Mises Review

Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement, by Brian Doherty

The Mises Review

Mises Review 13, No. 4 (Winter 2007)

Brian Doherty
Public Affairs, 2007, x + 741 pgs.

This is going to be an unfair review — I hope readers will not say to themselves, “as usual.” Brian Doherty has done a remarkable amount of research for his book, which endeavors to present a comprehensive history of American libertarianism. No one can read this book without learning a great deal. If you want to know about Leonard Read’s mystical experiences or how effectively Andrew Joseph Galambos taught, this is the book to read. Doherty, furthermore, has not confined the book to a recital of personalities and events. He has immersed himself in libertarian theory and manifests a gift for explaining complex issues in simple language. Readers new to the subject will get an excellent preliminary understanding of, e.g., Austrian economics, the Chicago School, and Ayn Rand’s egoistic ethics and its critics. I propose, though, to concentrate on a problem that mars the book.

In undertaking a survey of libertarianism, two divergent approaches suggest themselves. One can adopt a particular view of correct libertarian doctrine. A certain variety of libertarianism, e.g., Rothbardian anarchism, can be taken as “libertarianism rightly so called”[1]: other varieties will be assessed by the extent of their deviations from the favored position.

One might, by contrast, confine oneself to a description of all the various sorts of views that claim to be libertarian. Here only points that all, or nearly all, self-professed libertarians accept will be deemed essential to the concept of libertarianism. If someone takes this approach, he may very well hold strong opinions of his own about correct doctrine; but these will play no role in how he structures his account. Opinions he believes vital may appear as optional, if some libertarians reject them.

An example from another field will clarify what I have in mind. Someone writing a study of comparative religion might well classify belief in God as optional rather than part of the definition of religion, owing to the fact that some types of Buddhism reject belief in God. A student of religion who proceeded along this path could with entire consistency be a firm believer in God.

Thus, one cannot much fault Doherty when he says:

These days, war revisionism is ignored by most mainstream libertarian institutions. Arguing against the Leviathan state seems far enough beyond the pale to trouble yourself further by linking with such lost causes as arguing that America should not have entered World War II or even the milder version, that Roosevelt’s means for getting us into it were underhanded, antidemocratic, and antirepublican in the real, not partisan, sense. Nowadays, only some writers associated with the Ludwig von Mises Institute and the libertarian-run website Antiwar.com are apt to link libertarianism and revisionism. (p. 63)

From my own Rothbardian perspective, opposition to war is central to libertarianism, not a sideshow; but, once more, if Doherty wishes to write a descriptive survey, he is free to do so. He is quite right that some who consider themselves libertarians reject revisionism. Even here, though, a shadow of doubt on Doherty’s method begins to form. What exactly counts as a “mainstream” libertarian organization? Doherty keeps his criteria of selection to himself nor does he tell us why the Mises Institute fails to meet them. We shall see the problem of the mainstream reemerge in another context. Why, further, is the issue of war revisionism a lost cause? Again, he does not tell us. He might, by the way, benefit from reading Josiah Royce on the value of belief in lost causes.

The essential problem with the way Doherty has organized his material does not lie in a quarrel over details. Rather, the difficulty is this. He does not always follow the descriptive methodology sketched above. Sometimes, his own ideas of the essence of libertarianism intrude on his presentation. But because he does not openly defend a point of view, readers will find it hard to challenge him. He oscillates between the two interpretative approaches I have mentioned, though the descriptive method occupies by far the larger place.[2]

An example or two will show what I have in mind. Doherty begins his book with a paean to the plans of the Cato Institute to “privatize” Social Security.

A group of intellectuals and activists had long seen the need for an escape route from the Social Security system and had offered a solution two decades before most American politicians or citizens realized that a crisis was coming…. One way to rescue America from the potential fiscal wreckage of Social Security, said the libertarians at Cato [Institute], was to give citizens personal control over their own savings and their own retirement. Let them keep at least a portion of their own money to invest however they thought best (in a nod toward political reality, the modern Cato plan would limit the choices of what private investments citizens could make with Social Security money) rather than force them into a complicated and doomed pyramid scheme…. (pp. 1–2)

Doherty treats the Cato plan as if it were completely noncontroversial among libertarians. Quite the contrary, some libertarians view with alarm schemes to “privatize” Social Security that require vast increases in government spending in the transition period to the new system. The work of John Attarian, Social Security: False Consciousness and Crisis (Transaction, 2002) is especially noteworthy in this regard.[3] My point here is not to urge the superior merits of Attarian’s analysis over Cato’s, though I indeed think that Attarian is right. Rather, Doherty has without discussion insinuated his own view of the question as the libertarian position. Behind ostensible description lies concealed interpretation.

Again, in a manner that will delight Mrs. Virginia Postrel, Doherty remarks:

Advances in technology have made possible new wired worlds where governments might be unnecessary, new biological abilities have expanded our potential power over ourselves and our environments to almost godlike status. We may even be on the cusp of creating new societies off the surface of the planet itself. (p. 4)

Though he does later mention in passing Rothbard’s criticism of “space cadets,” he does not elaborate. The unwary reader would not guess that technological Titanism is not a universal feature of libertarianism. It is a particular point of view, again insinuated as part of a libertarian consensus when it is not.[4]

The gravamen of my complaint against Doherty concerns his treatment of the space cadets’ antagonist, Murray Rothbard. Doherty considers Rothbard one of the five thinkers who “form the spine of the story this book tells, five people without whom there would have been no uniquely libertarian ideas or libertarian institutions of any popularity or impact in America in the second half of the twentieth century” (p. 8). (The other four are Mises, Hayek, Rand, and Friedman.) He is by no means hostile to Rothbard. Quite the contrary, he praises him for embodying “the purest form of the libertarian political philosophy” (p. 569).

But he leaves the impression that the “mainstream” — again, that blessed word! — of libertarianism has passed Rothbard by; and, as always, he does not tell us why the persons he cites form part of this mainstream. He says that Robert Poole “sums up the most charitable [sic] current assessment of Rothbard in most mainstream libertarian institutions outside the Mises Institute…” (p. 567). Poole’s assessment is that although Rothbard “was important, particularly in the 1970s” and one “had to respect his energy, his intellect, his skill with words, and some aspects of his vision,” nevertheless “I [Poole] thought then [in the 70s] and thought more as time went on that he was a very divisive figure and a negative influence” (p. 567). So much for charity. I do not think it altogether a coincidence that the person Doherty here selects to represent mainstream opinion, Robert Poole, is the founder of the Reason Foundation, which publishes the journal for which Doherty works as an editor.

A number of the assessments of Rothbard that Doherty offers stress his influence but the dominant opinion conveyed is that he is a past figure who has put himself aside by his extremism and contentiousness. If Doherty confined himself to quoting people who held this view, one could not object: he would be properly engaging in his task as a historian of libertarianism. But, to reiterate, he insinuates a value perspective that he has not defended by argument. To say, e.g., “Poole thinks Rothbard a bad influence” is one thing; to say, “Poole, who represents the mainstream, thinks Rothbard a bad influence” quite another.

His account of Rothbard’s ideas is in general good, but at one key point, he seems to me mistaken. He stresses the influence of Ayn Rand’s ethics on Rothbard. In doing so, he misses a major difference between their views. Like Rand, Rothbard’s ethical theory is Aristotelian: the good is what enables man, as a species, to flourish. But Rand goes beyond this to adopt an egoistic standpoint: I ought to act according to what is good for me. To assume an Aristotelian standpoint that stresses the virtues does not commit one to egoism. Tara Smith, an Objectivist philosopher, in her excellent Ayn Rand’s Normative Ethics (Cambridge University Press, 2006), notes that moral philosophers such as Philippa Foot and Rosalind Hursthouse who argue “that goodness is a function of our [human] nature” nevertheless distance themselves from egoism. Foot “insists that the moral does not simply consist of doing what is good for oneself, though she concedes that a ‘reasonable modicum’ of self-interest is permissible”(Smith, pp. 2–3). Rothbard would have to be numbered with Foot, whom he cites in Ethics of Liberty. He favors a natural law ethics and does not follow Rand into egoism.

The single most unfortunate remark in the book, though, does not concern Rothbard. After discussing the 1987 presidential nominating convention of the Libertarian Party, in which Ron Paul defeated Russell Means, Doherty says: “Some old party hands such as [David] Bergland thought Ron Paul ended up a carpetbagger, moving in on the LP merely to expand the mailing list and donor base for his investment advice business” (p. 515). Is this not a vicious smear against a man who has spent decades of his life defending libertarian principles? Doherty does not endorse the remark, but he says nothing at all against it. Does this not convey to the reader that he thinks there is at least something to the charge? If he thinks so, he owes us some argument; if he disagrees, he ought explicitly to dissociate himself from the accusation. Twenty pages later, he discusses Ron Paul’s current libertarian activities in Congress.

He holds his seat as an absolute maverick, refusing to vote for anything he doesn’t think is explicitly authorized by the Constitution, proposing libertarian bills that never make it out of committee, working in general obscurity with GOP colleagues who admire his principles yet refuse to learn any lessons from him.” (pp. 534-35)

Hardly the behavior of an opportunist; yet Doherty does not think to connect this account with Bergland’s smear.

I noted a few mistakes on other matters. Doherty explains the rise of the concept of marginal utility in this way:

Before Menger, Jevons, and Walras, an object’s value was generally thought to arise from the labor that went into making it. Economists tended to consider the value of objects as a class, which led to the apparent diamond/water paradox. If water is indispensable for human life and diamonds are a frippery, how is it that diamonds cost more than water under most circumstances? The innovation of marginal utility cut to the solution. We don’t make valuation decisions regarding diamonds and water in general or in total, but on a specific given amount of either up for our immediate consideration. (p. 69)

This is misleading. The diamond/water paradox does not arise for the labor theory of value, because diamonds normally require more labor to produce than water does. The paradox is a problem for explaining economic value through utility, and it is marginal utility that answers this difficulty.

It is also misleading to say, “Keynes thought unemployment was caused, rather, by insufficient aggregate demand from consumers — that if people had enough money to buy all the goods produced, then people would always find work producing those goods” (p. 118). Keynes did indeed stress deficiencies in aggregate demand, but it is insufficient investment, rather than underconsumption, that principally concerned him.

Even worse is the claim, “Logical positivists believe that all human knowledge has to be reduced to empirical sense impressions, rejecting theory entirely” (p. 85). The positivists decidedly do not reject scientific theory; much of their work attempted to analyze science.

To turn to an entirely different matter, Doherty notes that Isabel Paterson called the US Constitution “the greatest political document ever struck off at one time by the mind of men” (p. 118). He neglects to point out that she was paraphrasing W.E. Gladstone.

Radicals for Capitalism is well worth reading, but its interpretations should be taken with caution. To have a point of view is no failing; but one’s standpoint should be explicitly stated, not hidden away through indirection.


[1] Here I am paraphrasing Samuel Craig’s pamphlet on Calvinism, Christianity Rightly So Called.

[2] In pursuing my claim that Doherty does not have a consistent framework of interpretation, I have greatly benefited from an online article by Joseph Salerno, “A Fairy Tale of the Austrian Movement.”

[3] See my review in The Mises Review Volume 9, Number 3 (Winter 2003).

[4] For some criticisms of this viewpoint, see my review of Virginia Postrel, The Future and Its Enemies, in The Mises Review Spring 1999.


Gordon, David. Review of Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement, by Brian Doherty. The Mises Review 13, No. 4 (Winter 2007).

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