If You Only Read One Book About Libertarianism
Libertarian-ish Rand Paul is officially running for president. For those looking to understand libertarianism, or how it influences Paul, this book is a good place to start.
So Kentucky Senator Rand Paul is officially running for the Republican presidential nomination and surging in the polls.
Apart from his hair, the oddest thing about Paul might be that he regularly transgresses conventional partisan positions: He’s a diehard free-marketer who says that same-sex marriage “offends” him, which makes him sound like a conservative Republican straight out of Central Casting. Yet he lead a world-shaking 13-hour filibuster attacking President Obama’s “secret kill list” and drone policy, is regularly attacked by neocons as Neville Chamberlain 2.0, and more than any other possible 2016 hopeful of either party has underscored racial disparities in criminal justice and drug war policies. Whatever his personal feelings about gay marriage, he’s on the record saying, “I don’t want my guns registered in Washington or my marriage.” This is not a typical politician and it’s why he’s been called “the most interesting man in American politics” by Time.
If you want to better understand Paul’s “libertarian-ish” ideology, there is one book worth reading with special careMy 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.
If that has whet your appetite, and you want to continue reading, a second book to check out is Arthur A. Ekirch’s The Decline of American Liberalism. Originally published in 1955 with the Cold War at a full simmer, Decline offers up a unique reading of American history from the colonial period on as a struggle between forces of centralization and decentralization. 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.
Ekirch’s titular liberalism refers to the 19th-century variety of the term, which is far closer to contemporary libertarianism than, say, Ted Kennedy’s policy agenda. A critic of the draft and economic planning—as well as of McCarthyism—Ekirch worried that living in a “garrison state” that is forever on war footing inevitably limited all sorts of social and economic freedoms while granting the government more and more power to surveil and regulate citizens.
Today’s great patriotic war, of course, is being fought not against international communism but Islamic terrorism. But to the extent that the war on terrorism is underwriting massive intervention abroad and at home, The Decline of American Liberalism is an essential guide to the connection between civil liberties and economic ones that libertarians take for granted but often seem puzzling to conventional conservatives and liberals.