Enemies of the State

Article excerpt

Enemies of the State [Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement, Brian Doherty, PublicAffairs, 741 pages]

By Daniel McCarthy

THE HISTORIAN JOHN LUKACS has remarked on the peculiarity of American conservatives who "believe in Progress even more than liberals" do. Lake Ronald Reagan, they subscribe-at least implicitly-to Thomas Paine's belief that "We have it in our power to begin the world over again." Libertarians, who trace their lineage to the free-market classical liberals of the 19th century, have for the last 30-odd years been more progressive still, hailing the advance of technologies from the Internet to cloning for their potential to make the world new and to free men from the manacles of custom and government.

That's one kind of libertarianism, anyway-what former Reason editor Virginia Postrel calls "dynamism." It was, and maybe still is, the unofficial creed of Silicon Valley, and indeed, the link between libertarianism and the wired generation is made explicit in the person of Louis Rosetto, founder of Wired magazine, who as a Columbia University student in 1971 brought the philosophy of open minds and open markets into the pages of the New York Times Magazine with a cover story announcing "The New Right Credo: Libertarianism." (The movement is made!" exclaimed Murray Rothbard, Mr. Libertarian himself, over that coup.) The libertarian affinity for science fiction-from Robert Heinlein and Ayn Rand to Robert Anton Wilson of the absurdist Illuminatus! series-further attests to the movement's futuristic disposition.

Doherty's book, a massive, fact-packed history of more than five decades of libertarian thought and activism, serves as a reminder that this seemingly future-oriented philosophy has a rich and fascinating past. And what's more, the libertarians of 30 or more years ago were not always optimists; nor were they progressive even when they were forward-looking. Some, like Karl Hess, the Goldwater speechwriter turned New Left radical and libertarian guru, were gadget-geeks alright- but of a different sort. Community Technology was the name of one of Hess's books, and that was his passion-rooftop urban hydroponic gardens in Adams Morgan and, later, do-it-yourself living in rural West Virginia. When Hess received no takers on an offer to trade his library of political philosophy for more practical implements, he concluded, "The collective political wisdom of the ages was not worth a good set of forged-steel hand tools." Ralph Borsodi, the "back to the land" movement leader who inspired many libertarians, might have said the same thing.

Fundamentally, libertarianism-popular perceptions and the hobbies of its exponents notwithstanding-is not about technology or progress, one way or the other, but about freedom, specifically freedom from the State. In the American context, that idea has always had some overlap with larger agendas. Doherty skips over the libertarian qualities in the thought of such prominent figures as Jefferson and Paine-those, he suggests, have been covered by others-and instead begins his account with the peculiarly American anarchists of the latter half of the 19th century, men like Benjamin Tucker and Lysander Spooner and women like the individualist feminist Voltairine de Cleyre. These "unterrified Jeffersonians" took seriously Thoreau's observation that if the best government is that which governs least, then "that which governs least is no government at all." Doherty's first chapter shows well that American libertarianism is no 20th-century innovation-nor is it an import from Europe.

But European émigrés, three in particular, re-established American libertarianism in the mid-20th century in the aftermath of the New Deal and the rise of garrison state. In the early 1940s, the writers of the so-called Old Right were liberty's idiosyncratic spokesmen (and women-Doherty isn't indulging in tokenism when he highlights Isabel Paterson and Rose Wider Lane, women who made more comprehensive arguments for liberty than their male contemporaries). …