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Freedom Movement: Radicals for Capitalism

  • Radicals for Capitalism by Brian Doherty
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05/31/2007Doug French

Books about libertarianism don't often make the mainstream radar screen. Ask any libertarian writer how hard it is to find a publisher, let alone have a book reviewed so that the typical New York Times-reading book buyer might be enlightened as to their book's existence.

Brian Doherty suffered no such anonymity with Radicals For Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement. Not only did the Gray Lady weigh in on Doherty's tome, but the Wall Street Journal did as well. The author is a senior editor with Reason magazine and, reportedly, he worked on the book for five years. The effort shows.

The result is not only a book of considerable heft — 741 pages, including more than 90 pages of footnotes and a surprisingly poor and incomplete index — but likely it will be considered the go-to reference on the libertarian movement for years to come. Seemingly, no one is completely happy with the book in libertarian circles. However, for those familiar with the movement, this means the author accomplished his goal.

The book is written around the five major catalysts for libertarianism: Ludwig von Mises, F.A. Hayek, Ayn Rand, Milton Friedman, and Murray Rothbard. When I first heard about the book last summer from Jeffrey Tucker at the Mises Institute, I expected a book solely about those five. After all, the author had spent weeks just in the Rothbard archives at Mises doing research. How could there be room for much else?

Turns out Doherty makes plenty of room to talk about the many characters and influences that have created a very diverse and more-than-a-little-divisive libertarian movement. The brilliance of the book is the author's seamless inclusion of the many entrepreneurs, academics, writers, philosophers, industrialists, and just plain-old people who pushed the freedom movement to where it is today. And for those of us in the middle of it who wonder sometimes if we, and those who've influenced us, have really made any sort of difference in the grand scheme of things, Doherty reminds us that we have.

One of the genuine heroes of the movement who the book enlightened me to is R.C. Hoiles. It should have occurred to me sooner that a courageous man was behind a very libertarian daily newspaper being published from the middle of liberal California: the Orange County Register. As Doherty describes, "Orange County became known, to a large degree thanks to Hoiles himself, as 'nut country,' the hotbed of the rightest of the right wing."

"Any time a man has to pay for something he does not want because of the initiating of force by the government, he is, to that degree, a slave," Hoiles wrote. Now that's my kind of guy, and the fact that he owned a newspaper with all the pressures of making advertisers happy to keep the presses running is heroic.

"Hoiles was an earthy and simple man and a notorious union-busting anarchist cuss," writes Doherty, "who'd thrust himself into picket lines surrounding his property to tell the union boys why they were all wet." Just learning about the late Mr. Hoiles is worth the price of the book.

Leonard Read was another who devoted his life and considerable entrepreneurial skills to the freedom movement, creating the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE). Read believed that all that needed to be done was to educate the American public about free-market economics and that freedom would take hold once again. The charismatic, handsome Read raised millions to spread the word through publications like The Freeman, and along the way rivaled Wilt Chamberlain in the conquest department.

Thankfully, Doherty doesn't dwell on the oft-told Ayn Rand cult episode, and his work on Mises and Hayek is solid. Unfortunately, Doherty gushes profusely over, by far, the least libertarian of the group, Milton Friedman, claiming that Friedman has had the most influence. But he told Bill Steigerwald, of Human Events, that Murray Rothbard was his favorite of the five. "Rothbard, in one way, was the most distinctly libertarian of the libertarians," Doherty said in an interview. "He really had his hands in every aspect of the story, was such a colorful and fun writer, and was so bracing in his radicalism, that I found him the most fun to contemplate of all those figures."

Despite the publicity, Radicals For Capitalism is written for libertarians by a libertarian, and, unfortunately, it is unlikely to advance the freedom movement as much as the radicals whose stories it tells.

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