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July 2007: Those Crazy Libertarians

July 1, 2007

If you have ever called yourself a “libertarian,” thought you might be one or been called one by others, or have a friend or relative who uses the label, you owe it to yourself to get a copy of Brian Doherty’s Radicals for Capitalism, the first-ever

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If you have ever called yourself a “libertarian,” thought you might be one or been called one by others, or have a friend or relative who uses the label, you owe it to yourself to get a copy of Brian Doherty’s Radicals for Capitalism, the first-ever history of the libertarian movement in the United States.

What Is Libertarianism?

Libertarianism Is a political philosophy that puts the protection and advancement of individual liberty before all other values. In the conventional political debate, this means libertarians call for less government and more freedom. We oppose government interference in people’s private lives and in their businesses.

This simple definition doesn’t answer the question of why individual liberty is more important, when evaluating public policies, than other values such as the general welfare, religious or moral ideals, or power and glory. In some cases freedom is preferred because government-sponsored coercion simply doesn’t work. In other cases, the more compelling reasons are moral or ethical.

Doherty observes that libertarianism is based on “a delicate ecological balance” of economic theory, moral theory, and political theory, “with history in the mix as well.” (p. 15) Because it doesn’t rely exclusively on any one of these theories, libertarianism “combines appeals to practicality and the way the world really works, through its reliance on economic logic to dissect the efficacy of state economic intervention, and a burning call to a higher justice, with its sense that there are certain things one human should not be able to force another human being to do, even if it is allegedly for her own good. Libertarianism thus provides an ideological package that is intended to resonate with both mind and heart.” (p. 5)

A Gang of Misfits

According to Doherty, the libertarian movement hardly resembles a true movement at all and is more aptly called a “radical underground” (p. 4) or a “gang of strange scholars, ideologues, and activists.” (p. 587) “A libertarian,” Doherty writes, “is almost by definition an eccentric.” (p. 328) I always suspected we were a little outside the mainstream, but I had no idea just how truly odd we were until Doherty paraded us all across the pages of his book, naked as jay birds.

(Yes, I’m in the book, thanks to The Heartland Institute meriting a page in a chapter titled “A Mainstreamed Radicalism.”)

We’re all here: Libertarian novelists Isabel Paterson, Rose Wilder Lane, and Ayn Rand--“the three furies of libertarianism,” Doherty calls them--each as idiosyncratic and impossible to live with as any character in Rand’s novels; Karl Hess, who traversed the ideological landscape from Goldwater conservative to anti-war hippie freak.

There’s LSD-popularizer Timothy Leary, gold-bug Harry Brown (two-time candidate for president on the Libertarian Party ticket), and anti-psychology psychologist Thomas Szasz, who claims mental illness is “an ugly lie told to prop up a system of tyrannical social control.” (p. 499)

There’s Robert LeFevre, founder of Rampart College, who started out in the Mighty “I AM” cult, bought 320 acres of woodland in a remote part of Colorado, and ran a boot camp for corporate executives and spoiled college kids for years. And sundry other anarchists and futurists who advocate nudism, hiding in the woods to avoid the state, alternative medicine, and creating new libertarian societies on other planets or on artificial islands in international waters.

Intellectual Giants, As Well

Not all libertarians were or are crazy free-spirits. Many of the country’s founding fathers, in particular Thomas Jefferson, Tom Paine, and James Madison, were clearly libertarians. So were Frederic Bastiat, John Stuart Mill, and Herbert Spencer, and prominent in their time but less remembered today writers and activists such as Auberon Herbert, Benjamin Tucker, and Lysander Spooner.

More recently, Nobel Laureates Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, the most influential economists in the second half of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first, were libertarians. Two prominent libertarian jurists today are U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Alex Kozinski.

Taxpayers owe much to libertarians Robert Poole and E.S. Savas, whose research and ideas have moved the production of hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of goods and services from the public sector to the private sector. And to Charles Murray, whose ideas led to welfare reform in the 1990s, and to the leaders of most of the nation’s leading taxpayer organizations, who are saving taxpayers billions of dollars each year by opposing government waste.

Neither Left Nor Right

Doherty deftly describes the history of relationships between libertarians and their ideological rivals, conservatives and liberals. One wonders how things would have turned out had conservatives embraced rather than rejected Ayn Rand and denounced rather than defended Richard Nixon for introducing price controls.

Libertarians played an important role in Barry Goldwater’s 1964 campaign for president, a campaign considered too radical for the National Review crowd to endorse. But they were expelled from the conservative movement during a raucous confrontation at the Young Americans for Freedom’s 1969 Labor Day-weekend national convention in St. Louis.

A few years later the Libertarian Party was born, in David Nolan’s living room in Denver. In 1972, the LP won few votes for its presidential ticket, John Hospers and Toni Nathan, but it did receive one electoral vote, making Nathan the first and still only woman to receive an electoral vote in U.S. history. Doherty’s treatment of the LP is respectful, even as he reports its small vote totals and the continuing tension between those who want to use the party to educate the public versus those who want to win votes and eventually elections.

Libertarianism, as Doherty writes, has been and remains “a tendency within the modern conservative right, and never the dominant one.” (p. 8) Its commitment to principles even (or perhaps especially) in the face of opposing popular opinion on controversial ideas makes it a poor choice for court intellectuals on the left or the right working for the election and reelection of politicians.

The Movement’s Future

Many of the pioneers of the modern libertarian movement in the U.S. have passed away: Rand died in 1982, Leonard Read in 1983, Friedrich Hayek in 1992, Karl Hess in 1994, Murray Rothbard in 1995, and Milton Friedman in 2006. Hans Sennholz, a movement fixture and long-time economics professor at Grove City College, passed away on June 23, as this review was being written.

The good news is that they have been replaced by intellectuals and organization builders every bit as brilliant and talented, and often able to leverage the resources of university departments, publications, think tanks, and advocacy groups that excluded the first generation of libertarians or didn’t even exist until the 1980s. Doherty estimates the resources of the modern libertarian movement to be $125 million a year.

Libertarianism doesn’t have an easy path ahead. The rapid growth of government, decline of popular literacy, and widespread ignorance of history make libertarian ideas sound radical and unprecedented. Libertarians find themselves arguing that all schools ought to be private when the public debate concentrates on closing the “achievement gap” between minority and white students attending government schools, and calling for more legal immigration when the public is mostly worried about the abuse of government entitlement programs by illegal immigrants who are already here.

Libertarians are also at a disadvantage when they call for greater human freedom for everyone across the board, in areas of great national importance as well as seemingly unimportant areas. People today don’t generally organize behind calls for such sweeping reforms, and perhaps they never did. Today’s movements are organized by race and gender, or in response to the latest perceived crises such as crime, environment, or national security.

Still, there is reason to believe that history is on the side of freedom, and libertarianism eventually will prevail. “Libertarianism,” writes Doherty, “especially its anarcho-capitalist variant, is political science fiction of a sort, imagining a social world very different from the one we’ve known.” (pp. 519-520) Presenting a vision of a world with less government and more freedom can be a powerful impetus for change, even if today’s politicians don’t recognize in libertarianism the solutions to today’s social and economic problems.

The libertarian movement today calls to mind a statement often attributed to Margaret Mead, the late anthropologist: “Never underestimate the power of a small group of committed people to change the world. In fact, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Doherty’s excellent book leaves no doubt that libertarians are “a small group of committed people,” and that they already have changed the world. Whether they will change it enough to achieve their vision of a free and prosperous world remains to be seen.

Joseph Bast ( is president of The Heartland Institute.

Joseph Bast is a Senior Fellow at The Heartland Institute. He cofounded Heartland in 1984, serving as executive director then as president & CEO until January 2018. His research and writing focuses on climate change and energy policy. @JosephLBast