Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement

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Radicals For Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement by Brian Doherty Public Affairs * 2007 * 741 pages * $35.00

Reviewed by Bettina Bien Greaves

Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises said, "He who wants to improve conditions must propagate a new mentality, not merely a new institution." But propagating a new mentality is not as easy as flipping a switch. It takes time; an idea that starts in the mind of one person must travel to others by persuasion-talking, teaching, writing, broadcasting, or simply by setting an example. Only if an idea gains general acceptance will it bring social change.

Brian Doherty, a senior editor of Reason, has written a "freewheeling" history of the libertarian movement developed in America by "radicals for capitalism" who have tried to "propagate a new mentality." Doherty reports the activities of many individuals-dedicated and colorful characters all-who, each for his or her own reason, helped promote the libertarian mentality.

Doherty traces the freedom philosophy back to Jefferson and the Founding Fathers, through the philosophers and thinkers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, down to present times. The ideas of Marx and Keynes, the popularity of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and two world wars overwhelmed the limitedgovernment voices that survived the Depression, effectively silencing opposition to the government. Once the war ended, however, the radicals for capitalism who had opposed the New Deal and its Keynesian spending programs began fighting back.

Three books by remarkable women, published while the war was still going on, began to rekindle faith in the old American philosophy and, according to the Cato Institute's David Boaz, can be credited with having "given birth to the modern libertarian movement." Doherty devotes a chapter to them-The God of the Machine by Isabel Paterson, The Discovery of Freedom by Rose Wilder Lane, and The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand.

Doherty identifies five individuals as having played major roles in postwar libertarianism: Mises, the Austrian-born economist who fled war-torn Europe in 1940 after teaching and writing on free-market economics for decades and then continued his work in America; F. A. Hayek, student, friend, and colleague of Mises in Europe and author of The Road to Serfdom (1944), which created a sensation by maintaining that socialist economic planning, then popular with most nations, actually leads to fascism and Nazism, the very evils the free countries were fighting; Ayn Rand, a refugee from communist Russia who wrote the dramatic novel Atlas Shrugged-which converted a generation of young people into enthusiastic advocates of capitalism and opponents of the altruistic welfare state; Murray Rothbard, son of Jewish immigrants and an ebullient, irrepressible "radical for capitalism" who attracted many enthusiastic young followers who later became serious economists and libertarians; and Milton Friedman, also the son of Jewish immigrants and a brilliant, charismatic intellectual who had substantial political success by pushing for "half steps in the direction of less government. …