Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Book Event: Brian Doherty Discusses 'Radicals for Capitalism'

At the Cato Institute in Washington on March 22, 2007, author Brian Doherty summarized, in about ten minutes, his 800-page retrospective, Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement.

Introduced by executive vice president David Boaz as a former Cato intern, Doherty explained that the genesis of his book came more than ten years ago when he was working at Cato, the result of water-cooler conversations with other interns and with staff members. He noted that “a great sign of how much the libertarian movement has grown,” is that, in the early 1990s, “I was the PR department of the Cato Institute.”

Getting to the substance of his remarks, Doherty explained that “one of the great things about” the story he tells in the book is that it “has a great feminist hook,” in that three of the major intellectual figures of the movement were women: Isabel Paterson, Rose Wilder Lane, and Ayn Rand. “We would not have the libertarian movement today,” he said, “without these three women.”

Paterson, Lane, and Rand all inspired Leonard Read, who established the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE), the first libertarian think tank.

Doherty explained that he “grew up in a world where there was a Libertarian Party and a Cato Institute, but that libertarian world did not exist” for people like Leonard Read. For them, living in the 1930s and 1940s, the libertarian world remained to be created. “The fact is,” Doherty said, “ these people had to forge something new for themselves – and that explains a lot.” Among other things, it explains why so many of the characters described in his book appear to be eccentric, or at least “strong-willed.”

In the early years of the libertarian movement, the movement was mostly about education, teaching people about individual liberty and personal responsibility. It was not until the 1970s, Doherty explained, that “organizations arose that saw the intersection of ideas and politics.” Among these were the Libertarian Party (LP), Cato, the Reason Foundation (which grew out of Reason magazine, then as now a major journal for the movement).

These organizations brought into public view ideas about limited government that included Social Security reform, school choice, privatization of municipal services, the end to the military draft, and the relegalization of narcotics.

“While we absolutely do not live in a libertarian dream world,” Doherty said, “the world is much improved since the 1940s,” the era explored at the start of his book.

Today we live in a world that his been influenced by such people as Ronald Reagan – who said libertarianism is the heart of conservatism – and Milton Friedman. Still, Doherty admitted, “there is no direct, 100% link between the success of libertarian ideas and the efforts of individual libertarians.” Nonetheless, “even the craziest and most adorable people have had their effects” in creating a world that libertarians aim for, one in which people can do “anything that’s peaceful.”

Responding to Doherty’s remarks was Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne, author of Why Americans Hate Politics and other books. Dionne admitted that “it is indeed true that I once went through what a Catholic would call the ‘libertarian temptation,’ but I turned it back.”

Complimenting Doherty, Dionne said, “This is a really good book, a really important book, a fascinating book.” (This was a sentiment shared by several audience members, who expressed it during the question-and-answer period later in the afternoon.)

“One of the great values of this book,” Dionne said, despite libertarians oft-expressed disdain for tradition, “is that libertarians need to be aware of the rich tradition from which they came.”

Libertarianism, said Dionne, “is the latent and unconscious ideology of millions of Americans,” a position borne out by various public opinion surveys over the years.

Looking back at the high-water mark of the Libertarian Party’s presidential ambitions – the election of 1980, in which LP candidate Ed Clark won nearly one million votes across the country – Dionne offered this analogy: “Ed Clark was to Ronald Reagan what Norman Thomas was to Franklin Delano Roosevelt.”

Reagan, he said, “was free-market enough to undercut the momentum of the Libertarian Party.”

Coming back to the present, Dionne suggested that there is now a “crack-up” between libertarians and conservatives because “six years of George W. Bush makes liberals and liberalism look very good” to libertarians.

During the Q&A, economist Arnold Kling asked why libertarian ideas have not “infected” academia, leading to two widely different responses from Doherty and Dionne.

Doherty answered Kling by saying that, thanks to the efforts of the Institute for Humane Studies, resistance to libertarian ideas in the academy is diminishing. Still, he cautioned, “most people, even when exposed to libertarian ideas, do not embrace them.” The bottom line is that “you have to have a revulsion about solving social problems at the point of a gun” in order to be a strong libertarian.

For his part, Dionne said, somewhat ruefully (by his own admission) that “libertarianism has made enormous strides in academia.” He pointed to how the law and economics movement, which did not even exist 30 years ago, has established itself in law schools across the country. He added that, again to his regret, “public choice theory is increasingly powerful in political science.”

Asked why libertarians are still marginalized in the political sphere, Doherty replied by saying that this is not the case, at least not compared to the situation of the 1940s. He mentioned having a recent conversation with a George Mason University student who pointed out to him that “in the world of Facebook, there are hundreds of thousands of young libertarians.” Consequently, Doherty concluded, “I am extremely optimistic about the libertarian future.”

The book forum at the Cato Institute was perhaps unusual in that so many people who are featured in Radicals for Capitalism were present. Obviously some of the influential characters in the book – Milton Friedman, Ayn Rand, Murray Rothbard, Friedrich Hayek – are no longer with us.

But there in the Hayek Auditorium, listening to this brief history lesson, were people like Lee Edwards, who worked on Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign; Don Ernsberger, one of the early Libertarian Party activists; Cato chairman William Niskanen, president Ed Crane, and executive vice president David Boaz; constitutional scholar Randy Barnett; draft-registration resister and citizen-empowerment activist Paul Jacob; and many others among the standing-room-only crowd. How rare it is to be able to have lunch with a book’s index.

(This is excerpted and adapted from an earlier blog post published on March 22, 2007, on Rick Sincere News & Thoughts.)
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