Brian Doherty‘s Latest – Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement I interview Brian by phone Friday, Jan. 19, 2007.
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Brian: "I’ve been a libertarian since I was 16. What turned me libertarian was reading the science fiction novel THE ILLUMINATUS! by Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea. At the University of Florida, I discovered there was a political party and intellectual movement pushing these ideas. As I wanted to learn more, I looked for a book like the one I’ve written and there just wasn’t one. "My first conscious reading and note-taking for this book began in the Spring of 1994. "The intent of the book is not to turn people into libertarians. It’s a book of history and journalism. "As a libertarian activist, I believe that this book is important in helping people take libertarian ideas seriously. "There are dozens of books on communism in the United States… To the extent that libertarianism has been dealt with in intellectual histories of the United States, it has been considered this little pimple on conservatism’s left shoulder. That’s why I wanted ‘Radicals’ in the title of the book. I wanted people to understand that libertarianism is not a right-wing philosophy. "The only book that tries to do what this book does is Bringing the Market Back In: The Political Revitalization of Market Liberalism: The Political Revitalization of Market Liberalism by political science professor John E. Kelley. It tries to tell in one hundred pages what this book tells in 700 pages."
Luke: "Is Stephen Levitt, author of Freakonomics, a libertarian?"
Brian: "I don’t know, but there’s so much economics at the heart of libertarianism. Four of the five main characters in my book were professionally economists (Milton Friedman, Ludvig von Mises, F.A. Hayek, and Murray Rothbard). Economics is the central science in helping you understand that so much of what the state does is unhelpful. It’s the intellectual discipline in which libertarianism is most respectable. Anyone who understands economics is going to have a strong libertarian streak. Government can’t do anything without taking things. It’s not a wealth-creating institution. "Milton Friedman’s son David is an anarchist. He explains how things like courts, police and national defense could be met in a free market."
Luke: "I didn’t realize that libertarianism was like a religion for some people. That there’s so much heretic-hunting, just as much as in Orthodox Judaism."
Brian: "Any intellectual movement that works in the shadows… Until the 1980s, most libertarians were thought of as freaks. This schisming provides much of the drama and comedy in the book. If you were going to be a libertarian up until the 1980s, you had to be a cussed and individualistic character… Freud talks about the narcissism of small differences. The heretic drives you crazy because they are so much like you, but they are missing that one thing. Ayn Rand was the queen of this. She ended up kicking out of her life pretty much everybody."
Luke: "It was nuts for libertarianism, as small as it was, to be so eager to kick people out." "One of the first things people think about libertarianism is sexual freedom. Libertarians believe that prostitution should be legal. Yet you do not discuss this in your book."
Brian: "Because I tried to make it a character-centered story… There hasn’t been a big name libertarian who has made that sexual freedom stuff their main focus. We’ve won most of the battles on the sex thing." "You’re not offending the average person’s mores by arguing for getting out of the U.N. or cutting taxes or decreasing business regulation… Sexual stuff is psychologically fraught with danger. Sexual morality affects people on a deeper level than questions of regulatory policy. A lot of libertarian thinkers might think that there’s no point in shoving people’s face in this aspect…"
Luke: "How is pornography John Stagliano regarded in Cato circles? I know they take his money, but…"
Brian: "I don’t know anyone who has a problem with how he makes his living. I know John. He’s a generous funder of libertarian causes. At Reason magazine, he’s a valued contributor. It’s an honor to have his support and to have him around." "Many libertarians are libertine but many are not. I do approve of the existence of pornography." "For various sociological reasons, if you are going to be an active libertarian, you have to share the standard [commitment to decriminalizing prostitution and the like]… I don’t meet many people who have old fashioned problems with other people’s sexual behavior."
Luke: Who are the most famous libertarian apostates?
Brian: I don’t know of any. "Libertarianism propagates well to the next generation." "There’s no market for a book by a libertarian turncoat. If you change your mind about libertarianism, nobody cares."
Luke: "Who were you the most excited to meet in the course of your research?"
Brian: "Barbara Branden. She was Ayn Rand’s right-hand woman. She was a lot more warm and welcoming a figure than her ex-husband Nathaniel. Rand is such a goddess on the hill to libertarians. To get close to people who were close to her was exciting…" "Most of my friends are libertarian… I long ago stopped enjoying arguing about politics." "The kind of stuff that somebody is going to come up with verbally in a social situation is going to be stupid, and that includes me. I am not at my best verbally. When we hang up, I’m going to think of a million ways I could’ve better expressed things."
Luke: Have there been flourishing libertarian communities?
Brian: "There have been various attempts… Most libertarians want to be fully engaged in the larger market, so segregating yourself based on ideology is going to impoverish you. On a libertarian standard, L.A. is nightmarish with its taxes and regulations, but it’s Los Angeles. It’s worth it."
Luke: A lot of critics would say that libertarianism does not work because it has never been shown to work for a community. I remember Marxists arguing that marxism had never been tried.
Brian: "It is true that libertarianism has never been tried."
Luke: "A problem with libertarianism is the difficulty of assessing the externalities to a transaction. The costs to a wife and kids of a husband using prostitutes. The damage to the family structure from legalized prostitution."
Brian: "On the whole, the world will be a better place if people are free. The externalities created by government are far worse than the occasional externality produced by the free market."
Luke: "Is there a compelling psychological portrait of the libertarian?"
Brian: "A pre-existing work of literature or art that in my mind provides a full and true account of the libertarian mindset? In some ways, I hope my book provides one, without me trying to judge—I hope the stories of the lives, actions, and ideas I tell about the major libertarian figures of the 20th century–and I hope I show more than tell–provides such a portrait. In literature, I cannot recommend ILLUMINATUS! by Robert anton Wilson and Robert Shea highly enough—it presents compelling libertarian characters, libertarian ideas, and is inherently libertarian in its wild style and refusal to lock the reader into one interpretation of events or ideas imposed by the author."
Luke: "Does your book break new ground?"
Brian: "Most of the material in the book is from original research."
Luke: "What things in your book will surprise an educated libertarian?"
Brian: "My favorite story in the book that almost no libertarians know about is the connection between early libertarian financiers and early psychadelic drug culture."