Behind the Lines: Israeli Libertarian

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Radicals for Capitalism: Brian Doherty and the Past of the Libertarian Movement

These days, my friends often give me books for my birthday. And my last birthday was no different. A very good friend of mine gave me two books – one was a history of the Goldwater Presidential candidacy, and the other – Bryan Doherty's "Radicals for Capitalism", a history of the modern American libertarian movement. It was a hefty hardcover book, with 150 of its 750 pages dedicated to indexes and bibliographies. And yet, it turned out to be not just an informative – but a singularly informative read.

Bryan Doherty is an employee of the Cato Institute – one of the few libertarian political institutions that made it into the political mainstream, and has been in the past endorsed by such figureheads of the status quo as Greenspan, Bernanke, and even the (in)famous Rupert Murdoch. Many libertarians have derided the Cato Institute as a group of "Beltway libertarians", "sell-outs", and what-have-you. And yet – at least on the pages of "Radicals" – Doherty does not return fire.

The book describes with sympathy – if not always with total agreement – the various figures of the libertarian movement, from such titans as Lysander Spooner, Robert Nozick, and Ayn Rand to the more obscure Raymond Hoiles, Isabel Paterson, and Andre Marrou. He describes the personal habits of libertarian figures as well as their work – always with a smile, sometimes sympathethic, sometimes ironic, but without any hostility to any of them. And while he's at it, he always provides a bibliographic reference to their work – so if you're done reading the works of all the bigshots like Rand and Nozick, this book can be your guide to an entire world of reading.

That is not to say that this book is entirely uncritical. Doherty details the rise and fall of the United States Libertarian Party (and yes, it had a rise), the habits of Ayn Rand's close circle, and even dedicates page after page of his book to quote critics of his very own Cato Institute. He is always sympathethic to all libertarians – and yet, he finds himself too mature to fawn over anyone, even his own team.

The book is the only academic history of the modern libertarian movement, and as such there is no other work to which it can be honestly compared. But despite that, several judgements can already be passed on it. It is both easily readable – to be attractive not only to the scholar but to the every day leader. If you're a libertarian who wants to know more about the origins of the movement, "Radicals" is a good place to start. If you are an opponent of libertarianism, the book is again a good place to read up about the nature of the movement -
Doherty writes no agitprop.

Regardless of who you are, if you are interested in politics today, "Radicals for Capitalism" is a compelling read. It tells of a small group of dedicated political outsiders who, after decades of work, have slowly wormed their way into the political mainstream. Sure, today's America is light-years away from the ideal of the Founding Fathers – but it's also been steered a far way from the welfarist paradise FDR and his faithful had in mind – and Doherty's book gives a very fair insight about the role the libertarian movement played in this shift.

Boris Karpa is an Israeli libertarian activist and political columnist. He can be contacted at or