When the 20th Century was still young, things didn’t look good at all for the ideas of individual liberty and self-government that had been the spark that lit the American and French Revolutions. Intellectually and politically, collectivism, of both the right and the left, was on the march. In Europe and most of the rest of the world it manifested itself in either the dictatorships of Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, and Franco, or the supposed freedom of “social democracy.” In the United States, it manifested itself in a boring New Deal consensus that seemed to accept as inevitable the idea that the state would become more and more involved in the daily lives of it’s citizens.
And god help you if you happened to dissent from the prevailing orthodoxy. Academically and politically, advocates of ideas that used to be the prevailing philosophy of the nation were treated as if they were troglodytes. And, as World War II dawned, the prospects for freedom seemed dim indeed.
That, roughly, is where the story begins in Brian Doherty’s Radicals For Capitalism, a massive 700 page history of the libertarian movement in the United States. As would be expected, Doherty gives plenty of coverage to the intellectual giants of libertarian thought whose names should be familiar to most contemporary libertarians — Hayek, Mises, Rand, and Rothbard — as well as plenty of the lesser-known names who have contributed to the growth of libertarian ideas and the libertarian movement. Since most of us weren’t around during those days, it’s valuable to learn how we got to where we are today.
As with any good history, Doherty’s book also teaches a lesson or two.
First, as he points out in the concluding chapter of his book, there is tendency among libertarians to believe in the worst of all possible outcomes, and a failure to recognize just how much progress toward human liberty has been made in the past 50 years or so. Before the libertarian movement came into it’s own, American males were drafted into the armed forces when the turned 18, marginal tax rates exceeded 70 percent, Americans were legally forbidden from owning gold in any form other than jewelry, airline travel was heavily regulated by the FAA to the point where consumer choice was virtually non-existent, and socialism in one form or another was on the march throughout the world.
All that’s gone now, in part thanks to the ideas put forward and the world done by libertarians. Are things perfect ? Of course not, but they’re better than they have been, and they’re better here than most other places in the world.
Instead of recognizing progress, though, libertarians seem to wallow in gloom-and-doom and seem especially susceptible to some of the far-right scams that suggest people who disagree with libertarian ideas aren’t just adversaries, they are enemies out to enslave us, and that the day of gulags in the southwestern desert is just around the corner. More often than not, that leads to rhetoric and policy ideas that, to the average American, sounds just a little nutty — which is part of the reason that something beyond the waterted-down libertarianism of “fiscally conservative, socially liberal” that, I would submit, most people outside the movement mean when they refer to themselves as libertarian, isn’t likely to succeed in the United States in the short term.
If you doubt me, and as Doherty points out, then tell one of these newly-professed libertarians that their philosophy also requires them to advocate legalizing all drugs, legalizing prostitution, closing the public schools, and privatizing the roads and see how long they keep calling themselves libetarians.
The second lesson that can be drawn from Doherty’s history is that, partially because of the personalities that have populated the movement and partially because of the philosophy itself, libertarians have always seemed to have a tendency toward infighting and, for lack of a better word, tribalism. Two of the movements greatest philosophers — Ayn Rand and Murry Rothbard — were both guilty of banishing people for insufficient orthodoxy, often in a mean-spirited manner. While that may have been a function of two very strong personalities, it’s also evident elsewhere in Doherty’s book — for example, there’s been almost as much purging and infighting in the Libertarian Party in its 35 years of existence as one would expect to see from a bunch of communists.
And, it’s something we still see today.
Libertarians who dissent from what someone perceives to be the accepted orthodoxy on a given issue have been written out of the movement, or subjected to personal attacks, or simply just marginalized even when they’re on the same side of an issue. For example, and this is probably an oversimplification, the guys at Lew Rockwell don’t like the guys at Cato, even though they’re on the same side of the Iraq War issue. Here at The Liberty Papers, a post questioning the effectiveness of Ron Paul’s Presidential campaign, challenging his ideas or pointing out that someone else happens to be in the lead, draws comments that border on personal attacks, which draw comments in response that border on the same — all of which accomplishes nothing.
Just as the gloom and doom is unwarranted given that America circa 2007 is indisputably a freer country than America circa 1960 was, the advance of freedom around the world, all of this infighting is ironic considering that libertarians are still, decidedly, a minority in the political system.
Doherty concludes his book with a quote from Murray Rothbard, and, while I generally don’t agree with most of Rothbard’s political conclusions, this quote is one I think we can all agree with:
“[Libertarians] should remain of good cheer. The eventual victory of liberty is inevitable, because only liberty is functional for modern man. There is no need, therefore to thirst maniacally for Instant Action and Instant Victory, and then to fall into bleak despair when that Instant Victory is not forthcoming. Reality, and therefore history, is on our side.”
Sounds like a good idea to me.