Books cited or discussed in this essay:
Doherty, Brian. Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement. New York: Public Affairs, 2007.
Mencken, H. L. “Newspaper Morals”  in A Gang of Pecksniffs: And Other Comments on Newspaper Publishers, Editors and Reporters. Ed. Theo Lippman, Jr. New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House, 1975
- - -. Minority Report: H. L. Mencken’s Notebooks. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1956.
Brian Doherty’s Radicals for Capitalism is an outstanding book. Anyone who has read Doherty’s work over the past fifteen years or so in Liberty and Reason knows he’s an excellent writer, but as an historian of the libertarian movement, he’s also comprehensive, evenhanded, and continuously interesting.
This is not to say, however, that there are no significant problems with this book. And thereby hangs a tale …
My own small part in Doherty’s “freewheeling history of the modern American libertarian movement” begins with a walkon in a key scene on page 449. (Overall, my part is what you’d call a bit part, though I do have a few lines — and this is exactly as it should be. I’ve been around for a long time and I’ve known and worked with many of the major players in this story, but I was never a major player myself.) The situation, as the scene opens, is touch and go. It’s the late spring of 1978, a full year and a half since Charles Koch bought Libertarian Review (LR) from Bob Kephart, and a full year since he assumed control of the magazine, moving it to New York, reinstalling founding editor Roy A. Childs, Jr. in the office of editor-in-chief, and sitting back to await the steady stream of scintillating and provocative issues he knew young Childs was capable of.
Childs was capable, no doubt about that. He was brilliant. He was a fine writer and a gifted editor-in-chief, the kind of man who could talk well-established intellectuals into writing for his magazine for a tenth of what they’d earn (and a fraction of the audience they’d reach) if they sold the same article to Harper’s or Esquire or the Atlantic. He was the kind of editor who planned issues months ahead, who saw the big picture, where the magazine was heading, and why. He was also, as Doherty styles him, “the sort of man whose presence put smiles on people’s faces. He was the sort of figure all ideological movements need … the tireless networker, letter writer, phone caller, dedicated to a larger vision of a long-term libertarian project that extended beyond whatever work he happened to be doing, as dedicated to promoting and connecting other libertarian comrades as producing specific tangible work of his own.” In the late spring of 1978, as our scene opens, he was already, as Doherty puts it, “the most consistent personal inspiration and support to a rising generation of young libertarians.” (450) In the years to come, he filled that role ever more impressively and effectively.
But he could not meet a deadline. He’d never encountered one he couldn’t flout. Month to month, you could never be sure whether there’d be an issue of LR or not. Maybe you’d get one; maybe you wouldn’t. Month by month, the magazine fell farther and farther behind schedule. Charles must have known that Bob Kephart had fired Roy from his job as founding editor of LR for the selfsame sin of predictably, incorrigibly, blowing his deadlines. (Roy was replaced by the late Karl T. Pflock, who later spent some time as an editor at Arlington House publishers and at the American Enterprise Institute, and died in June of last year from Lou Gehrig’s disease after a long, successful second career as a ufologist.)
Within six months of setting Roy up in his new office in New York, Charles had decided to move the magazine, lock, stock, and barrel, to San Francisco. Out there, he apparently reasoned, Roy could be supervised, managed, rendered as productive as his obvious talent so loudly proclaimed he could be and ought to be, by the man Charles had chosen to oversee all his libertarian enterprises of the day — Ed Crane. “Boss Crane” (as he was widely known within the movement at the time) was the head man over “what Sam Konkin dubbed ‘the Kochtopus’ — a supposedly strangling, controlling monster of multiple limbs,” Doherty writes. “During the waning years of the 1970s, the new libertarian policy think tank the Cato Institute, the Libertarian Party, Students for a Libertarian Society, Inquiry magazine, and Libertarian Review were all largely Koch financed and /or ‘controlled’ by people who were.” (410) This is correct. All these institutions were at that time “largely Koch financed.” They were all headquartered in San Francisco. And they were all controlled by Ed Crane.
Ed’s first attempt to get Roy back on schedule and improve the overall professionalism of his magazine was to bring in a libertarian with professional journalism experience. Marshall Schwartz had studied economics under Murray Rothbard at Brooklyn Polytechnic in the ’60s, then headed out to Stanford for graduate school, where he fell under the ideological sway of a fellow student, the consummate young Rothbardian, Williamson “Bill” Evers. By the time Schwartz graduated, he had served as editor of the Stanford Daily, and that had led to a reporting gig at the San Francisco Chronicle. Then Evers tracked him down and asked him if he’d be interested in taking an editing job on a new fortnightly opinion magazine he (Evers) was heading up. It was to be called Inquiry.
Schwartz took the job at Inquiry, then moved on to LR, where he was defeated in fewer than nine months by Roy Childs’s virtuoso passive-aggressiveness. He was unable to get the magazine back on schedule. On top of that, for reasons I’ll come back to a little later, circulation declined on his watch. Ed decided to offer me Schwartz’s job.
Why me? Well, like Schwartz, I had a professional background in journalism. At the time Ed contacted me, in early May of 1978, I was working part-time as a reporter and producer for Public Affairs Broadcast Group, a small company in Los Angeles that provided two thirty-minute documentaries on current public issues each week to a network of around 150 radio stations coast to coast. This gig, like the radio job that had preceded it — the six years I had spent at KFWB, the dominant all-news radio station in L.A., where I had been the on-air book critic and had worked also as a fill-in anchor and writer — involved a lot of interviewing, and Ed thought LR should run more interviews. He’d been particularly impressed with an interview I’d done for the magazine with California tax rebel Howard Jarvis of Proposition 13 fame. It was running in that month’s issue.
Ed knew I was freelancing for the Los Angeles Times in this period as well, contributing to the Sunday book review section and the Sunday arts and entertainment section as well as to the op-ed page. He knew I taught broadcast journalism to community college students three mornings a week at Pierce College out in the San Fernando Valley (Ed’s old stomping grounds in his hometown of L.A. before he went off to college and became a partisan of the San Francisco Bay Area) and that I taught an extension class in reviewing and criticism one evening a week at U.C.L.A.
He’d seen all that information in the bio lines he read every month at the end of my frequent contributions to various libertarian publications, including Reason and Sam Konkin’s New Libertarian, as well as Inquiry and Libertarian Review. And from Roy, Ed knew that I was a longtime movement libertarian dating back to the ’60s (if you counted my time early on in the Objectivist movement) and a personal friend of Roy’s for about six years. I think he figured that might make it easier for me to do what Marshall Schwartz hadn’t been able to do — find a way to impose form on the creative chaos that was Roy A. Childs, Jr. Anyway, Ed must have thought it was worth a try, because he called me up and we talked and I took the job and moved to the Bay Area and got the magazine back on schedule. Then, nearly a year later, Roy got approval from Ed to add Joan Kennedy Taylor to our small staff.
Now here’s Brian Doherty’s description of the evolutionary steps in LR’s history that I’ve just described. “Childs had brought in Joan Kennedy Taylor from the 1960s Rand Circle to assist him in the late 1970s; she later wrote books reconciling feminism with libertarian individualism. Childs also hired on Jeff Riggenbach, a young radio announcer who had gone through the classic FEE/Rand background common to libertarians of his era.” (449)
Well, I’ve already mentioned my history with the Objectivist movement in the ’60s, and the part about FEE is correct, too. Altogether, I’ve no problem with the last clause in that second sentence. It’s the first clause that bothers me — the one that refers to me as a “radio announcer.” A “radio announcer.” A radio announcer! Now, for those of you out there (the majority of you, I suspect), who are now saying to yourselves, “Jesus H. Christ!” (or words to that effect) “Are you insulted because the author referred to you as a radio announcer? What’s insulting about being called a radio announcer? Will you get a life, for God’s sake? And get on it with it?” — for all those of you who are thinking that, or something like it, let me clue you in to something.
People who earn their living in radio news, whether for a major network like NPR or for one of the few local stations left in the country that employs its own news people, do not like to be called “radio announcers,” much less “jocks” or “deejays.” It’s demeaning, frankly. An “announcer” is a person who reads copy written by someone else, a person who reads anything put in front of him or her, a hired voice. This is a kind of work that requires no intelligence at all, no education at all, no information about anything. Everyone who has put in any time in radio has known one or more such “announcers” who in fact are utterly brainless. They don’t even understand what they’re reading as they read it. It’s only later, if at all, that the meaning of what they just read dawns upon them. I worked with a guy like that, a guy in his early fifties named Dick Eason, at a station in Houston in the late 1960s. One day, being a smartass kid, an insensitive punk (I was probably all of twenty-three at the time), I stole his weather forecast while he was taking a break in the men’s room and substituted one of my own devising. It called for high temperatures in the upper 90s and snow flurries in much of the area during the afternoon hours. He read it on the air, word for word, then exploded in rage a couple of minutes after emerging from the booth, denouncing me for having “messed with his bread and butter.” This is a “radio announcer.” A “jock” or “deejay” is an announcer (or, sometimes, a comedian) who plays records on the air.
The term for a person who works in radio news is “broadcast journalist” or (at least in the old days before the field became fully coeducational) “radio newsman.” Would Ed Crane have expected a “radio announcer” to be able to take over Marshall Schwartz’s job and get LR out on schedule? Would he have considered a background as a “radio announcer” the right sort of background for someone who was to do the job I was hired to do? It seems unlikely. Still, I suppose I shouldn’t be too insulted. After all, Doherty uses the same term when he discusses the early career of Robert LeFevre. “One of the most important libertarian institutions of the 1960s,” he writes, “was a school known originally as the Freedom School, and later Rampart College. It was founded and run by a former radio announcer, actor, traveling salesman … with the mellifluous name of Robert LeFevre.” (312)
On the other hand, no matter how great the importance Doherty may impute to LeFevre’s Freedom School, it’s clear that he doesn’t have much respect for LeFevre himself. He writes, for example, that “LeFevre’s philosophy, however convincing when delivered in person, lacked rigorous reasons for why one oughtn’t trespass on another’s property.” The reasons LeFevre did present boiled down to the supposedly “universal law that if you trespass on someone’s property, you’ll make him mad, and you wouldn’t want that, would you?” Doherty acknowledges that, for some, at least, LeFevre’s “folksy Golden Ruleism — you wouldn’t want someone doing it to you, would you? — had its charm.” (315) In fact, “his direct disciples include some of the most important and influential figures in the libertarian movement’s future, from Roy Childs (1970s editor of the magazine Libertarian Review) to free market environmentalism pioneer R. J. Smith to Charles and David Koch, a pair of brothers who became the biggest source of funding for libertarian causes in the 1970s and beyond.” (316) Moreover, “even in the beginning LeFevre succeeded in getting the greatest stars in the libertarian sky to come out to the Colorado mountains and shine; Leonard Read and Rose Wilder Lane and Frank Chodorov and Gordon Tullock (pioneer, along with future Nobel winner James Buchanan, in the “public choice” school of economics, which analyzed government actions as if they were as self-interested as market actions) were early guest lecturers” at LeFevre’s Freedom School. (317) Milton Friedman, Murray Rothbard, and Ludwig von Mises were others.
Doherty, however, begs to differ with these people’s implied endorsement of LeFevre and his product. “As to what it was like to be taught by LeFevre,” he writes, “well, I’ve read the books that arose from his lectures and it just doesn’t come across, whatever magic that made multimillionaires — people with not much but time left to economize — go through it all more than once, which some did.” (318) To Doherty, LeFevre is best understood as “a true Midwestern Wizard of Oz character,” who relied on his “silver voice” and his “charismatic power,” rather than the “rigor” of his ideas, to please his audiences. (313, 319)
In fact, however, what is it that is so “unrigorous” about “if you trespass on someone’s property, you’ll make him mad, and you wouldn’t want that, would you?” What is it about LeFevre’s “Golden Ruleism – you wouldn’t want someone doing it to you, would you?” that makes it “folksy” and lacking in “rigor”? What other answer could there be to the question of “why one oughtn’t trespass on another’s property” than “you wouldn’t want someone doing it to you, would you?”
The answer, of course, is that to do so would be to violate the property owner’s rights. LeFevre taught libertarianism without recourse to any theory of natural rights. But he was far from alone in doing so. Ludwig von Mises took the same tack. Mises’s libertarianism, Doherty writes, “is utilitarian; Mises does not support economic and personal liberty out of any spiritual or metaphysical doctrine of rights, but because he believes it can be demonstrated, both in theory and by observation, that liberalism ensures the greatest wealth and the greatest abundance for all.” (83) David Friedman, too, took this approach, in his classic book The Machinery of Freedom. According to Doherty, Friedman’s argument in that book developed “using the classic Friedmanite/Chicago School economic analysis of utility, mindful of empirical evidence, with rights left out of the picture entirely.” (385)
Why does Doherty not mock Mises and David Friedman (and, for that matter, David’s father, Milton Friedman — to say nothing of Friedrich Hayek) for their failure to provide “rigorous reasons for why one oughtn’t trespass on another’s property?” Could it be that it’s because Mises and Hayek and the Friedmans were never “radio announcers?” 1
But, as Ronald Reagan might say, there I go again. Not only do I keep circling relentlessly back to this probably imagined slight (isn’t it rather ridiculous to suspect Doherty of prejudice against “radio announcers” when his wife is a “radio announcer?”), but I also keep homing in on the dismayingly many small errors in Doherty’s depiction of events I myself was involved in and remember in detail.
Why? My thin skin is only a small part of it. Another, much bigger, part is a point H. L. Mencken first made in the Atlantic Monthly back in 1914. “One of the principal marks of an educated man,” Mencken wrote, “is the fact that he does not take his opinions from newspapers.” Why? “He knows that they are constantly falling into false reasoning about the things within his personal knowledge, — that is, within the narrow circle of his special education, — and so he assumes that they make the same, or even worse errors about other things. … This assumption, it may be said at once, is quite justified by the facts.” (Gang 45-46) More than forty years later, when he was putting together his last book, Mencken returned to this thought, formulating it a little differently. When it comes to newspapers, he mused, “[t]he more reflective reader … reads next to nothing, and believes the same amount precisely. Why should he read or believe more? Every time he alights on anything that impinges upon his own field of knowledge he discovers at once that it is inaccurate and puerile.” (Minority 74)
Radicals for Capitalism is not a newspaper, of course. But the only difference between newspaper writing and any other nonfiction writing is the length of the deadline the writer faces. So the point remains: if a writer makes dozens of small errors when discussing matters you the reader know intimately, can you reasonably trust him to get the rest — the part you don’t know intimately — right? Or are you a fool to extend him such trust?
And, make no mistake about it, Radicals for Capitalism is rife with such errors. To return to my example of the expansion of the Libertarian Review staff in the late 1970s, Doherty’s account (“Childs had brought in Joan Kennedy Taylor from the 1960s Rand Circle to assist him in the late 1970s. … Childs also hired on Jeff Riggenbach, a young radio announcer …”) gives the distinct impression that Joan was added to the staff before I was. Not so. I came on board in June of 1978. Joan joined us the following winter, after it became evident that, though we were now back on schedule, neither Roy nor I had the editing skills needed to improve the professionalism of our magazine. We were both good writers, and we were good enough at rewriting our other contributors to bring their copy up to something like our own standard. But we were mediocre proofreaders at best, and our ineptitude as copyeditors was appalling. The February 1979 issue of LR, one of the most famous we ever published, the one with an Aubrey Beardsley drawing and the title “In Praise of Decadence” on the cover, is crammed with embarrassing editing and proofreading errors, particularly in the lead article.
That issue also marked the nadir of LR’s circulation. It was mailed to fewer than 3,500 subscribers. Ed Crane was acutely aware of our declining circulation and the need to do something about it; I suspect one of his reasons for approving Roy’s suggestion that Joan be added to the staff was to take some of the editing and proofreading pressure off me so I could devote some time to getting a subscription campaign written and designed and in the mail. Every magazine, no matter how loyal its subscribers, loses some of those subscribers every year. Some of them, for whatever reason, don’t renew. This means that unless you stay constantly in the mail hustling for new subscribers, your circulation will inexorably decline. This is what was happening at LR. Marshall Schwartz hadn’t done any direct mail at all since taking over management of the magazine.
Not that he hadn’t had his reasons. Charles Koch had made it clear that he wanted the magazine to grow, so that, in time, it could become independent of his largesse. He had also made it clear that, though his pockets were deep, they were not bottomless; he did not want to be confronted at year’s end by a deficit any larger than the one he had agreed at the beginning of the year to pick up. The policy was clear: grow circulation, but don’t exceed the budget in the course of doing so.
The problem was that this was impossible. Circulation was rupturing so fast that it could only be stanched by expenditure of far more on direct mail than was permitted by the budget. Schwartz had a choice: conserve money and run the risk of being fired for allowing circulation to decline or build circulation and run the risk of being fired for spending too freely. He chose the first option. I chose the second. The February 1979 issue went out to a little more than 3,000 subscribers. The September 1980 issue went out to a little more than 10,000 subscribers. I had managed to triple circulation in a year and a half by viciously throwing Charles Koch’s money at the problem. In the process, I lost my job for spending too freely. My successor, Chris Hocker, reverted to the Marshall Schwartz strategy: he stayed within budget and presided over another decline in circulation. This one was terminal.
By the time that September 1980 issue had been dropped in the mail to 10,000-plus subscribers — long before, actually — Joan had managed to whip our little magazine into shape with respect to the copyediting and proofreading. In the end, it was she, not I, who imposed order on the chaos that was LR.
So what do we have? Joan was hired after me, not before. I was not primarily or principally or (for the context at hand) most significantly a “radio announcer.” And there was a whole lot going on behind the scenes that didn’t make it into Doherty’s account at all. This last is inevitable, of course. He couldn’t include everything, even if he knew it. The book is long enough as it is — more than 740 pages, counting notes, bibliography, and index. Doherty worked on it, off and on, for probably ten years (he interviewed me for it more than eight years ago, and I know I was far from number one on his list). He did an immense amount of research — and it shows. His accounts of the Big Five libertarians, the ones without whom (he says) the movement we have today would not exist or would be unrecognizable — Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich A. von Hayek, Milton Friedman, Murray Rothbard, and Ayn Rand — are detailed and properly respectful (some of the more humorless followers of Ayn Rand may quarrel with this assessment, but so be it). In fact, Doherty is scrupulously fair to everyone he discusses — and there’s scarcely anyone he doesn’t discuss, if only briefly — except Robert LeFevre. (Could it be because he was a “radio announcer?”)
Though, except for my opening caveat, I’ve probably given another impression to the reader so far by leading with an example of its errors, considered as a whole, Doherty’s new history of the modern American libertarian movement is a treasure and a triumph. It tells you something about Doherty’s impressive powers of synthesis that he was able to pull together a coherent and intelligible story out of the complicated and surprisingly intertwined histories of our movement’s founding fathers and mothers. That he has done so in so readable and diverting a way is little short of a miracle. And he has dug up some amazing nuggets of information. Do you know, for example, who (as far as can be ascertained) was the first to propose a political party under the name “Libertarian Party?” The answer will amaze you, I promise. It’s to be found on page 687. And do you know who (as far as can be ascertained) was the first to use the phrase “libertarian movement” to describe this thing we’re all involved in? That answer, which will likely be equally amazing to most modern readers, is to be found on page 132.
Still, there is the matter of those errors, which extend far beyond the confines of the single anecdote with which I began. Should there be a second edition of this book down the line, perhaps the following can be of use to those entrusted with its editing.
After the “1908 fire” that “claimed his print shop and most of his papers,” Benjamin R. Tucker did not move to France. He moved to Monaco. (48)
James J. Martin did not write “many self-published books on war-revisionist themes in the 1950s and 1960s.” (64) In those years, Martin was teaching and had little time for writing or other editorial work. He did prepare a new edition of Max Stirner’s The Ego and His Own and a new, expanded and enlarged edition of his own Men Against the State, both for the Libertarian Book Club of New York, an early movement institution that Doherty fails to mention at all. Martin didn’t even establish his small publishing firm, Ralph Myles, until 1968, when he brought out his first title, a collection of essays by diverse hands in honor of his mentor, the historian and polemicist Harry Elmer Barnes. The two “self-published books on war revisionist themes” Martin did write — Revisionist Viewpoints: Essays in a Dissident Historical Tradition and The Saga of Hog Island and Other Essays in Inconvenient History — appeared in the 1970s.
The organization that merged with “[t]he libertarians expelled from YAF after St. Louis” to form the Society for Individual Liberty (SIL) was neither the “Society of Rational Individualists” (372) nor the “Society for Rational Individualists,” (357, 687) but the Society for Rational Individualism.
When Robert LeFevre moved from Colorado to Southern California in the early 1970s, he did not “recruit a youngster named Sy Leon.” (377) Leon was no “youngster” when Roy Childs introduced me to him in 1973 — I’d say he was late forties-early fifties at that time. A former NBI (Nathaniel Branden Institute) Business Representative in Chicago, he had already been working with LeFevre in Colorado, before the move to Southern California.
According to Doherty, Robert A. Heinlein was the “author of a series of adolescent science fiction novels as well as more mature works such as Stranger in a Strange Land and Starship Troopers.” (389) This is misleading, at best. Starship Troopers was the last novel Heinlein submitted to Scribners, under a contract requiring him to supply the firm with one juvenile science fiction novel each year. It was, in effect, the last of his “adolescent science fiction novels.” The two “more mature works” for which Heinlein is best known are Strangers in a Strange Land and The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. (And by the way, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress was published in 1966, not 1967.) (385, 519)
“Throughout the 1970s,” Doherty writes, “[Sam] Konkin was the most thorough chronicler of the movement’s ups and downs with his New Libertarian Notes, a newsletter of philosophical controversies, reviews of science fiction magazines and non-party centered discussion of the world of libertarian gatherings, supper clubs, books, and magazines. He issued it weekly for most of the decade, then sporadically in the 1980s and 1990s, usually under subtly shifting names, all with the words ‘New Libertarian’ in there somewhere.” (399) This, too, is misleading at best. New Libertarian Notes ceased publication in 1975. Only thirty-seven issues had been published since its debut four years earlier, in 1971. This is about nine issues per year, on average, though the actual frequency varied from year to year. New Libertarian Weekly maintained a weekly publishing schedule for two full years (101 issues) between December 1975 and December 1977. In 1978, Sam launched New Libertarian, no longer a newsletter but a full-scale magazine, which was supposed to be monthly, but in fact appeared only about four times in what remained of the ’70s and fewer than twenty times before its demise in 1990 — not quite twice a year, on average.
Update, the libertarian gossip rag published in the late ’70s and early ’80s, was not, contra Doherty, published by the Cato Institute. (451) It was a Kochtopus publication, but had nothing to do with Cato. It appeared under the aegis of the Libertarian Review Foundation.
Harry Browne’s early ’70s bestseller was How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World not How to Find Freedom in an Unfree World (475). The “longtime party insider” who worked closely with Browne in the ’90s when he ran for president on the Libertarian Party ticket is Michael Emerling Cloud, not “Michael Cloud Emerling.” (518) The Liberty League was not “fingered … as a group of conspirators secretly plotting a fascist military coup against the president” by “General Butler Smedley,” but by General Smedley Butler. (61) The main character in Ayn Rand’s first novel, We the Living, is Kira Argounova, not “Kira Argouvna.” (135) The literary editor of Albert Jay Nock’s Freeman was not “Van Wyck Brookes,” but Van Wyck Brooks. (633) The magazine for which Rose Wilder Lane covered the Vietnam War late in her career was Woman’s Day, not Women’s Day. (129, 134) I suppose it’s possible that there may have been an issue or two of Lou Rollins’s Invictus in which the magazine’s title was spelled Invictu$ — but if any such issue(s) ever existed, I was never aware of the fact; and I was a regular contributor to Invictus from 1972 to around 1976 or thereabouts when it ceased publication. (374) The 1990 Libertarian Press reprint edition of Carl Menger’s Investigations into the Method of the Social Sciences (1883) was published in Grove City (not “Grand City”), Pennsylvania. (636) And just for the sake of the record (though it has precious little to do with libertarianism in any event), despite Doherty’s assertion that “[a] current Holocaust revisionist group, the Institute for Historical Review, had adopted [historian Harry Elmer] Barnes’s name for one of its magazines, Barnes Review,” it just ain’t so. (635) The Barnes Review was established in 1994 by Willis Carto, after he was forced out of the Institute for Historical Review.
Then there are what I suppose you could call matters of interpretation, rather than matters of fact. Doherty insists that Roy Childs was “violently against [Robert] LeFevre.” (360) He quotes a 1970 letter to Jarrett Wollstein and Don Ernsberger of SIL in which Roy describes LeFevre’s ideas as “a group of doctrines so evil as to be capable of destroying libertarianism as an ideology,” the “intellectual equivalent of rat poison,” and “a bunch of inane garbage.” (676) This certainly sounds violent enough, and I’m hardly in a position to deny that Roy wrote that letter. But I do deny that he was “violently against” Bob LeFevre.
When I met Roy in 1972, we were both living in Los Angeles, where LeFevre was then very active. Sy Leon (LeFevre’s right hand man) and his wife Riqui hosted a monthly salon at their beautiful home in nearby Santa Ana during that period. This was an event that ordinarily drew fifty or more mostly younger libertarians on any given evening, many of whom drove the forty miles from L.A. in order to be there. Roy took me down to Sy and Riqui’s house sometime early in 1973, and we attended regularly after that, until Roy left Southern California for New York the following fall. For the last twenty years of his life, I was one of Roy Childs’s closest friends. I was in telephone contact with him almost every day, irrespective of where the two of us were living. You’d think that if Roy were “violently against” Bob LeFevre, I’d have known about it. Yet Roy introduced me to the Leons and attended their parties himself; he printed an encomium to LeFevre in the “Liberty’s Heritage” department of LR in April of 1981; he wrote a sidebar to that encomium in which he called LeFevre “one of the great teachers of liberty,” a man whose “consistent opposition to violence and aggression led him to remain dedicated to libertarian ideals even in the midst of the warmongering of the Korean and Vietnam Wars,” a man “principled and dedicated to a pristine individualism, supporting private property, the free market, and international peace,” a man who had “performed virtual miracles in keeping individualist thought alive,” a man who “had a profound influence on me,” a man to whom “everyone in the growing libertarian movement owes … a salute of thanks.” (12-13) Roy never spoke an unkind word of LeFevre in twenty years of my hearing. And the subject came up frequently enough, I assure you. In my early years in L.A. I was much intrigued by LeFevre and more than a little impressed. I said as much to Roy, and he responded enthusiastically — in pretty much the same vein as his published comments nearly a decade later.
No. I don’t believe for a moment that Roy was “violently against” Bob LeFevre. I do believe that Roy wrote the letter Doherty quotes. I know that Roy sometimes told people what they wanted to hear – especially in private conversation and especially if he wanted something from them. But I don’t believe that letter expressed his true feelings, then or later. The most negative thing I ever heard him say about LeFevre was that LeFevre wasn’t much of a writer, so that you had to attend a speech or lecture of his to understand why so many people found him so special.
Doherty, too, complains, as we have seen, that “whatever magic” LeFevre might have possessed “just doesn’t come across” to him when he reads LeFevre’s books. I discovered the same thing, to my dismay, in Los Angeles in 1973 and 1974. I’d seen and heard LeFevre on the lecture platform. I was impressed. I visited the local used bookstores and tracked down copies of most of his books. I read them. I wasn’t particularly impressed. LeFevre wrote simply, directly, clearly, but not especially well. He had no ear for the music of prose. He lacked imagination. He was colorless. You really did have to see and hear him to understand the magnitude of his reputation. Even video and audio records of LeFevre’s lectures are less impressive than he was in person — but they’re still better than merely reading his words on paper.
In this respect, Le Fevre resembles another early libertarian pioneer, Leonard Read, the founder of the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE). As Doherty writes, Read “tended to carve deep and lasting marks in the minds and souls of those he spoke to. Part of it came from the fact that he would neither argue nor pretend to agree when he didn’t, but stick to his own principles with unshakable equanimity. But his power is not, alas, fully potent in most of the written words he left behind in his dozens of books, almost all collections of short essays he wrote for FEE, and published by FEE.” (163-164) Somehow or other, though, Read escapes LeFevre’s fate. He is neither mocked nor accused of intellectual vacuity. He is compared to neither the Wizard of Oz nor to “a suspiciously oleaginous snake oil pusher.” (319) Perhaps it’s because he was never a “radio announcer?”
Well, as the youngsters say, “Whatever.”
Another of those cases of differing interpretations where Doherty and I are concerned involves Bob Kephart. Doherty maintains that Kephart, “a former publisher of the right-wing Human Events” (and the first publisher of Libertarian Review) “was converted by [Karl] Hess and [Murray] Rothbard to a more anarchistic libertarianism and became a longtime funder of libertarian causes.” (556-557) Well, I wonder about that. At the memorial service held for Roy Childs in New York City in June 1992, I was asked to read aloud the written statements of several prominent libertarians who were unable to be present. One of those written statements was from Bob Kephart. His statement credited Roy, not Hess or Rothbard, with converting him from conservatism to libertarianism. Doherty doesn’t cite a source for his claim that Hess and Rothbard did the converting. I think the horse’s mouth is a pretty good source, so I’m going with Kephart’s version.
On still another matter of interpretation, Doherty and I seem to see pretty much eye to eye. Like all of us who have spent much time in what Murray Rothbard famously called “this movement of ours,” Doherty has wondered whether it’s all been worth it, whether we’ve accomplished anything, whether we ever will accomplish anything. Doherty is a bit coy about his own past as a libertarian, mentioning frequently that he’s involved in the movement himself, but never mentioning when he became involved or how; clues in the text suggest, however, that he was born in the late ’60s or very early ’70s, that he’s somewhere between thirty-five and forty, and that he’s been involved in the libertarian movement for around twenty years. This is plenty long enough to begin harboring questions of the sort just mentioned.
When Leonard Read first took over the Freeman in 1954 and installed Frank Chodorov as the editor, Doherty reports, he hoped to earn a profit from the project. But “Read couldn’t make the Chodorov Freeman turn a profit, since there was no mass audience for Chodorov’s radicalism.” (204) Two decades later, Doherty tells us, when a couple of ambitious Kochtopus magazines, Inquiry and Libertarian Review, failed to meet their goals for increased circulation, one “former recipient of Koch largess” identified the problem behind the problem: “what we’re tying to do is sell the world something that they don’t want.” (449)
Only a year or two ago, when it became obvious that George W. Bush’s version of the Social Security reform idea that had originated a quarter-century before in a policy study commissioned and published by the Cato Institute was not going to fly — when it became obvious that, as Doherty puts it, the libertarian proposal, softcore and wishy-washy as it was by libertarian standards, just “wasn’t a solution the country or the politicians were ready for” — many libertarians, according to Doherty, were willing to wager that “the American people just don’t want responsibility for their own retirements,” because they’re “comfortable for the most part with the way things are.” (573-574) And, by the time he reaches the closing pages of his book, Doherty himself seems to have come around to this way of thinking, too. Commenting on Kochtopus functionary George Pearson’s observation that “Charles [Koch] doesn’t like to spend money on things where he doesn’t see results,” Doherty writes that “it’s hard to quantify results when selling a product that people don’t want. Libertarianism is a set of ideas that are not popular, explaining why you need a dedicated ideological movement to try to sell them.” (604)
Does Doherty believe the effort to sell our unpopular ideas has been worth it? He does. “The libertarian movement’s major victory,” he writes, “has been taking an idea that was once considered hateful and crazy — or nonexistent — and making it an understood part of a larger political-social debate.” Thanks to the efforts of those involved in the movement over the past sixty years (and especially the past thirty-odd years), Doherty writes, libertarianism is now “an understood — if often derided or even feared — part of the political landscape” in America. (587)
This is correct, and it represents a victory for the libertarian movement that goes far beyond anything I ever expected for it when I first became involved in Objectivism back in the mid-1960s. I was under the influence of Ayn Rand then, of course, and Rand always warned that, where politcs is concerned, “it is earlier than you think” — that is, we have much work to do changing the culture before we can hope to win political victories with our ideas. By 1978, when I took a full-time position with the Kochtopus (it was my first movement job), I was no longer so much under Rand’s intellectual sway but had not yet made my way fully to the essentially Rothbardian position I hold today. A horrified Bill Evers, having sought me out early in 1977 to invite me to write for Inquiry (which had not yet begun publication) and having engaged me in a little conversation, sounding me out about my libertarian and other intellectual influences, reported back to Rothbard and Crane that this Riggenbach guy Roy Childs was touting was “a Stirnerite with LeFevreian tendencies.”
I was in transition — that’s the truth of the matter. I hadn’t finally decided yet what I thought about certain key issues. But, though I was already drifiting in a markedly Rothbardian direction, I had not swallowed Rothbard’s case for libertarian optimism. I thought the idea of freedom in our time was preposterous. I suspected the idea of freedom anytime in the future was just as preposterous. And I frequently said so. Doherty quotes me as having said, back in September of 1998, when he interviewed me for this book, that I recalled many of my colleagues in the Kochtopus in the late ’70s as fervent believers that “this was the revolution, that what we were doing here is changing the world. I thought what we were doing was putting out a magazine, surrounded by people who had read and loved the same obscure things I had read, and were interested in the same ideas I was, in a congenial atmosphere.” (449)
When I used to say, around the Libertarian Review office that we would never have a free society in our lifetimes and that I doubted there would ever be such a society at all, I was often asked, incredulously, why, if I believed that, I was there, in that place, doing the things I was doing. “I’m here to put out a magazine,” I told my interlocutors. “I’m here to speak the truth to those who will listen, no matter how small their numbers may be. I’m here to tweak the nose of the State. These things are ends in themselves for me. Even if there’s never a free society, I’ll have had a great time.”
In truth, of course, I was there not only to put out a magazine, but also to produce a daily radio program. It was called Byline. It was underwritten by the Cato Institute from early in 1979 to the last day of 1990. Doherty reports that Byline was “aired by 150 stations at its height,” but in fact these are only the stations not affiliated with any network — the stations that received the program on tape directly from Cato via the U.S. mail. (452) Byline was also on the NPR satellite and could be downloaded from there by any of the more than 600 public radio stations then operating in the United States. Byline was also on the Associated Press satellite and could be downloaded from there by any of the more than one thousand stations then subscribing to AP’s radio service. We had no way of knowing how many programmers at stations like these aired Byline without ever telling us they were doing so. But I know such programmers existed. A year or two after Byline ceased production, I spent a few months working part-time as a fill-in program host, working other people’s vacations and illnesses at a classical station and NPR affiliate in one of the top ten markets. There I met a fellow who had previously been operations manager at public radio stations in St. Louis and Orlando. He knew my name and my voice from Byline, which he told me he had aired at both his previous stations. How many such people were there at stations affiliated with NPR or AP in the 1980s? Who knows?
I do believe, however, not only that Doherty is right about “the libertarian movement’s major victory,” but also that Byline played a role in bringing that victory about. Byline was on the air every day of the week (Monday through Friday) on at least 150 radio stations around the country for more than ten years. I suspect there are more than a few Americans for whom it became a familiar part of the work week during that period. Doherty quotes me as having told him that “the idea of Byline” was “to have people identified as liberals like Nat Hentoff and Nicholas von Hoffman, and people identified as conservatives, like Tom Bethell and Howard Jarvis, we’d pick people from either side who weren’t apt to emphasize things libertarians would find offensive, then slip in libertarians among them as if they were of equal stature with the others, and pull the wool over the public’s eye and win the revolution. So far as I’ve been able to ascertain, it didn’t work.” (694)
Sigh. Attempts at humor are wasted on some people. I did make those comments about pulling the wool over he public’s eye and winning the revolution, but I meant them as a light jest — a further reference to the somewhat romanticized vision of what we were doing that many of my Kochtopus colleagues seemed to lend their credence to. In fact, Byline was designed to do something much more modest than win the revolution. It was designed to plant the idea in people’s minds (and gradually get them used to it, until it seemed obvious to them) that “libertarian” was another choice on the political spectrum, different from “liberal” or “conservative” but of equal stature with either of them. I suspect it worked. I suspect listening to Chuck Walsh, the Byline “radio announcer” (the guy who read the intro and the close for each day’s Byline commentary), saying “informed commentary from liberal, conservative, and libertarian perspectives,” saying it day in and day out, day after day, week after week, for nearly eleven years, had the desired effect. I suspect nearly eleven years of hearing Michael Kinsley one day, Jeff Riggenbach the next, Senator William Proxmire the next, and Joan Kennedy Taylor the next — just as though all these people were of equal or comparable stature — eventually made them of equal or comparable stature in the minds of millions of listeners. They may not have agreed with the libertarian take on current ideas and issues, but they could no longer regard it as either a lunatic fringe thing or as something they’d never heard of at all. Thanks to the Kochtopus, they now heard about it on the radio every few days, and when they picked up their daily newspapers, they read articles by writers identified as editors of Libertarian Review and articles about the activities of something called the Libertarian Party.
It was the legendary acting teacher Lee Strasberg, cast in the role of Hyman Roth, whom Wikipedia calls an “elderly Jewish organized crime figure retired to Miami and overlord of criminal enterprise[s] in Cuba” (that is, a renamed Meyer Lansky), who spoke a probably immortal line in an onscreen conversation with Al Pacino (as Michael Corleone) in The Godfather: Part II: “This is the business we have chosen.” Doherty writes that “Old movement hand Ralph Raico was known to sigh, at news of the latest absurdity or strategic misfire or failure on the part of a fellow libertarian, echoing the Godfather, ‘This is the movement we have chosen.’” (614)
I used to hear Ralph say that back in the ’70s, but I always thought he’d got it from Murray (Rothbard). Burt Blumert seems to remember things the same way. “‘This is the business we have chosen,’” he recalled nearly four years ago in a short Internet essay, “was Murray Rothbard’s favorite line from Francis Ford Coppola’s great movie and he often adapted it when confronted by some wacky or unprincipled libertarian.” 2
Well, this movement of ours, this movement we have chosen, is a brilliant success, I’d say. We’ve put libertarianism on the map intellectually, in a way it simply wasn’t as recently as thirty-five years ago. This is as much as — perhaps more than — could reasonably have been hoped for. Those who hoped for too much, too soon; those who grossly underestimated the forces in American culture that are arrayed firmly against any sort of recrudescent libertarianism; and especially those today, whether they call themselves “neo-libertarians” or “mainstream libertarians” or the “reform” element in the Libertarian Party or the promoters of “libertarianism” within the Republican Party — all those who seek quick political wins for libertarianism by the simple expedient of pushing unlibertarian candidates and unlibertarian ideas and calling them “libertarian”: let all these dreamers consider the following open invitation.
Read this book. Its chief excellence — far from its only excellence, but the one that stands out above all the others — is that it places this movement of ours in context. Even if you’ve been involved for forty years (as I have), Doherty enables you to see the libertarian movement from the point of view of an informed and sympathetic outsider; he enables you to see the movement as it fits into the larger picture that is recent American intellectual and cultural history. In a significant sense, he gives this movement of ours what it has long needed — a useful history, a useful past.
Let Doherty show you the movement as it appears from this unfamiliar perspective. See if you don’t agree that you’ve been unrealistic in your expectations. See if you don’t agree that at least some of you have allowed your unrealistic expectations to lure you into the fatal error Murray Rothbard (following V.I. Lenin) identified as “right-wing opportunism.” See if you don’t agree with me in the end that Doherty is right — the movement, judged realistically, is a brilliant success.
If you do, and if you ever have occasion to visit Houston, however briefly, drop me an e-mail and let me know you’re coming. We’ll go out for a pint. We’ll raise a toast to this movement we’ve chosen and to its outstanding success. I’m sure we’ll get along swimmingly. Just don’t call me a “radio announcer,” okay?
Jeff Riggenbach has been writing for libertarian publications for thirty-five years. He has been a contributing editor of New Libertarian, Inquiry, Reason, and Liberty magazines. He was executive editor of The Libertarian Review and executive producer of Byline, the nationally syndicated daily radio program underwritten throughout the 1980s by the Cato Institute. Since the dawning of the Internet and the World Wide Web, he has contributed to Antiwar.com and LewRockwell.com, as well as to Rational Review. His first book, In Praise of Decadence, based on essays he contributed to The Libertarian Review, Reason, and New Libertarian during the 1970s and ’80s, was published by Prometheus Books in 1998 and is still in print. Over the years, Riggenbach has addressed numerous libertarian gatherings, including national conventions of the Libertarian Party and Students for a Libertarian Society, as well as the Future of Freedom Conferences of the 1980s and various libertarian supperclubs in the Los Angeles and San Francisco metropolitan areas. His career in mainstream journalism, which has included gigs at USA Today and CNN Radio, is described in detail in the 2006 edition (and earlier editions) of Who’s Who in America.
1. LeFevre wasn’t best typified as a “radio announcer,” either, of course. If he had been, he’d never have got the job Doherty mentions as “news director at a Fort Lauderdale TV station.” (251) Nor would he have got hired on as editorial page editor of the Colorado Springs Gazette Telegraph. The first time I applied for a job at one of R. C. Hoiles’s papers — it was the Orange County (Calif.) Register in 1984 — I was rejected because, though I had plenty of experience in broadcast journalism, as a magazine editor, and as a writer selling articles to newspapers (including the Register itself), I had never held a job on a newspaper before. Nearly two years later, after a brief stint as an editorial writer at the Oakland (Calif.) Tribune, I was finally able to talk the Register into taking me on.
2. See Blumert, Burton S. “This Is the Movement We Have Chosen.” 16 April 2002. Online at http://www.lewrockwell.com/blumert/blumert50.html
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