Libertarianism
and the Great Divide

by , March 17, 2007

Brian Doherty’s Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement, contains just about everything you might find in such a book: portraits of movement luminaries, such as Ludwig von Mises, Ayn Rand, Murray Rothbard, Milton Friedman, and Friedrich Hayek, as well as walk-ons by various proto-libertarians of the Benjamin Tucker-Liberty school of “freethinkers” and feminists who constituted their own little turn-of-the-century Bohemia. Most interestingly, Radicals for Capitalism chronicles the forgotten organizational history of the libertarian movement, the early institutional pillars of what was to become a widely-known addition to the American political lexicon. Doherty gives us vivid portraits of obscure and largely forgotten individuals who played a key role in maintaining and developing the libertarian idea in the darkest days of the liberal “consensus,” when the idea that government isn’t the answer, and may be most of the problem, was an unutterable heresy.

What is most impressive here is the attention to detail: Doherty is good at drawing a portrait with a few deft brushstrokes, just enough to give us a sense of these people as individuals. And quite an array of, uh, colorful personalities it is: the magisterial Mises, the imperious Rand, the uproarious Rothbard, Hayek the dreamer and Friedman the exemplar (in Doherty’s view). These major intellectual figures are treated at length, but it’s the second-tier “movement” types, such as Leonard Read, Frank Chodorov, “Baldy” Harper, Rose Wilder Lane, and other even less known individuals who provide us with some really fascinating glimpses into the libertarian mindset and give us a sense of libertarianism as more than just an idea, but a movement.

In the first place, to even attempt to write such a comprehensive volume as this requires a commitment to the idea that history is at all important – an idea that, in some libertarian circles, has always been under a cloud of suspicion. After all, didn’t Howard Roark, the hero of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, disclaim any loyalty to a tradition, exclaiming that perhaps he stood at the beginning of one? Libertarians have been afflicted with this born-from-the-head-of-Zeus mentality, in part due to Rand’s influence – which Doherty details to devastating effect – and in part due to the revolutionary nature of the ideas themselves. As Murray Rothbard put it: “The Old Order was, and still remains, the great and mighty enemy of liberty.” Libertarians have always stood for the revolt of the individual against the ancien régime, the rule of crown and altar.

Yet libertarian ideas have a long and rich tradition, which Doherty unearths, to great effect, weaving a narrative that carries the reader along, after a false start, with its many sub-plots peopled with idiosyncratic dramatis personae of rebels with a cause. The progress of the libertarian idea from the margins is the classic story of the outsider swimming against the current – and overcoming great obstacles in spite of everything. So how in blazes does the author open this often inspiring story? By describing the Cato Institute’s intellectually dubious and positively pallid campaign to partially privatize Social Security, as if it were somehow the apex of libertarian achievements to date. But surely there were more signature moments in the history of a movement devoted to individual liberty than this wonkish effort to shore up a major pillar of the New Deal. Rose Wilder Lane – the feisty author of the Little House on the Prairie books, and prolific libertarian polemicist of the 1940s and 50s, who refused to even sign up for Social Security, and quit her job when informed she had to – must be rolling in her grave. (Doherty’s portrait of her, by the way, is sympathetic, as well as extensive.) My point is not that the Cato plan is a major sell-out of libertarian principle – although it is – but that this is hardly the sort of anecdote that characterizes either the spirit or history of the movement.

Writing in The American Conservative, Daniel McCarthy avers that Doherty’s volume is bereft of any really overarching theme, but one can be teased out of it, after a few hundred pages, and it comes out in various ways, principally when dealing with divisions within the movement. What this book is really about is the tension between the radical origins of the movement and its tentative, and often reluctant attempts to achieve “respectability.” This comes up early, when Doherty gets into the subject of war revisionism. Back in the beginnings of the libertarian movement, starting – says Doherty – with Albert Jay Nock, war revisionism was a central theme. “These days,” however,

“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 yourself with such lost causes as arguing that America should not have entered World War II or even the milder version, that Roosevelt’s means of getting us into it were underhanded, antidemocratic, and antirepublican in the real, not partisan, sense.”

According to Doherty, “Nowadays,” in the brave new world of carefully-moderated and officially-approved libertarianism, Washington-style, “only some writers associated with the Ludwig von Mises Institute and the libertarian-run website Antiwar.com are apt to link libertarianism and revisionism.” Yet history proved Doherty wrong even before his book saw print: for what else are countless libertarian – and ideologically diverse – bloggers spending much of their time and energy doing these days but revising the history of the Iraq war?

Indeed, the unfolding story of how and by whom we were lied into war has become our national drama, the central story-line of the Bush years. It is also a key means by which to give antiwar activists – and the overwhelming majority of Americans, who now believe we were led into war under false pretenses – a uniquely libertarian perspective on the real causes of this war and the motivations of the war-makers. A central premise of the War Party has been that we need to surrender our liberties here at home in order to conduct a global crusade against the terrorist enemy: the “Patriot” Act, the Military Commissions Act, and the bureaucratic paraphernalia of the post-9/11 era – these have all been justified in the name of “national security” in wartime. The libertarian insight expressed so succinctly by Randolph Bourne – “War is the health of the State” – has never been more relevant, and war revisionism – that is, the revision of the “official” (i.e. government-approved) version of events leading up to the war – is essential in understanding both the methods and motives of our rulers.

Oh, but it’s not nice – and certainly not all that respectable – to go around demonizing your enemies, and the Washington-based section of the movement, starting with the Cato Institute types, aren’t having any of it, as Doherty notes later on in the book:

“Looking for hidden motives is not part of the Cato intellectual arsenal either. From the cold war to the war on terror, [Cato foreign policy analyst Ted Galen] Carpenter is willing to assume that what policymakers say their motives are, whether saving the world from communist domination or from Islamic terrorism, genuinely represents their motives. He just disagrees that the U.S. government’s professed foreign policy goals can be safely or affordably reached.”

At a time when the whole country is wondering about our real motives for going to war, this prissy, holier-than-thou attitude is curiously old-maidish. There were no “weapons of mass destruction,” no links to al Qaeda, and the entire case for moving against an alleged “imminent” threat in Iraq has been thoroughly debunked – so why are Americans and Iraqis dying on the killing fields of the Middle East, with Iranians and others soon to follow? Everyone in the country wants to know this, including, I’ll bet, Ted Galen Carpenter (an articulate and perceptive scholar, whose work I admire).

From the beginning, Antiwar.com has emphasized the centrality of the neoconservatives in ginning up this war, and those to come, and such events as the recent trial of Scooter Libby, as well as accounts of this war’s prehistory, have confirmed this emphasis in spades. Such a line, however, would not have gone over well in the Washington milieu, in which Cato was immersed. Doherty cites Richard Cornuelle, a friend of Cato founder Murray Rothbard, as noting that the “failed” libertarian and free market conservative thinktanks, which have seen their small government ideology thrown overboard in the Bush era, have become a major “industry,” with their offices towering edifices – and their cause largely defeated. Cornuelle recalls how he and Rothbard used to sit around their dingy “on the wrong side of the railroad tracks” libertarian offices of the 1950s and talk about how they were going to blow up the UN – and now the table talk at Cato and Heritage is all about fringe benefits. When too much talk of neocon “conspiracies” could cost you those benefits, you keep mum.

Speaking of Rothbard, in spite of Doherty’s not very convincing attempt to portray Milton Friedman as the authentic “Mr. Libertarian,” and the “most successful” of the libertarian elder gods, it is Rothbard who constitutes one of the main thematic threads of this very long and fascinating book, which has, as one of its many virtues, precisely its length to recommend it. For it is so all-inclusive, so successful in its effort to be comprehensive, that one can cherry-pick, so to speak, and come out on either side of the “radical”-”pragmatist” divide. This divide, another of the book’s sub-themes, is an issue that the author seems himself divided over: on the one hand, Doherty exhibits real affection and sympathy for the idiosyncratic individualism and uncompromising vision of such figures as Rothbard, and Ayn Rand, and yet still he manages to sound patronizing. In his role as tourist guide in the land of the libertarians, Doherty ushers his readers down the quaint cobble-stoned streets of the older part of town, telling charming tales of its history, while gently but firmly insisting that this is all in the past, and, as he put it in one of his chapter titles, libertarianism is now a “mainstreamed radicalism.”

What did this “mainstreamed radicalism” lead to? Doherty covers the split in the libertarian movement over the war, and rather more carefully than he manages when it comes to other issues, such as immigration, gay rights, abortion, or other hot-button subjects. He cites Carpenter giving the official Cato view on the Iraq war question – we ought to “pack up and go” – but notes a split in the ranks. He cites the Mises Institute, Antiwar.com, and the Independent Institute as having “maintained the hard-core libertarian non-intervention tradition,” “with more polemical and moral fervor and pugnaciousness than is the typical Cato style.” On the other hand, he notes Milton Friedman advising the libertarian student groups to downplay noninterventionism in the battle against draft registration, and reports:

“While Cato’s foreign policy division has steadfastly opposed the war, other Cato scholars have publicly supported it. And some others who were against the invasion have been, in the eyes of the radically antiwar libertarians, not sufficiently forceful or overly equivocating on the matter of getting out immediately. (My own institutional home, Reason magazine, has been ecumenical on this matter, with splits among staff members and those who have written about Iraq in its pages.)”

I don’t know what it means to be “radically antiwar” in this context: either one is for the war, or against it. I think a large part of the problem here is that Doherty made the mistake of covering a fast-moving situation, and the libertarian response to it, in a book destined to come out some time later. While Doherty’s book was in the pipeline, the issue of the war was settled, not only in libertarian circles, but in the political culture at large, and the verdict is: it was a mistake, and a very bad one. While more than a few neocons have come in from the cold and recanted, I have yet to hear a single member of the “libertarian” contingent of the War Party confess their sins and seek absolution. And I’m not going to hold my breath, either. Some people, in any event, are beyond redemption.

Those pro-war Cato staff not named by Doherty are Brink Lindsay, and, to some extent, Tom Palmer: the former openly endorsed the invasion, while the latter spent much of his energies smearing Antiwar.com. Meanwhile, over at Reason, the pro-war “libertarian” crowd was getting busy: Ron Bailey advanced a version of “libertarian” neo-Trotskyism centered around the concept that libertarianism in one country is doomed to fail, and that, insofar as the U.S. is the living incarnation of all-that’s-perfectly libertarian, exporting “liberty” at gunpoint is required. Reason sponsored a “debate.” It’s interesting what the staff of Reason considers debatable, given the broadest possible definition of the libertarian paradigm: mass murder in Iraq, yes: legalizing methamphetamine – certainly not! After all, is nothing sacred? Reason is “ecumenical” on the core issue of war and peace, and decidedly sectarian when it comes to the much more subjective social issues, such as gay marriage, which one can certainly make a credible libertarian case against.

The theme of this book – that libertarianism, in growing up, has had to cast aside the more flamboyant insignia of rebellion, and is, in the end, all the better for it – is not consistently expressed, and, indeed, is often contradicted by the author some pages later. Thus we see Rothbard, a seminal figure – and leader of the movement’s radical wing – depicted as, variously, a great scholar, “the most uniquely and characteristically libertarian of libertarians,” a “venomous” sectarian, a modern-day Mencken, a purveyor of low gossip, the ideological equivalent of the Rock of Gibraltar, and an opportunist who allied himself with Ayn Rand, the New Left, and the paleoconservative Pat Buchanan. In the opening pages of Radicals for Capitalism, we are told that Rothbard is “the one whose influence explains the most about what makes the ideas, behavior, and general flavor of libertarianism unique,” and by the end of the book we are left with the clear implication that he wound up alienating everyone but Lew Rockwell and myself. Both of these views can’t be true.

I’m surprised that, for all its comprehensiveness, Radicals for Capitalism, fails to tell the real story of Cato’s founding: it was Rothbard who persuaded billionaire Charles Koch, in the winter of 1976, to set up a libertarian thinktank, along with a magazine (actually two magazines, Inquiry, an “outreach” publication, and Libertarian Review, a previously-existing movement bulletin), along with a student group. Indeed, Rothbard and his circle, along with Koch, held a private seminar at which they presented papers on different aspects of the task of setting up a functioning libertarian movement, and out of this collection of memos the constellation of organizations funded by the Koch family was born.

None of this is mentioned in Radicals for Capitalism, a curious omission in a tome that, by its sheer length, purports to be the definitive account of libertarian history.

This view of Rothbard as a disruptive influence – which Doherty does more than his part in spreading – is certainly true in a narrow sense, yet still it is an annoying trope because what Rothbard was disrupting needed a good kick in the pants, and he was very capable of delivering a very swift and painful blow to his erstwhile followers. If he were alive today, we would certainly be hearing yowls of pain from the “pragmatists.”

After all, it wasn’t the Rothbardian wing of the movement, that, when push came to shove on 9/11, bowed its head to the war hysteria and jumped on the pro-war bandwagon. Yes, the official Cato line has been antiwar – to Cato’s great credit – but, as Doherty reports, the pro-war faction at Cato was very publicly, and loudly, pro-war – a vivid, and frankly quite sickening, demonstration of the practical consequences of the “radical”/”pragmatist” split. Cato’s turn toward Washington, exemplified by its physical move there in the late 1980s, was meant to take the “radical” out of “radicals for capitalism.” For a good many of these types, the effort was all too successful.

Caught up in the war fever emanating from Washington, they sought to somehow reconcile libertarianism, which abhors the initiation of force, with the neoconservative project of world conquest. Not surprisingly, they failed, along with the neocons’ war of “liberation.” Having abandoned their own ideological roots, and gone “beyond” Rothbard, these officious little know-it-alls fell into the same abyss wherein the neocons now reside.

I have a lot of nits to pick with this book, but I won’t bore my non-libertarian readers with the gory details. Suffice to say that citing my biography of Rothbard to somehow prove Rothbard got his ethical theories from Rand is absurd, especially when I spent nearly a whole chapter on the Rand-Rothbard conflict over the question of whether the founder of “Objectivism” did indeed “discover” ethical egoism. (Short answer: no.) Also: Gene Burns dropped out of contention for the Libertarian Party’s 1984 presidential nomination not because he wasn’t “thrilled” at the prospect of running, but due to the discovery that he advocated going to war with Nicaragua’s Sandinistas. He was dropped, and not vice-versa.

Stylistically, this book has a few noticeable problems: it could have used a good editor. I don’t know how many times the word “limn” or some derivative is used, but it is surely close to fifty or so in a 750-page book. Radicals for Capitalism is full of various annoying stylistic tics, and is overwritten in places. But I won’t quibble. Suffice to say that Radicals for Capitalism is a flawed, yet fascinating read, chock full of information: it will surely succeed in its apparent task of becoming the definitive history of the modern libertarian movement. That may not be an entirely good thing, for all the reasons given above, and yet on the other hand the author is visibly trying to be fair. The problem is that he writes as an insider and participant in events he is describing, and his institutional bias shows. With that in mind, however, he has performed a great service to libertarians, and political scientists, as well as the interested public, in detailing the storied history of the freedom movement. The sheer mass of information presented therein is, alone, worth the price.

If you’re looking for analysis, however and not just pure history, the place to go for the real lowdown on libertarianism is a much shorter work (161 pages, including the index), Eight Ways to Run the Country, by Brian Patrick Mitchell, the Washington bureau chief of Investors Business Daily. Mitchell divides the American political landscape into four quadrants, arranged on a cross-shaped graph. In the upper left-hand quadrant – alongside Republican constitutionalists, progressive democrats, and plutocratic nationalists – we have libertarian individualists, a tribe with some unique characteristics:

“Only in the upper left do we find a great divide between moderates and extremists. In every other corner the two are much more sympathetic, but among Individualists the philosophical focus on self-interest subjects the psyche to severe tension between concern for personal welfare and commitment to Individualist principle. What, after all, is a rational Individualist to do when the crowd about him is shouting Sieg heil? The guiding light of self-interest gives him little reason to stand on principle in the face of persecution. More often it compromises his commitment to ideals and includes him toward self-serving pragmatism. In bad times, he may find it in his interest to rebel against oppressive others, but in good times, all too often, a vortex of self-interest pulls him down and right, where money and power are most often found. Extreme Individualists like Raimondo are far enough out to escape the pull: moderate Individualists like [Virginia] Postrel and Palmer and Lindsey are not.”

It just so happens that the Cato Institute is sponsoring a symposium on Radicals for Capitalism over at their website – with the anointed commentators none other than Lindsey and Palmer, along with Ms. Postrel. The former talks about libertarian strategies for victory in the short term – possibly with the liberal-left – without using the word “Iraq” or mentioning the war. Palmer spends most of his essay dissing Murray Rothbard, and trying to prove that we can promote liberty without necessarily promoting libertarianism as a political ideology. He complains that Doherty covered too many “zany” characters, particularly those prominent in the movement before Cato was founded, although he does not name names. All this is typically sniffy, and Doherty should not take any of it to heart: to Palmer, and the other “neo-libertarians,” their own history is something to run away from, rather than celebrate. But what’s really awful is the contribution of Tyler Cowen, who basically makes the argument that we’re all so rich now, and smug and puffed up with our surplus of “positive liberty,” that we don’t have to bother about libertarianism, and, besides which, it doesn’t matter any more. Because there are new and entirely unforeseen threats to worry about – pandemics, terrorism, climate change – that aren’t covered by the old paradigm of “negative liberty,” which is hopelessly outdated and needs to be “restructured,” i.e. entirely abandoned. Cowen starts out his essay:

Brian Doherty asks: ‘Did this libertarian movement . . . actually accomplish anything of unquestionable significance?’

“Yes: Bigger government.

“But no, that isn’t as bad as it might sound to many Cato readers.”

Yes it is. I guess those fringe benefits got to him.

NOTES IN THE MARGIN

Here’s another great interview with Scott Horton, on Antiwar.com radio. It’s amazing that I managed to do this at 8:30 in the morning, but Scott is such a great interviewer that he just led me along, gently but firmly, and it all came out (mostly) alright.

My good friend Dan Ellsberg has been added as the featured speaker at the antiwar rally to be held in San Francisco on Monday in front of Nancy Pelosi’s office. I’ll also be speaking, along with former mayoral candidate and president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors Matt Gonzalez, supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, and a host of others. Come by and show your support: This coming Monday, Noon, in front of the San Francisco Federal Building (450 Golden Gate between Polk and Larkin).

Read more by Justin Raimondo