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The Triumph of Libertarianism: Brian Doherty's Radicals for Capitalism

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I've been reading drafts of Brian Doherty's history of modern libertarianism since 1994. Now this remarkable labor of love - winningly titled Radicals for Capitalism, is, at last, complete. And it rocks. Even though I've repeatedly read earlier versions of most of the chapters, I can't put the book down.

What's so great about it?

First, Doherty knows his subject forwards and backwards. He hasn't just fact-checked all the facts; he's theory-checked all the theories. He's a journalist by vocation, but even when he's explaining technical economics, each sentence is accurate.

Second, Doherty is a terrific stylist. We economists spend so much time trying to make our writing clear, we sometimes forget rarer literary virtues like eloquence, wit, and fun. One of the many times I've laughed out loud:

[The members of the anti-New Deal "old right"] were in some ways a new antifederalist movement, as are modern libertarians. These movements are as American as whatever pie Americans gave up in order to choose the apple pie.

Third, whatever your political views, the history of modern libertarianism is a great story. Its early figures were so contrarian and stubborn that it boggles the mind. In the middle of the New Deal, an underground of intellectuals was mad as hell about things like... the existence of public schooling. How did a handful of eccentrics from the '30's, thinkers who were often amazed to learn of any other human being on earth who agreed with them, blossom into the scourge of the blogosphere? (All of which makes me wonder: If the Internet had been around in the '30's, how much sooner would libertarianism have become an idea to be reckoned with?)

A final virtue of Doherty's work is that he fearlessly airs eighty years of dirty libertarian laundry. His affection for most of the figures and ideas he covers is plain. But he never worries about giving ammunition to "the other side." Time and again, Doherty explains a viewpoint of a prominent libertarian, and furrows his brow in puzzlement. Truth is, libertarians have thought, said, and done things we shouldn't be proud of. Though Doherty loves liberty, I'd say that he loves truth more.

P.S. Brian's going to be on C-SPAN2 discussing his book tonight and tomorrow. I'm going to set my DVR now.

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The author at Economic Investigations in a related article titled News of the World #22 writes:
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COMMENTS (9 to date)
Daniel Klein writes:

Nice post. Thanks. I just picked up the book at Barnes and Noble.

Nathan Smith writes:

While we're on the subject of libertarian history, would Barry Goldwater have supported the Iraq War? He told the 1964 Republican convention: "Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue." Sounds a lot like George W. Bush. Ayn Rand also thought that any free country had the right (not the duty) to attack and overthrow any unfree regime.

I've been trying to figure out for a while now whether the "realism" of the Cato Institute is libertarian tradition or an innovation.

Ryan Fazio writes:

Ironically, Mr. Smith, I was just going to mention Ayn Rand. It was Ms. Rand, i beleive, who coined the term 'radical for capitalism'--that is what she identified herself as. And youre right on what you said of her foreign policy views: any free nation is justified in invading an unfree one. But she would also say that it is altruistic (and therefore bad) to go to war unless you are doing so in self defense.

i believe that neither goldwater nor rand would approve of the iraq invasion, but even moreso the way the war was conducted, because it was lazy occupation in the name of democracy rather than a total war for the unconditional surrender of islamists. i believe that both would have supported an overthrow of Iran's government because they are the true ideological and material source of the terrorist threat.

But as to the point of my post, I am not positive, but as i said i believe ayn rand coined the term 'radical for capitalism' and i was wondering whether mr. doherty credited her for that. after all he used it in his title and even if her presidence carries no legal bearing it would only be honest to acknolege the idea did not origionate from his own mind.

new school politics

Wild Pegasus writes:

I believe declaring the triumph of libertarianism is, sadly, rather premature.

- Josh

liberty writes:

"and i was wondering whether mr. doherty credited her for that. after all he used it in his title and even if her presidence carries no legal bearing it would only be honest to acknolege the idea did not origionate from his own mind."

I believe he does. At least thats how it seems from the reviews

Ryan Fazio writes:

thnx for that liberty--great article. i wanted to watch doherty on cspan last night but i got home too late. o well, i guess ill have to buy the looks very cool.

Brian Doherty writes:

I acknowledge Rand's invention of my title phrase on page 15--and possibly elsewhere as well.

Russ writes:

you can view Doherty's After Words interview at

Mike Huben writes:

What Triumph of Libertarianism? Libertarianism used conservative ascendency to pretend that it had some influence. There's never been any evidence that libertarians have increased in number over the past 30 years or so: the closest thing we have to evidence is the recent decrease in Libertarian Party membership.

As for "the scourge of the blogosphere", I cover that in my Libertarianism in One Lesson: "Libertarianism "rules" Internet political debate the same way US Communism "ruled" pamphleteering."

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