Editor’s note: This review appeared in the April 27 issue of National Review. National Review has many regular features and reviews that never make it to NRO — except to Digital subscribers. Consider subscribing to NR, in its paper or digital form today.
“Ayn Rand is the greatest human being who has ever lived.”
“Ayn Rand, by virtue of her philosophical genius, is the supreme arbiter in any issue pertaining to what is rational, moral, or appropriate to man’s life on earth.”
“Once one is acquainted with Ayn Rand and/or her work, the measure of one’s virtue is intrinsically tied to the position one takes regarding her and/or it.”
These, according to Brian Doherty’s new book Radicals for Capitalism, are just three of the “implicit premises” of Ayn Rand’s inner circle. These ideas were taught to young initiates through an organization called the Nathaniel Branden Institute, whose founder, Nathaniel Branden, was born Nathan Blumenthal but changed his name — so the story goes — when he fell under Rand’s spell: “Branden” is an anagram for “ben Rand,” or “son of Rand” in Hebrew. The married Branden denied this oft-repeated claim, perhaps because it would make his sexual relationship with Rand too incestuous even for one who truly did believe she was the greatest human being who has ever lived. Considering that it was National Review — in a 1957 Whittaker Chambers review of Atlas Shrugged — that famously read Ayn Rand and her philosophy out of the conservative movement as a form of cult, it seems worth mentioning all of this, if for no other motivation than team pride: “We told you so!”
That being said, Radicals for Capitalism is, quite simply, the best book of its kind ever written. This should not be interpreted as faint praise merely because it is the only book of its kind ever written (at least that I am aware of). It is an extraordinary accomplishment. Doherty, a senior editor at Reason magazine, has amassed an astonishing amount of information, often from hard-to-find sources, and presented it in a way that is accessible to the novice and illuminating to those already familiar with its subject matter (this reviewer falls into both camps, depending on the topic).
The book is by no means flawless. There are passages where Doherty lapses into movement stenography, calling the roll of those attending meetings forgotten even by most in attendance — and with such amnesia subtracting very little from human wisdom. Some overlong sentences are almost Bushian in that they start out fine, but you have no idea where they might end up. Also, there is so much material — and there are so many overlapping narratives — that at times Doherty’s timelines seem a bit tangled. But these are mere potholes in an otherwise extremely entertaining and informative ride.
One of the great sins in book reviewing is reviewing the book the author didn’t actually write, but the one the reviewer wishes he had. So in a sense mine is a sinful critique. But the biggest objection to be made to Radicals for Capitalism revolves around what the book isn’t. In its 700-plus pages of text and footnotes, Doherty doesn’t pick a single philosophical fight, at least not with fellow libertarians. This is Big Tent intellectual history, where everybody’s point of view is aired and every member gets a portrait on the clubhouse wall.
In some cases, as with the chapter dealing with Rand, one could argue that Doherty lets the damning facts speak for themselves. But, overall, Doherty has made a clear choice to offer a just-the-facts rendition of libertarian history. He uses what are clearly keen analytical tools to explain what the Rands, Rothbards, Miseses, and others had to say and how they related to one another, but he puts those tools on the shelf when it comes time to distinguish between the arguments of these largely “peculiar people” (his words). As an editorial choice this is entirely valid, perhaps even laudable: After all, libertarians, like conservatives, have no shortage of options if they’re looking for doctrinal squabbles. And libertarians, unlike conservatives, have lacked — until now — a straightforward history of their movement and tradition. This lacuna is no doubt attributable in part to the fact that libertarians often have revolutionary fire in their hearts and, like all revolutionaries, believe the past is a pile of dry bones offering little save a foundation upon which the New Order must be built.
Even so, Doherty seems at times eager to lean over backward toward ideological ecumenicalism, letting even the most peculiar libertarians have a seat at the table, no matter how inconvenient they might be to an intellectual movement fighting for mainstream credibility. Occasionally he does roll his eyes at some excesses, but never really chooses sides.
Obviously, every political movement has its own problems, conservatism included. But if you had to identify libertarianism’s Achilles’ heel, it would almost certainly be its tolerance for zealots, purists, mavericks, and, well, whack-jobs. Since the libertarians don’t see themselves as Left or Right, one can’t use the phrase “no enemies on the left [or right]” to explain their stance. But “love me, love my whack-job” gets close to the heart of it.
The revolutionary ardor of libertarianism combines with its fetishization of rationalism and consistency to make a soft spot in the libertarian heart for intellectual extremism. Murray Rothbard, the genius father figure of modern libertarianism, converted to anarcho-capitalism from classical liberalism when someone asked him: If the social contract can justify a small government, “why can’t society also agree to have a government build steel mills and have price controls and whatever? At that point I realized that the laissez-faire position is terribly inconsistent, and I either had to go on to anarchism or become a statist.” Now, there are good answers to this social-contract question — though obviously none of them satisfactory to Rothbard. The point is that only something akin to inconsistency-phobia would force someone to believe that one must endorse a Soviet Five-Year Plan if one is willing to enjoy the protection of police or courts. But Rothbard was a highly unusual type: He refused to vote for president for fear of being conscripted into “compulsory jury slavery.” Indeed, while Doherty treats him lovingly, he notes that Rothbard was a man of “crippling phobias” of such things as “traveling, bridges, and planes.”
Or consider the Libertarian party, once the repository of libertarian dreams of social transformation and now little more than an ideological chum bucket for the political refuse of the American two-party system. As Doherty notes, there is now a high wall of separation between libertarianism’s best and brightest intellectuals and policy experts and the party that ostensibly speaks for them. Gary Greenberg, the founder of the New York State LP, tells Doherty that any attempt to be relevant to electoral politics amounts to “selling out.” The “very idea of worrying about the LP becoming a major force is essentially selling out,” he explains, “because hardcore libertarianism has no mass constituency. And if you are constantly covering it up you are just playing games. There is no mass constituency for seven-year-old heroin dealers to be able to buy tanks with their profits from prostitution, and once you face that the LP has to decide: Are they compromising their principles for votes, or are they running candidates for the opportunity to educate people?”
The contrast between this sort of thinking and that found among mainstream conservatives could not be more stark. The prevailing position of the Buckleyite Right over the decades has been to lend support to the most conservative candidate electable. And, if that candidate is elected, to applaud or criticize when appropriate. The libertarian zest for purity and the ardor — particularly among its younger or more boisterous members — to mock and criticize the values of those most amenable to their message have made it virtually impossible for a mainstream politician to cast himself as a champion of libertarianism. Meanwhile, the most successful libertarian politicians have proudly called themselves conservatives.
Unfortunately Doherty doesn’t spend very much time or energy discussing the dynamic and symbiotic relationship between libertarians and conservatives. This sometimes gives the story a certain Rosencrantz & Guildenstern feel, as Doherty focuses on minor characters while giving short shrift to the avowed conservatives — many of them at National Review – who actually did much of the heavy lifting in the effort to popularize limited government.
This is forgivable, because Doherty’s aim is to highlight the fact that libertarianism has a story all its own to tell. But that story is deeply instructive about the weaknesses of libertarian political strategy. Bill Buckley worked assiduously to disassociate his brand of conservatism from the swampier varieties contending for power and influence. This took a unique combination of talents, from intellectual openness to critics — Rothbard himself attended NR editorial meetings as late as 1960, despite his sometimes vicious criticisms of the magazine’s “clerical fascism” — to sometimes painful separations from friends and former allies. Chambers’s overly harsh, but ultimately necessary, defenestration of Ayn Rand is just one such example.
Hence it should be no surprise that libertarianism’s greatest victories have come from its ability to persuade not the general public but conservatives themselves. The hot tea of libertarian radicalism is cooled in the saucer of American conservatism and made palatable. Today, libertarian economics are essentially indistinguishable from conservative economics. The Club for Growth, the Republican Liberty Caucus, and similar organs speak for “economic conservatives” — which, for all practical purposes, means libertarians. To be sure, they don’t advocate the legality of seven-year-old heroin dealers; nor do their hearts necessarily swell with pride over every Republican policy. Conservatism’s relationship to the GOP is quite analogous to libertarianism’s relationship to conservatism, in that both are punctuated with frequent disappointment and frustration. A burning question left unanswered by Doherty is whether libertarian strategy is an inevitable outgrowth of libertarian ideology. Is libertarianism capable of saying no?
No conservative should commit to a policy without first consulting the libertarian position. Indeed, once conservatism forgets to ask, “Should the government really be doing this?” it will have ceased conserving what is best about conservatism. Hence Radicals for Capitalism should be required reading not just for libertarians, but for their conservative comrades-in-arms as well.