Book Review: Radicals for Capitalism

Brian Doherty’s "Radicals for Capitalism: a Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement" is full of drama, fascinating anecdotes and inspiration for anyone interested in liberty or American history. Doherty, a senior editor for Reason magazine, puts his investigative skills to work digging up details on a modern movement of ideas.

Although 619 pages, the book reads more like a 200-page novel. The chapters are broken up into short stories around the central theme, making it one of those wonderful books you can pick up when you only have a few minutes and not lose the overall flow.

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As the subtitle suggests, the book is very "freewheeling." It follows the lives of several individuals as they work to advance the ideas of liberty, often not in perfect chronological order. This may be frustrating for someone trying to keep a precise timeline of events and figures, but it’s also the book’s greatest strength.

If you don’t consider yourself a libertarian, or aren’t sure what the word means, the book still has much to offer. The five central figures are economist Ludwig Von Mises; economist and political philosopher F.A. Hayek; economist Milton Friedman; economist and historian Murray Rothbard; and novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand. Each of them, according to Doherty, contributed foundational ideas and efforts to the modern libertarian movement.

The book provides excellent historical lessons on the vital questions of how to most effectively communicate ideas and advance a cause. The conflict between those who sought to use the political process (in this case by founding the Libertarian Party), those who aimed for long term victory by spreading ideas one-on-one in an academic setting, and those who used popular culture to communicate en masse is present throughout the book, and most often it seems no one method can be singled out as most effective. The great diversity of opinions and approaches seems to be an asset for this loose coalition of ideologues.

Doherty describes himself as part of the libertarian movement, yet he maintains an incredibly objective tone. Some of the more entertaining sections are about major internal battles over often obscure and minute philosophical or personality differences and cult-like fringe movements that developed. The author evenhandedly presents the accomplishments, failures, praise and criticism of the actors in their quest to advance the ideas of libertarianism.

The book works as a study of how ideas can move from unheard of, to unpopular, to accepted, to popular — following the philosophical origins of policies like the elimination of the draft, welfare reform and school choice. Though much of what has been characterized as libertarianism essentially is economic theory, non-economists get an understandable synopsis of the major theories and will have no trouble understanding the book.

For someone incredibly short on reading time, the 20-page introduction for a "quick down and dirty" on the kind of narrative the book weaves is recommended. The book’s flowing format makes it easy to skip around or follow particular personalities or ideas for those who feel daunted by the prospect of absorbing an entire intellectual movement. Though the reader can get lost in Doherty’s occasional run on sentences, the journalistic style makes this a fun read packed to the brim with fascinating facts and personalities from the illustrious to the obscure.

"Radicals for Capitalism" stands as a reminder of the often decades-long work required to advance ideas and translate individual passion into political and social change. As the epilogue suggests, the modern history of liberty is not fully written and though many successes have been achieved, it is yet to be realized whether the efforts of certain individuals will radically change the world to the extent they hoped.

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Isaac M. Morehouse is director of campus leadership for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.