March 31, 2007 9:09PM

NYT Clueless on Libertarianism

In Sunday's New York Times, Times economics columnist David Leonhardt reviews Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement by Brian Doherty.

It might have made sense to get a libertarian, or someone familiar with the libertarian movement, or a political historian to write the review. Instead, the Times turned to someone who knows something about economics. Since the Times is the most important book review venue in the country, it's worth taking a close look at Leonhardt's complaints.

The first half of the review retells the story of Ayn Rand and the Objectivists, which is fine. It's an interesting story, though it's probably the part of the book most likely to be already familiar to Times readers. After the Randian opening, Leonhardt writes:

The story of the American libertarian movement, like the story of its most famous salon, has been a combination of small numbers and big influence. It has never really emerged from the fringe, for the simple reason that most Americans want their government to educate the young and care for the old. But over the last few decades, they have also grown increasingly skeptical of collectivist policies that go beyond the basics. Libertarian thinkers — Rand, Milton Friedman, Murray Rothbard and others — have helped foment this skepticism and then enthusiastically pointed to the alternative.

Fair enough. Most movements are small, even those that have big effects. "Fringe" is a subjective issue; if a movement produces several Nobel laureates and a chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, and plays a role in such policy reforms as the end of the draft, deregulation, sharply reduced taxes, and freer trade, is it still on the fringe?

Moving on:

Libertarianism has its roots in the writings of a pair of major 20th-century Austrian economists, Ludwig von Mises and F. A. Hayek.

That's not exactly wrong, but it's a little ahistorical. I'll stand by what I wrote in Libertarianism: A Primer: "Libertarianism is often seen as primarily a philosophy of economic freedom, but its real historical roots lie more in the struggle for religious toleration." Key libertarian ideas emerged out of the struggles for religious freedom in the late Roman Empire, the Middle Ages, and the early modern period.

American libertarianism certainly finds its roots in an earlier period than Mises and Hayek: the American Revolution, abolitionism, the fight against imperialism, war, and prohibition. But Mises and Hayek are definitely important, especially as some earlier fights — against monarchy, established religion, mercantilism, and the pre-modern blind reliance on faith and tradition — were largely won.

In 1980, Ronald Reagan would win the presidency by campaigning on laissez-faire rhetoric. The day after his election, he was photographed on an airplane reading The Freeman, the flagship libertarian magazine, while Nancy Reagan rested her head on his shoulder.

I suspect most people familiar with the libertarian movement would identify Reason as its "flagship magazine," but the Freeman was and is a fine publication, and probably better suited to Reagan's interests.

Unfortunately, the movement’s steadily increased influence makes up only a small part of the story he tells. Most of the rest deals with minor figures and faction fights.

Some libertarians have also made this complaint: too much reliance on minor figures. In fact, Brian Doherty organizes his book around five major figures: two Nobel laureates, the best-selling novelist of ideas of the 20th century, and two prolific scholars who never got the mainstream recognition they deserved but did influence thousands of libertarians. But look: this is a (freewheeling) history of the American libertarian movement. It's not a strictly intellectual book, like George Nash's Conservative Intellectual Movement in America. It's not a book about trends in American politics. It's a history of a movement, and so of course it discusses major figures and minor figures and even factional fights — that's what makes up a movement. But "most"? I count more than 50 pages on Ayn Rand and more than 40 on Murray Rothbard; that seems like sufficient attention to major figures.

Doherty, a senior editor at Reason magazine, acknowledges he has written “an insider’s history,” but it is also a sloppily written history. In a single chapter, Milton Friedman is described both as an active writer at Stanford University and, accurately, as deceased.

Well, sloppy is a subjective term. But if this is Leonhardt's only example, it's not very convincing. On page 469, at the end of several pages on Friedman, Doherty writes, "Friedman died at age ninety-four in November 2006, just as this book went to press." Get it? The book was written, edited, typeset, and on its way to the printer when the sad news of Friedman's death was announced. The publisher managed to squeeze that fact into the book, and Leonhardt pounces. If that sentence had not been included, would Leonhardt have called the book sloppy for not being up-to-the-minute?

And almost everything about “Radicals for Capitalism” is too long: the terms (“Popperian falsificationist”), the sentences that sometimes run more than 100 words, and the book itself, at more than 700 pages.

There are 127 Google hits for "Popperian falsificationist" and 1,300 for "Popperian falsification" (and at least 10 times that many if you take off the quotation marks), so it seems a reasonable term for a book about ideas. Some of the sentences may be too long, but I don't think readers are going to be intimidated by them. As for the length of the book — gee, 619 pages (plus endnotes) for a comprehensive history of a political movement? For a short history of the libertarian movement, I heartily recommend chapter 2 of Libertarianism: A Primer — 32 pages on liberalism and libertarianism, only seven of which cover Brian's topic. But if you want the comprehensive history, one that can serve as a reference on many different topics, from its five key figures to the history of various libertarian institutions, then this is the book. If Andrew Mellon is worth 800 pages in a new biography, I think the entire libertarian movement can warrant 700.

Leonhardt then devotes a long paragraph to criticizing Doherty for not adequately grappling with the mistakes and failings of various libertarian characters. Doherty does mention them — that's how Leonhardt knows about them — but it's true he doesn't make them the central theme of his book.

He relates that Rand “notoriously testified” before the big-brotherly House Un-American Activities Committee in October 1947, when the committee was investigating Hollywood, where Rand had worked as a screenwriter, but the episode receives only two paragraphs.

This is rich, coming in a review in a newspaper that still to this day proudly touts the Pulitzer Prize it received in 1932 for Walter Duranty's dispatches from Russia, reports that are now widely acknowledged to have minimized or covered up the horrors of Stalin's government-created famine in Ukraine. I'm not sure Rand should have agreed to testify for HUAC. But she told them about the ideas that Communist screenwriters were putting into Hollywood movies, and she strongly opposed any effort at government censorship. So it's hardly a terrible blot on her character, much less on an entire movement.

He skates over other questionable matters, too: for instance, that Friedman advised the murderous Pinochet regime in Chile;

Brian Doherty addressed Friedman's Chilean connection at length here. Friedman had one meeting, of less than an hour, with Pinochet. He and other Chicago-school economists recommended sound economic policies for Chile, many of which were implemented, and ever since then Chile has had the strongest economy in Latin America. Is that a bad thing? Should Friedman have refused to give sound economic advice to the government of a poor country? Leonhardt doesn't mention that Friedman spent far more time advising the murderous Communist regime in China. Friedman has noted that "I gave exactly the same lectures in China that I gave in Chile," but nobody ever demonstrated against him for that. In fact, Friedman made three trips to China and talked to government officials each time. And perhaps he could take some credit for the rapid economic growth there as well.

...that Merwin Hart “infected his free-market thought with anti-Semitism”;

Despite 30 years in the libertarian movement, and despite having read this book, I had never heard of Merwin Hart. But I found him in the index (not always an easy thing; the best criticism of this book, which Leonhardt missed, is that the index is seriously inadequate; the Rand paragraphs on HUAC, for instance, are on page 188, not 150 as the index indicates). Turns out he ran something called the National Economic Council in the 1950s. And why is he in this book? Because he's a major libertarian figure? Because he's a minor libertarian figure? No. He gets one line in this book because movement founding father Leonard Read told people to stay away from Hart because, yes, he “infected his free-market thought with anti-Semitism” — in other words, he wasn't one of us.

...and that Rothbard supported Strom Thurmond’s segregationist campaign for president in 1948 (because, Doherty casually observes, “he admired Thurmond’s states’ rights position”).

Okay, that's embarrassing. And all those whose friends and forebears did not support the pro-Soviet Henry Wallace that year are entitled to criticize. But look: Rothbard was 22 at the time, raised in a family of actual sho-nuff Communists (except for his father), and still searching for a political home. Over the course of his life he managed to support Robert Taft, Adlai Stevenson, Norman Mailer, Nixon, various Libertarian Party candidates, Pat Buchanan, Ross Perot, and George H. W. Bush. It's hard out here for a libertarian trying to find a politician to support, and Rothbard grasped at more straws than other libertarians did.

The book fails to ask why people who claim to love freedom have so often had a soft spot for those who would deny it to others.

If that's the sum total of embarrassing libertarian moments, it's a pretty darn good record over 70 years or so. Modern liberals have to deal with the fact — not an embarrassing fact but a shameful one — that many of their forebears supported Stalin and the Communist party, or were at least fellow-travelers. As for conservatives, I could mention their long resistance to liberty and legal equality for blacks, women, and gays, but instead I'll just say: George W. Bush and the Iraq war. In 70 years, libertarians have done nothing to compare to expressing support for limited constitutional government while also supporting Bush, his disastrous war, and his accumulation of unprecedented presidential power. (Leonhardt, by the way, says that one sign of libertarianism's waning influence is that Bush's "free-market approach to rebuilding Iraq has proven disastrous." Talk about cluelessness.)

The libertarians at the Cato Institute, meanwhile, are struggling to persuade people that global warming — the archetypal free-market failure — is a hoax.

Nope. Climatologist Pat Michaels, a scholar at Cato and at the University of Virginia, says that the earth is warming, that human activity is partly responsible, but that the warming is almost certainly not going to be large or disastrous.

Leonhardt concludes that the "purists" who people Radicals for Capitalism might not be happy with "cap-and-trade" energy policies, "libertarian paternalism" in health care and retirement, and other hybrids of capitalism and collectivism, but "they helped to make it possible." No, Mises and Rand and Read wouldn't be happy with such outcomes, and neither would I. But those policies are a lot better than fascism or state socialism, which seemed to be the dominant ideas when Mises and Rand started writing. And they're even better than ever-increasing FDR-style government intervention, which is what Read set out to fight.

Doherty makes the point that most of those people didn't even dream of actually changing the world. They just thought it was important to speak truth to power, to stand up for freedom even in its darkest days, and to preserve the ancient ideas of liberty and individualism until the world was ready for them. They would never have anticipated the progress that Doherty describes. Even Leonhardt acknowledges that

libertarian arguments have enjoyed a nice run. Tax rates have been reduced; once-regulated industries have been opened to competition; any two consenting adults, including those of the same sex, can now marry in some places. One of today’s most fashionable political labels, “socially liberal and fiscally conservative,” Doherty shrewdly notes, is “the basic libertarian mix."

Doherty notes that despite the growth of some kinds of taxation, regulation, and government monitoring, "it's not hard to see a world that is well worth celebrating — perhaps even reveling in — to the extent that it runs on approximately libertarian principles, with a general belief in property rights and the benefits of liberty. This is the 'neoliberal' world that has been seen by pundits and politicians all over the West as dominant since the death of communism. For most people living under it, it's doing a pretty good job of delivering the 'pursuit of happiness' part of the Declaration of Independence, at least."

No book is perfect, nor is any movement. But contra Leonhardt, Radicals for Capitalism is going to be the standard history of the libertarian movement for years to come. And it tells a story libertarians can be proud of.