"If You Read One Book on Libertarianism…" for God's Sake, Make it This One! Or Two.


Rand Paul is running for the Republican presidential nomination and his politics are somewhat bewildering to many. How can someone be a Republican but question the sagacity of military intervention, care about criminal justice reform, and push hemp legalization legislation? The Daily Beast asked me to recommend to its readers a book that would help clarify where Rand Paul is coming from. Here's a snippet:

If you want to better understand Paul's "libertarian-ish" ideology, there is one book worth reading with special care. My Reason colleague Brian Doherty's magisterial Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement gives unparalleled insight into the socio-political milieu that helped to spawn Rand Paul. Published in 2007, Radicals for Capitalism does a great job of explaining the ideas and groups that animated Paul's father Ron, the former congressman and Libertarian Party presidential candidate whose influence on his son is plain to see (if not absolute)….

Tying together such disparate and often-cranky characters as novelist Ayn Rand, economist Ludwig von Mises, Nobel Prize winners F.A. Hayek and Milton Friedman, and the firebrand polemicist Murray Rothbard, Doherty chronicles how a diffuse movement formed from post-war fears over the centralization of political, business, and social power. Such centralization, libertarians worried, led inevitably to unwarranted trust in the ability of a few smart boys—"the best and the brightest" as they were known in the Kennedy years—to call the shots in more and more aspects of our lives.

While hardly scanting intellectual debates about post-war economics and foreign policy, Radicals for Capitalism is at its best recounting the ins and outs of fights among feuding libertarians and recounting fleeting moments of triumph, such as when future Wired magazine co-founder Louis Rossetto co-authored a 1971 New York Times Magazine cover story titled "The New Right Credo: Libertarianism," LSD guru Timothy Leary held a 1988 Beverly Hills fundraiser for Ron Paul, and Milton Friedman zinged Gen. William Westmoreland during hearings of the Gates Commission, convened by Richard Nixon to study the feasibility of all-volunteer army. After Westmoreland harrumphed that he wasn't interested in leading a force of "mercenaries," Friedman asked "Would you rather command an army of slaves?" Radicals for Capitalism comprehensively explains the sociology of the libertarian movement and its curious-seeming emphasis on laissez-faire in personal matters as well as economic ones.

Doherty has also written an account of Ron Paul's political career that's worth reading.

In the Beast piece, I offer up a recommendation of Arthur A. Ekirch's The Decline of American Liberalism, originally published in the mid-1950s and reissued a few years back the The Independent Institute with a great intro by Robert Higgs.

A historian of militarism, Ekirch feared that in our quest to defeat the Soviet Union, we had ironically ended up valorizing the collective at the expense of the individual, ushering in an age of conformity in politics, culture, and commerce. "Liberal values associated with the eighteenth-century Enlightenment—and especially that of individual freedom," wrote Ekirch in the year when The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit was published, "have slowly lost their primary importance in American life and thought." Big government, big business, big labor—all these things were more closely interrelated than anyone wanted to acknowledge, argued Ekirch.

Whole piece here.