Thursday, March 1, 2007

Book Selection of the Month: "Radicals for Capitalism" by Brian Doherty Book Selection of the Month (March 2007):

Radicals for Capitalism by Brian Doherty

Brian Doherty, an editor at Reason magazine and author of This Is Burning Man (a look at the annual desert art festival the size of a temporary city), has now written the book Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement.

While not every American — perhaps only 70% or so — should feel obliged to read a history of libertarianism over 600 pages long, those like me who have identified with the movement for years will enjoy it immensely, as will anyone who has wondered where these strange libertarians came from.

Indeed, the origins of libertarianism are complicated enough that people can still debate where the movement came from even after reading the book — and debate it we will, at the next meeting of the monthly debates I organize and host (moderated by Michel Evanchik) at Lolita Bar on Manhattan’s Lower East Side (Wednesday, March 7, 2007, at 8pm), where Doherty will be our speaker.

A Radical Pedigree?

Just as libertarians — who want the government kept as small and unobtrusive as possible, in both the economic and personal realms — often bicker among themselves, as other movements do, about how much to compromise with mainstream society and how much to remain radical and pure, people can legitimately disagree about which of libertarianism’s philosophical forebears are more important, the famous and widely-respected figures (such as economist Adam Smith, philosopher John Stuart Mill, and other European giants) or the obscure and vaguely nutty commune-founders and anarchists of the nineteenth-century United States (such as Lysander Spooner, who bravely created a popular black-market postal service a century and a half ago).

Doherty, for good or ill, and possibly to the eternal embarrassment of the movement, emphasizes the latter — and if this were a philosophy book, meant to make a strong argument for libertarianism, I might regret that. However, it’s a history book, and reading about weirdoes is often more fun than the alternative. It’s no surprise Doherty goes this route, I suppose: not only does Doherty tend to like radicals and dislike, for example, Bush, he’s also been the owner of a punk rock record label, a member of various punk bands, and, as noted above, an analyst of the Burning Man phenomenon.

In part, too, he can plead a need to focus (per his book’s subtitle) on the U.S. as a reason to downplay Smith and Mill in favor of America’s rich history of Emerson-reading yahoos, fiery abolitionists, back-to-the-land anarchists, prankster “discordians,” and conspiracy-theorist loons. (By a happy coincidence, I found myself mentally bridging the transatlantic divide for a moment, in way that Doherty would probably endorse, while {a} reading the paragraph of Radicals for Capitalism in which a pivotal nineteenth-century American anarchist was described as turning toward the even-more-radical amoralist philosophy of Max Stirner and {b} hearing the Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy in the UK” play on the online radio station I was listening to; I’d been planning to head off to a dance party full of leftists a few hours later but knew in that moment that their evil mind-rays wouldn’t be able to harm me, thoroughly fortified as I now was by 100%-pure liberty.)

Or Just a Bunch of Republicans Who, Like the Editors of National Review, Want to Legalize Drugs?

Despite all the, uh, radicalism in Radicals, it contains reminders of how important and old the “fusionist” alliance (as it would eventually be called) between libertarians and Republicans is. Doherty notes, for instance, that pivotal WWII-era libertarian authors Ayn Rand, Isabel Paterson, and Rose Wilder Lane all worked on the Wendell Willkie (Republican) presidential campaign (and hated FDR) way the heck back in 1940, three years before they published Fountainhead, God of the Machine, and Discovery of Freedom, respectively. The conservative “big tent” that includes both ardent free-marketeers and ardent traditionalists wasn’t suddenly erected in ’94 (when Newt Gingrich vowed to shrink government and combat the post-60s counterculture), ’80 (when Reagan was elected), ’64 (when Goldwater wasn’t), or even ’55 (at the National Review offices) but had still earlier roots.

I don’t notice many sympathetic Democrats or modern-liberals cropping up in Radicals despite its implicit opposition to much of the conservative agenda (though I’m still only two-thirds of the way through the book as I write this, I confess — the creation of the Libertarian Party in the 1970s, the most prominent libertarian thinktanks circa the 1980s, and disenchantment with the Republican Congress and Bush still lie ahead).

If Democrats or Republicans ever find themselves feeling unduly criticized by libertarians, though, they should take some consolation from the fact that libertarians seem to be just as harsh in criticizing each other. Reading Radicals, I’m inclined to think there is no prominent libertarian who hasn’t at some point been threatened with excommunication for ideological impurity by some other prominent libertarian. Rand hated libertarian Nobelist Friedrich Hayek, for instance, and the chapter about the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) notes that Rand and others didn’t want these “two Reds” (libertarian Nobelists Milton Friedman and George Stigler) saying nice things about the ideal of equality in a FEE pamphlet on rent control.

By the way, in what I think is a subtle dig at Buckley and NR’s old snootiness on matters of writing style (though it may be sheer coincidence), on p. 124, Doherty quotes a letter from Buckley (the first time he’s quoted in the book, I believe) to Paterson, with Buckley saying he likes a piece she’s submitted but would like to “suggest a few minor changes aimed at dissapating [sic] the impression that you are pursuing a vendetta.”

Neither Right Nor Left But Certainly Odd

My favorite revelation from (the first two thirds of) the book concerns a famous libertarian essay called “I, Pencil” (about how even a single, seemingly simple object like a pencil is the product of a far-flung array of spontaneous market interactions, the price-coordinated trades of people ranging from rubber-makers to metallurgists, that no one bureaucrat’s mind could possibly plan). This brilliant description of the interlocking mechanisms of the market, cited by the aforementioned Friedman, may have been written by FEE’s Leonard Read under the influence of psychedelics or Eastern mysticism, which makes a lot of sense given Read’s apparent dabbling in these things and his non-economic writings about the value of meditatively concentrating on how any given object is tied to the rest of the cosmos. Given how deeply involved other 1950s libertarians became in psychedelics and mysticism, we may be lucky Read didn’t merely write an essay called “Oh, Man, My Hand Looks So Cool.”

We also learn that Kerry Thornley, co-founder of the pro-chaos philosophy of Discordianism (later popularized in the libertarian novels of Robert Anton Wilson), was questioned by the Warren commission and investigated as a possible conspirator with Lee Harvey Oswald because Thornley bore an uncanny resemblance to his old Marines buddy Oswald — and had actually written a semi-fictionalized book about Oswald’s communism and eccentricities before the assassination. Anyone who has read Wilson’s novels knows how much this sounds like one of his conspiracy subplots — yet it’s part of real-world history.

One other odd tidbit mixing the Establishment and the strange is the description of the band of libertarians, sometimes credited with launching the contemporary libertarian movement as a thing distinct from conservatism, who burned a copy of a draft card before the eyes of shocked traditionalist conservatives at the 1969 St. Louis convention of the Buckley-inspired fusionist organization called Young Americans for Freedom (which still exists). Libertarian Karl Hess recalls the libertarians fleeing afterwards from a mob of angry conservatives and, fearing for their physical safety, ducking into a showing of a movie that he does not name but which is recognizable from his description as Lindsay Anderson’s anti-authoritarian 1968 classic If…, about rebellious students at a British boys’ school who end up shooting at a graduation ceremony (a scene parodied on Monty Python’s Flying Circus with a machine-gunned trophy ceremony; the bizarre and picaresque quasi-sequel to If…, O Lucky Man!, bears the odd distinction of having inspired the Seinfeld subplot about Kramer trying to liberate a pig-man from a hospital, by the way).

History Sure Is Complicated, and So Is Politics

I am no subjectivist, but the tangled mess that is history often makes multiple interpretations possible, and politics, with its endless attempts to lump billions of individuals into a handful of ideological camps, creates strange bedfellows.

I was pleased to see the fathers of two friends of mine crop up in the Radicals narrative. Bretigne Shaffer’s father, law professor Butler Shaffer, is mentioned on p. 309 as an example (much like Karl Hess) of a young supporter of the 1964 Goldwater campaign who became disillusioned and turned away from the right toward radicalism. More surprisingly, left-leaning columnist Daniel Radosh’s anti-communist father, historian Ronald Radosh, shows up on p. 338, not because of his anti-communist writings of the 80s and 90s, but because, as a leftist in 1972, he co-edited a volume of anti-military, anti-imperialist essays with libertarian economist Murray Rothbard, who was then doing outreach to the left but would spend his final years, in the late 80s and early 90s, forging an alliance with Pat Buchanan and the isolationist “paleoconservative” movement (the result being a small “paleolibertarian” coalition now represented by the popular sites and

So one can trace a left-seeming history, a right-seeming history, or a just plain fringey history for the movement, almost as if different aspects of the movement existed on different Earths. Earth-1, you might say, was the intellectually “respectable” timeline in which libertarianism traces its roots back to nineteenth-century “classical” liberalism as understood by defenders of liberty such as philosopher John Stuart Mill. Earth-2 was the relatively conservative version of our intellectual lineage, traced back through thinktanks and Reaganism to early National Review, Hayek, and eventually Edmund Burke. Somewhere off on a stranger Earth, call it Earth-X, was a band of lonely oddball freedom fighters who were all homegrown Americans. These are very different timelines all leading in their different ways to the current movement, almost as if the separate timelines were fused together into one new universe, sometime around, say, the triumphant start of Reagan’s second term in 1985. For a short time, it almost seemed as if the crisis of late communism and the optimism caused by Reagan’s reelection would make it possible to overlook the fissures on the right, between the right and libertarianism, and within libertarianism itself. I was lucky enough to come of age during that period, right around 1989, half-convinced that the collapse of communism would leave us all on the same page, admiring markets and learning to keep government small from now on.

But those interpretive timelines, seemingly fused for some twenty years, seem to have frayed apart again in 2006, the long-prophecied conservative crack-up arriving (with isolationists, militarists, social conservatives, and libertarians seeming reluctant to act as a united front in the face of the GOP’s loss of Congress and the ongoing crisis in Iraq). As a recent National Review cover article asked, “What Now?”

A Good Time to Retreat to Radicalism

This much I know: our first priority should always be shrinking government, not rescuing the GOP, conservatism, or even libertarianism per se. That is, if people would more readily accept a plan to downsize government coming from the mouth of a hypothetical Labour Party prime minister in the UK than from a doomed Libertarian Party presidential candidate in the U.S., I’d happily cheer on the government-downsizing p.m. even at the cost of paying less attention to LP activity here and appearing to gloss over deeper philosophical divisions. However, absent such a p.m. — or, so far, a GOP presidential candidate who sounds radically fiscally conservative — the pragmatic thing to do may well be just to spread the libertarian philosophy and keep that ideological flame alive until some later date when the intellectuals and politicians, perhaps faced with a new crisis, take a renewed interest in these ideas. Now is not a good time for radical free-market advocates to seek much of a foothold in the realm of practical, electoral politics, I fear. I wasn’t always this pessimistic about pragmatism, as many of my friends know.

From roughly 1980 through 2006, I would still argue, there was reason to think free-market philosophy and party politics could be productive partners. That time, I think, has passed. It could come again sooner than expected — perhaps even now, there are focus group results convincing John McCain to emphasize budget-cutting in his presidential agenda or advisors from the Manhattan Institute reminding Rudy Giuliani that a dash of fiscal conservatism helped revive New York City and could do the same for America. But it’s too late in the day for hope to precede evidence. We had enough time to run the Republican-coalition experiment, and it seems to have failed.

Maybe, then, what the world needs, over the very long haul, is some radical new ideas as strange as those nineteenth-century anarchists in Doherty’s book. I’m not going to start using psychedelics, but I may drink a mocha frappuccino and see what I come up with.


Todd Seavey said...

[...] Being feisty doesn’t make someone wrong, whether he’s an atheist or, say, a libertarian — like some of the crackpots and hotheads who populate Brian Doherty’s new book on the history of libertarianism, Radicals for Capitalism, which is both the March Book Selection of the Month and the topic of a reading by the author at our next Lolita Bar gathering, Wed., March 7 (at 8pm). We probably won’t get much of a chance to talk about Darwin that night, but I wouldn’t be surprised if abolitionists, Lincoln, slavery, Republicans, and Bush all get mentioned. [...]

Todd Seavey said...

[...] (NOTE: The above was sent as a mass e-mail in the days prior to the debate and was posted on this blog retroactively in April 2007. Click here for other Debates at Lolita Bar. I review Doherty’s book here.) [...]

Todd Seavey said...

[...] Despite Rothbard turning so culturally conservative that he became anti-immigration in the end and even denounced the Marx Brothers for setting a bad example of rude anarchic behavior (such as crashing Margaret Dumond’s parties), I find myself thinking more and more (especially after reading Brian Doherty’s history of the libertarian movement, Radicals for Capitalism) that Rothbard was the first figure in the history of the movement whose mind feels contemporary with and in some ways similar to my own — a New York City-dwelling prankster, he realized how hopeless and ridiculous the marginal position of the libertarian movement appeared and nonetheless enjoyed triangulating his way toward freedom via different strategies and strange allegiances.  And he was funny.  When asked if he was conspiracy theorist, for instance, he replied in his honking, Bert-from-Sesame Street-like voice, “Well, I’m not a conspiracy theorist — but sometimes conspiracies happen.” [...]

Todd Seavey said...

[...] Yesterday, I corrected a typo that I noticed in one of this blog’s first entries, from two years ago (a review of a book by Brian Doherty, who also wrote one of last week’s Book Selections), and that typo led me free-associatively to ten musings that warrant a book-length explanation.  I’m slowly working on that book-length explanation, as it happens, but for now this one blog entry will have to suffice. [...]