[Clips] Libertarians in America

R.A. Hettinga rah at shipwright.com
Thu Feb 15 09:54:11 PST 2007

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  Subject: [Clips] Libertarians in America
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  WSJ Online


  Libertarians in America
  Free to choose, and a good thing too.

  Thursday, February 15, 2007 12:01 a.m. EST

  Scores of books have been written on the role of communists and socialists
  in the U.S., dour chronicles of welcome failure. But very few writers have
  devoted much attention to the role of libertarians, a more appealing and
  optimistic group of thinkers, political activists and ordinary citizens who
  believe that respect for the individual and the spontaneous order of market
  forces are the key to progress and social well-being.

  The neglect is strange, given how much libertarians and their
  limited-government logic have shaped the culture and economy of the U.S.
  The ideas of John Locke and David Hume animated the writings of Thomas
  Jefferson and Thomas Paine. Libertarian principles kept what we think of as
  "big government" in check for much of the 19th century and well into the
  20th, despite tariffs and war. The federal income tax officially arrived,
  in permanent form, as late as 1913. Coolidge and his Treasury secretary,
  Andrew Mellon, took a famously minimalist approach to governing. Of course,
  we now live in a post-FDR age, with government programs everywhere. Still,
  the libertarian impulse is part of our political culture. "I believe the
  very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism," Ronald Reagan

  Today, pollsters find only 2% of people refer to themselves as
  libertarians, but some 15% of voters hold broadly libertarian views and can
  be a swing factor. In the photo-finish presidential race of 2000, some 72%
  of libertarian-minded voters supported George W. Bush. Last November, many
  of them abandoned the GOP, disillusioned by its profligate ways, and helped
  hand control of Congress to Democrats.

  With "Radicals for Capitalism," Brian Doherty finally gives libertarianism
  its due. He tracks the movement's progress over the past century by
  focusing on five of its key leaders--Ludwig von Mises, F.A. Hayek, Ayn
  Rand, Murray Rothbard and Milton Friedman. The emphasis is on their ideas,
  but Mr. Doherty also takes into account their personal struggles--not least
  their feuds with other thinkers and their relation to an intellectual
  establishment that for most of their lives thought they were either crazy
  or irrelevant or both.

  Libertarian ideas have enjoyed a surge of respect lately, helped by the
  collapse of Soviet central planning, the success of lower tax rates and the
  appeals of various figures in popular culture (e.g., Drew Carey, John
  Stossel and Clint Eastwood) who want government out of both their bedroom
  and wallet. Even so, libertarianism is often not the people's choice. Part
  of the problem is the inertia of the status quo. "In a world where
  government has its hand in almost everything," Mr. Doherty writes, "it
  requires a certain leap of imagination to see how things might work if it
  didn't." Many people couldn't make that leap when, for example, economists
  proposed channeling some Social Security payroll taxes into private

  Mr. Doherty introduces us to an entertaining cast of minor characters who
  kept individualist ideas alive from the New Deal through the Great Society.
  There was Rose Wilder Lane, the editor of her mother's "Little House on the
  Prairie" frontier books, and Robert Heinlein, the science-fiction writer
  who coined the acronym "Tanstaafl" (for "there ain't no such thing as a
  free lunch"). Howard Buffett, the father of financier Warren Buffett, was a
  fiery Old Right congressman from Nebraska who compared the military draft
  to a form of slavery. During World War II, Henry Hazlitt put economic
  analysis from his friend von Mises into unsigned editorials he wrote for
  the New York Times, then a far more free-market paper than today.

  Mr. Doherty is candid enough to note that not every individualist he
  sketches consistently respected the rights of individuals. Textile baron
  Roger Milliken, for instance, required his executives to attend a
  libertarian "college" in the Rockies but also lobbied for tariffs to
  protect his products. And other libertarians showed a certain want of
  personal character. LSD guru Timothy Leary raised money for Libertarian
  Party candidates but didn't exercise the integrity or personal
  responsibility he himself said must accompany freedom. Ayn Rand sold
  millions of copies of her novels but treated her acolytes abominably and
  "ended up kicking out of her life pretty much everybody."

  Inevitably--as with any constellation of like-minded people--there is
  squabbling and the petty search for heretics. But there is also, Mr.
  Doherty shows, the great work of fertile, unorthodox minds. Harvard
  philosopher Robert Nozick abandoned the New Left when he realized
  capitalism worked best but acknowledged feeling for a while that "only bad
  people would think so." Hayek, a supreme rationalist, ended his life
  believing that "a successful free society will always be in a large measure
  a tradition-bound society." He even praised religion for encouraging
  restraint and long-term thinking "under circumstances where everyone
  believes that God will punish all for the sins of some."

  Today the Internet has become, Mr. Doherty notes, an efficient way to
  transmit libertarian ideas and show their practical application. (With its
  decentralized, free-wheeling ethos, the Internet is itself libertarian
  without even trying to be.) Jimmy Wales, the man who started the
  interactive online encyclopedia Wikipedia, believes that "facts can help
  set the world free." The largest retail market in the world is eBay, which
  allows anyone to buy and sell without a government license.

  Louis Rosetto, the "radical capitalist" who founded Wired magazine, notes
  that, even if libertarian ideas must now push against a statist status quo,
  "contrarians end up being the drivers of change." Among the most ornery
  contrarians, he says, are the libertarians "laboring in obscurity, if not
  in derision." They have managed "to keep a pretty pure idea going, adapting
  it to circumstances and watching it be validated by the march of history."
  Mr. Doherty has rescued libertarianism from its own obscurity, eloquently
  capturing the appeal of the "pure idea," its origins in great minds and the
  feistiness of its many current champions.

  Mr. Fund is a columnist for OpinionJournal.com. You can buy "Radicals for
  Capitalism" from the OpinionJournal bookstore.

  R. A. Hettinga <mailto: rah at ibuc.com>
  The Internet Bearer Underwriting Corporation <http://www.ibuc.com/>
  44 Farquhar Street, Boston, MA 02131 USA
  "... however it may deserve respect for its usefulness and antiquity,
  [predicting the end of the world] has not been found agreeable to
  experience." -- Edward Gibbon, 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire'
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R. A. Hettinga <mailto: rah at ibuc.com>
The Internet Bearer Underwriting Corporation <http://www.ibuc.com/>
44 Farquhar Street, Boston, MA 02131 USA
"... however it may deserve respect for its usefulness and antiquity,
[predicting the end of the world] has not been found agreeable to
experience." -- Edward Gibbon, 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire'

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