Individual freedom, property rights, free trade and limited government are not exactly core values of either major party today, but they were the philosophical and political stuff America was founded on. Brian Doherty, a Reason magazine editor, has written “Radicals for Capitalism,” a “freewheeling” history of the post-World War II libertarian movement whose brilliant, principled and always outnumbered thinkers – lead by icons Milton Friedman, Ayn Rand, Friedrich Hayek, Murray Rothbard and Ludwig von Mises -- have greatly influenced American politics and public policy. I talked to Doherty Feb. 21 by phone from Los Angeles.
Q: What’s a quick synopsis of your book?
A: It tells the personal stories of the philosophers, economists, politicians and think-tankers who have pursued the often thankless task in 20th century America of pushing the ideas of libertarianism – the radical ideas that actually were at the root of the American founding. The heart of libertarianism is pretty much in the Declaration of Independence – that human beings have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, not the government guarantee of happiness.
Government’s only purpose is to protect those rights and if it does not protect those rights, we have the right to alter or abolish it. In the 20th century, a bunch of people realized, especially post-Roosevelt and the New Deal, that government was indeed violating those rights, left, right and center, and they strove to alter it, mostly through education.
Libertarians have tended to be a pretty intellectual lot. They have economists and novelists as their great leaders. The very first libertarian think tank was called the Foundation for Economic Education. They were focused on education. They believed that if they could explain the benefits of liberty and free markets to people, that the government would then follow. And while you certainly could not say they’ve been victorious, I think the story the book tells shows a lot of very encouraging successes.
Q: Why should anyone not already a libertarian read your book?
A: Because libertarianism, whether you like it or not, actually has become an idea to be reckoned with on the American political landscape. I argue in my book that such prominent Republican figures as Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan had a great deal of libertarianism at their heart and that it was the libertarianism in them that actually was most responsible for what people loved about them.