Interview: Radicals for Capitalism Author Brian Doherty

Brian Doherty is a senior editor at Reason, the author of This is Burning Man, and a really cool guy. His most recent book is Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement. The companion website is Catallarchy is pleased to share this exchange.

I have to ask this first because it's the most obvious thing about the book: why Ayn Rand's phrase for the title (over others that might have also worked)?

My primary reason for picking that title is I really wanted the word radicals front and center, to help rescue libertarianism from the unfortunate presumption that it is either some weird overenthusiastic cousin of right-wing conservatism, or some sort of tool of an existing plutocracy to preserve its perquisities. As Don Lavoie said in one of my book's epigrams: "Neither the origins nor the essential principles of free-market ideas have anything to do with a defense of any of the established regimes of the world. Quite the contrary, the ideas themselves speak for a fundamental transformation of the world." I contemplated the title "Laissez-Faire Radicals" as well, but I was convinced the French phrase wasn't the best idea in sales terms or reader comprehension terms. Some libertarians get caught up in whether "capitalism" is a good word for the unrestricted free markets that libertarianism advocates, but I think it is worth rescuing the word for some of the same reasons Rand called her book "Virtue of Selfishness." It helps to try to blow people's minds, sometimes, and to me it merely means a system of private property and free choice.

Also, it's a hat tip to Rand herself, one of my book's central characters and a major modern libertarian influence—even though she rejected the term.

You give a pretty valuable quotation at the beginning of the book: "For radicals to deny their own past is to insure their future defeat." Inspiring movement insiders is a worthy goal, certainly. What were some other goals with this book?

To tell an interesting story about compelling and fascinating and mostly heroic characters who advocated and fought for beliefs that I consider important and also, mostly, correct; it is worth remembering that this is an "insider's history," with its author a libertarian even as his subject is. I thought it was disgraceful how little attention these important ideas and the people who advocated them have gotten in standard American political history; they are important, they are uniquely American, and there should be at least half as many books about libertarian institutions and thinkers and movements in the American context as there are about communist ones; I hope my book is the first of many, and that further books exploring in more depth areas I was only able to touch on appear in the future. I hope I even get to write some of them.

I'm pretty miffed about something on page 471…seriously, what's the biggest criticism you have gotten about the book from (notoriously hair-splitting) movement insiders? And are there standard criticisms from people outside the movement?

I have had a few genuine fact errors pointed out to me; for example, reversing the names "Smedley Butler" and "Michael Emerling Cloud" and stating that New Libertarian Weekly had been weekly for "most" of the 1970s, though it really only was for a couple of years. (After you'd spent 60 hours thumbing through all of them, it seemed otherwise! Still, every error is a serious error, and I wish I'd made none—and I tried to make none.)

Eventually on my website I will have a set of errata corrections there. It's mortifying, but when one man has to get thousands of things correct, sometimes you screw up. I've been gratified and surprised overall, though, that the libertarian-insiders have been mostly extremely appreciative and agree that I did a good job. There has been the occasional "You interviewed me for two hours and didn't quote me once!" complaints, and feelings that their favorite libertarian was slighted compared to some other. It has so far—the book has only been out for a month, and is really long—been mostly movement types who have directly contacted me about it. As for outside movement comment, it has mostly come in the form of professional book reviews—which again have all been gratifyingly positive. It seems some people might think the book is too long. They are mistaken—it's not long enough!

When I met you at the Mises Institute you told me a nice little anecdote about Leonard Peikoff's unwillingness to contribute material. How did the people you interviewed for the book generally see the project?

I received almost universal warmth, support, and help. Everyone was glad that a book like this was being written, and really went out of their way to be helpful, not only with their time but frequently with access to their personal papers and magazine collections and the like. The whole libertarian world knew that it was important to get all this down, especially as many of the major players are leaving us.

We've come a long way from the Volker Fund's having to seek out material to support—PublicAffairs somehow decided they ought to publish your book, for instance. We have John Stossel on ABC and a couple of moles in the New York Times. The internet has been one of our strengths since it developed, but what does our future in the respectable world look like?

I believe libertarianism as a set of ideas and understood political tendency is very well-established, and will only become more so—for all the same reasons I believe libertarian ideas present the best solution to many ongoing and upcoming political crises. But victory for the ideas doesn't necessarily mean that the people whose stories I tell in my book will be remembered and respected for their contributions—but I hope my book's very existence will help insure that they are.

At 619 pages of text, plus almost a hundred more of notes, Radicals covers a lot of ground. Still, no one book can exhaust a subject as grand as this movement. What was the most painful thing for you to leave out?

I would like to have gone into more depth about certain lines of economic thought that have been important to modern libertarian ideology, such as the public choice school, and to delve more and give more examples of the flavor of the late 60s/early 70s world of libertarian zines, and to explore the world of libertarian science fiction in more depth. I wish I could have discussed some of the pre-1940s thinkers whose ideas helped create the foundation of modern libertarianism in more depth as well, but the book is explicitly about the modern movement, which didn't really begin till the 1940s. (All those things I mentioned are discussed in the book, but not in great depth.)

Historically (and unfortunately) we've been linked to the Right. There's a lot of talk now about allying with the Left. And of course, in the plumb-line middle, the question of why we need to ally with anybody at all. What words of wisdom does Brian Doherty offer in this debate?

I am gushily ecumenical about this, for solid libertarian reasons about belief in the division of labor and belief in Friedman's notion that one great reason we need liberty is that none of us can be sure we are right about our own beliefs or, in this case, strategies: I think libertarian ideas and alliances need to be in play anywhere and everywhere a given libertarian feels inclined to push them; I am frankly not confident enough (or bossy enough) to try to centrally plan libertarian energies; let a thousand flowers bloom, and let us try to convince left, right, and center that libertarian ideas should be of use to them.

Now that you've birthed Radicals, what's next?

I'm still coping with the promotion and general exhausting aftermath of how hard this one was to write, so I have no active next book ideas in play—though I've got a couple of non-libertarian ones I'd like to write someday, but don't really want to talk about them until I'm ready to start marketing them. My job at Reason magazine provides me with plenty of outlets to write and report about what is fascinating me in shorter forms. I do fantasize some day about writing full-on biographies of, say, Thomas Szasz or Murray Rothbard, if and when the market is ready for more along those lines. When the Mises Institute kindly allowed me access to the Rothbard letters and papers in its possession, it certainly struck me that an annotated edited collection of Rothbard's letters would both be an absolutely compelling reading experience and stand alone as a marvelous history of the libertarian movement in and of itself.

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Libertarian View on Healthcare Reform

What is the libertarian view on health insurance and healthcare reform? The Libertarian value of personal responsibility seems to go against the overall goal of healthcare reform. I would expect the Libertarian preference to be for more individualized plans.

According to Friedrich Hayek....

There is no reason why, in a society which has reached the general level of wealth ours has attained, the first kind of security should not be guaranteed to all without endangering general freedom. There are difficult questions about the precise standard which should thus be assured …. but there can be no doubt that some minimum of food, shelter, and clothing, sufficient to preserve health and the capacity to work, can be assured to everybody….

Nor is there any reason why the state should not assist the individuals in providing for these common hazards of life against which, because of their uncertainty, few individuals can make adequate provision. Where, as in the case of sickness and accident, neither the desire to avoid such calamities nor the efforts to overcome their consequences are as a rule weakened by the provision of assistance — where, in short, we deal with genuinely insurable risks — the case for the state’s helping to organize a comprehensive system of social insurance is very strong…. [T]here is no incompatibility in principle between the state’s providing greater security in this way and the preservation of individual freedom. To the same category belongs also the increase of security through the state’s rendering assistance to the victims of such “acts of God” as earthquakes and floods. Wherever communal action can mitigate disasters against which the individual can neither attempt to guard himself nor make provision for the consequences, such communal action should undoubtedly be taken.

Friedrich Hayek, The Road to Serfdom, Chap. 9, “Security and Freedom”

Reforms are Welcome

Healthcare reforms in general are a welcome needed addition to the US system. Being from the UK we have trouble understanding how people are not treated for simple and preventable illnesses simply because they cannot afford the treatment. I have even heard of patients turning to Paleo cooking just to make end meet. This is a way of surviving for people on the poverty line given the foods eaten are cheap and easily obtainable no matter what your families food budget.