What Is a Libertarian?

In recent years, calling yourself a libertarian has become, at least in some circles, cool. Desperate media characters like comedian Bill Maher and radio host Alex Jones claim the “L” moniker from time to time in the midst of their nuttiness: leftist environmentalism by Maher, rightist conspiratorialism by Jones.

Maher seems to think being a libertarian means you’re for smoking dope and hating the church. He said on his show that the libertarian philosophy “meant that I didn’t want Big Government in my bedroom, or my medicine chest, and especially not in the second drawer of the nightstand on the left side of my bed.” When a libertarian starts reading Ayn Rand and promoting laissez faire capitalism, this “new” libertarian, as he put it, became “a selfish prick.”

Meanwhile, Jones makes a handsome living amping up those “freedom lovers” that evidently believe the government is, on one hand, too incompetent to deliver the mail and teach kids while, on the other, so collectively clever it can pull off a running tally of successful “false flag” operations from Sept. 11 to Sandy Hook, with the ultimate objective of the population happily voting for a police state.

The Ron Paul presidential runs in ’08 and ’12 have, indeed, ignited an interest in libertarianism that bears no resemblance to the Maher-Jones clown shows. It’s quite probable that you can meet reasonable, normal people at the chamber of commerce or some other local gathering that consider themselves fiscally conservative and socially liberal. Maybe that’s not “big L” libertarianism, but it’s a start. They don’t know the long tradition and central figures of modern libertarianism, but their instincts are right. And one single book can bring them (or you) up to speed.

Brian Doherty’s Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement is the authoritative history of a movement that progresses onward and upward in fits and starts, challenging government’s monopoly in all things. The author, a senior editor with Reason magazine, has been in and around the movement for decades. He reportedly worked on the book for five years. The effort shows.

The result is a book that will be considered the go-to reference on the libertarian movement for years to come. Libertarianism is about people and freedom, not policy and force. So it’s appropriate that the book is written around the five major catalysts for libertarianism: Ludwig von Mises, F.A. Hayek, Ayn Rand, Milton Friedman, and Murray Rothbard.

Doherty makes plenty of room to talk about the many characters and influences that have created a very diverse and more-than-a-little-divisive libertarian movement. The brilliance of the book is the author’s seamless inclusion of the many entrepreneurs, academics, writers, philosophers, industrialists, and just plain-old normal people who pushed the freedom movement to where it is today. And for those of us in the middle of it who wonder sometimes if we and those who’ve influenced us have really made any sort of difference in the grand scheme of things, Doherty reminds us that we have.

Libertarianism is a political philosophy. Radicals for Capitalism, however, reads like an engrossing biography, not a policy paper or history book. The movement comes to life with Doherty’s words.

One of the genuine heroes of the movement that the book enlightened me to is R.C. Hoiles. I should have known that a courageous man was behind a very libertarian daily newspaper being published from the middle of liberal California: The Orange County Register. As Doherty describes, “Orange County became known, to a large degree thanks to Hoiles himself, as ‘nut country,’ the hotbed of the rightest of the right wing.”

“Anytime a man has to pay for something he does not want because of the initiating of force by the government, he is, to that degree, a slave,” Hoiles wrote. It’s hard to imagine someone in the mainstream media business then or today writing that with all the pressures of making advertisers happy to keep the presses running.

“Hoiles was an earthy and simple man and a notorious union-busting anarchist cuss,” writes Doherty, “who’d thrust himself into picket lines surrounding his property to tell the union boys why they were all wet.” Just learning about the late Mr. Hoiles is worth the price of the book.

Leonard Read was another who devoted his life and considerable entrepreneurial skills to the freedom movement, creating the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) that thrives to this day. Read truly believed that all that needed to be done was to educate the American public about free-market economics and freedom would take hold once again. The charismatic, handsome Read was naive, but he raised millions to spread the word through publications like The Freeman, and along the way he managed to be, shall we say, the Wilt Chamberlain of the freedom movement.

Hard-money investment newsletter writers are not left out of Doherty’s history. Laissez Faire Club author Doug Casey was converted to anarcho-capitalism by reading LFC selection The Market for Liberty, written by Morris and Linda Tannehill. The world traveler was also a huge Harry Browne fan, and he followed the Tannehills’ and Browne’s lead with his own best-seller, Crisis Investing, a book that, Doherty writes, “got anarcho-capitalist thoughts into the hands and heads of an unprecedented number of Americans.”

Doherty covers, but doesn’t dwell on, the oft-told Ayn Rand cult episode, and his work on Mises and Hayek is solid. In Doherty’s view, Milton Friedman had the most influence of the five pillars of the movement. It likely didn’t hurt that Friedman was extraordinarily charming and articulate on camera as well as in person, and had a seat at the president’s table for a time in Washington.

When interviewed about the book, the author said that Murray Rothbard was his favorite of the five. “Rothbard, in one way, was the most distinctly libertarian of the libertarians. He really had his hands in every aspect of the story, was such a colorful and fun writer, and was so bracing in his radicalism that I found him the most fun to contemplate of all those figures.”

Radicals for Capitalism is loaded with stories about infighting in the libertarian movement. Newcomers might find the amount of “inside baseball” overwhelming. But the reader can easily skip over things like the Cato versus Mises Institute drama and not miss a beat.

Leaving the reader on a high note, the author appropriately gives Rothbard the last word, a portion of which reads, “Quintessentially and metaphysically, [the libertarian] should remain of good cheer. The eventual victory of liberty is inevitable, because only liberty is functional for modern man.”

Doherty’s work should be required reading for all newcomers to the growing liberty crusade inspired by Ron Paul and the tea party movement, especially would-be libertarians like Bill Maher and Alex Jones. However, requiring something like that would be, well, un-libertarian.


Doug French

Chris Campbell

Written By Doug French

Douglas French is a Senior Editor for Agora Financial. He received his master's degree under the direction of Murray N. Rothbard at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, after many years in the business of banking. He is the author of two books, Early Speculative Bubbles & Increases in the Money Supply, the first major empirical study of the relationship between early bubbles and the money supply, and Walk Away, a monograph assessing the philosophy and morality of strategic default. He is founder and editor of LibertyWatch magazine.