics is even stressed by the title of Radicals for Capitalism, making it understandable that Leonhardt would concentrate on the intellectual ties to von Mises and Hayek.

While Boaz is correct that libertarianism has ties in past fights for religious freedom, the American Revolution, abolitionism, and other battles for freedom, the problem is that these are not as directly linked specifically to the libertarian movement. Liberalism also has roots in the same battles for freedom, and to differentiate libertarianism from liberalism it is correct to note the libertarian’s movements roots in following the works of von Mises and Hayek.

Boaz is correct on the minor point that Reason and not The Freeman would be seen as a “flagship” magazine of the libertarian movement. Incidentally, among those objecting to the review include Radley Balko who defends his Reaon colleague Brian Doherty, author of Radicals for Capitalism, at The Agitator.

It is probably the description of the book itself and not the comments on the libertarian movement which are most troubling to libertarians:

Most of the rest deals with minor figures and faction fights. Doherty, a senior editor at Reason magazine, acknowledges he has written “an insider’s history,” but it is also a sloppily written history. In a single chapter, Milton Friedman is described both as an active writer at Stanford University and, accurately, as deceased. And almost everything about “Radicals for Capitalism” is too long: the terms (“Popperian falsificationist”), the sentences that sometimes run more than 100 words, and the book itself, at more than 700 pages. Evidently, its editor also had libertarian tendencies.

The discrepancy on Milton Friedman is understandable considering that Friedman died just prior to the book going to press. It would have been preferable if this was corrected in all references to him, but such an error is hardly critical. The conflict over the length of the book depends upon how the book is seen, and is understandable considering that The New York Times and Cato have different audiences and perspectives.

To libertarians at Cato it makes sense to have a thorough review which includes minor figures and all aspects of the libertarian movement, especially as there is such limited documentation of this history in other books. However, this makes the book better suited for the libraries of libertarians than for the typical reader of The New York Times. Regardless of its virtues, I doubt that the typical person who uses The New York Times’s Sunday Book Review would be interested in a book of over 700 pages on the more obscure factions of the libertarian movement.

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