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LAist Interview: Brian Doherty, author of "Radicals For Capitalism"

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Brian Doherty of Reason just wrote a big honkin book about Libertarianism. He will be signing "Radicals For Capitalism" tonight at 7pm at Book Soup (8818 Sunset Blvd., W. Hollywood), talking about, reading from, and answering questions about all things Libertarian.

We were lucky enough to get all the dumb questions out of the way for you.

LAist: The Dems are the Left, the Repubs are the Right, what are Libertarians?

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Brian Doherty: Libertarians prefer a two-dimensional grid that brings out distinctions that the line metaphor does not; for example, that both left and right are for limited liberty, just in different areas. If you make social and economic liberties both on a grid, then libertarians rank high on both, in an upper right quadrant of the grid.

Who are the biggest Libertarian movers and shakers in LA?

L.A. is home to one of America's biggest and most influential libertarian think tanks, the Reason Foundation (which focuses on introducing competition and market discipline to government functions from transportation to air traffic to education to environmental policy, and many areas inbetween), and to America's biggest circulation libertarian magazine of political and cultural reporting and commentary, Reason, where I am a senior editor.
It is also home to major libertarian thinker and former right-hand man to Ayn Rand, self-esteem psychologist Nathaniel Branden; to libertarian entertainers such as Drew Carey and (though they hate to be labeled, I think it's apt) South Park's Trey Parker and Matt Stone; Virginia Postrel, author of the influential books The Future and Its Enemies and the Substance of Style, currently a writer for the Atlantic, also maintains a home here, and brilliant UCLA legal scholar and blogger Eugene Volokh also has a very strong libertarian streak (and has the anarchist-leaning libertarian legal scholar Randy Barnett as one of his blogging staff at volokh.com) though I'm pretty sure he wouldn't label himself 100 percent libertarian; and I am proud to say that the L.A. Times, our city's paper, has two former Reason staffers now working in its editorial page department: The mighty Matt Welch and Tim Cavanaugh.

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It seems that the blogosphere is nicely represented with Libertarians. But it seems like the majority of them are Republicans in Libertarian clothing in that they do things like support BushCo way more than they support Libertarian candidates. Have you noticed that phenomenon?

Yes, there is a huge gap between thinking of yourself, or even actually being, libertarian and supporting the Libertarian Party. Many libertarians think that they can be more politically effective working within a major party (because of all the obvious problems with third party success) and trying to influence it in a libertarian direction. Many of them, disgusted with Bush and the war, are beginning to think that the Democrats are the major party most amenable to libertarian influence. (Thanks to the libertarian and small government rhetoric of GOP heroes such as Goldwater and Reagan, most libertarians have traditionally thought that the GOP was the more libertarian-friendly major party---indeed, a former LP presidential candidate, Ron Paul, is currently a sitting Republican congressman from Texas.) The Bush era has made many libertarians rethink this allegiance.

With its near-lack of rules, would you say that Craigslist, and even the pre-Google YouTube were the best example of a Libertarian dot com?

Yes, and the Internet in general is a great example of the central libertarian insight of "spontaneous order"--that fascinating, rich, and wonderful things can and will arise from people freely interacting and doing their own thing.

If Howard Stern had won his bid for Governor of NY in the '90s as a Libertarian (instead of pulling out when he was asked to disclose his income), do you think that would have helped or hurt the Libertarian movement?

I got the impression Stern was more using the LP as a ready tool for his performance art gag than a sincere libertarian, though some who know him have told me otherwise. Certainly his announced platform--reinstate the death penalty, fix potholes at night, stagger tolls to make it easier for him to get into the city--was more Sternite than libertarian. It would have gotten them permanent ballot status in New York, which is what the LP wanted to accomplish from nominating him, but his run was about Stern, not about libertarianism or the LP.

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You write, "The libertarian minimal state may be the closest we can come to utopia...a multivariate, cornucopic world where people can freely choose communities to meet their needs without being ordered around by a managing state."

How do you, Brian, personally define Human Nature? Do you think we humans could actually pull this off? Would it perhaps be the ultimate agreement to disagree?

I believe that human beings, as great libertarian economist and one of the stars of my book Ludwig Von Mises pointed out, like to act to better their circumstances, and tend to want to do so at the least subjective cost possible. That is, humans respond to the incentives that the social structure surrounds them with, and government tends to create an incentive structure where many people find it easier to take from others or boss others around to get what they want rather than dealing with them voluntarily--the distinction between what libertarian sociologist Franz Oppenheimer called the "political means" (taking from others) vs. the "economic means" (trading fairly) of getting by on earth. (That whole nifty book FREAKONOMICS is based on working out the implications of how humans respond to incentives.) Thus, libertarians think that a free market based on voluntary trade creates the best overall set of social incentives for people to be peaceful and productive, and not try to game the system to get what they want at others expense. (To my anticorporate progressives friends, I remind you that government is very frequently a weapon for corporate power to use against its competitors and citizens, as see eminent domain and tariffs, for two examples.) This does not mean we think people don't have a tendency to want to be predators---we just think that limiting government to only enforcing laws against causing physical harm to other peoples person and property is the best way to channel human incentives in a decent direction. Look at it this way: if we believe people have an evil or ornery streak, why in God's name create an institution like modern government with its hideous level of destructive powers on other life and property, and with a legal monopoly on force to boot, and allow flawed humans to control it?

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As that L.A. wise man Perry Farrell put it, "The biggest gang I know they call the government. The gang is a weapon that you trade your mind in for."

Rallying against things like preventative strikes, "fighting them there so we don't have to fight them here", secret CIA prisons, and domestic spying seem to be things that would make for a fine platform for Libertarian candidates, and topics that most Americans could get behind. Those are also topics that the Dems don't seem to be focused on - instead choosing to promote other non-Libertarian ideas like Universal Health Care. Doesn't this next election seem like the perfect time for a Libertarian to say, "hold it, we have an idea thats nothing like the Dems or the Repubs, we have real change thats not at all scary"? Are there candidates like that running Libertarian?

That sounds like an absolutely smashing program for a Libertarian candidate; it's too early in the LP cycle--they don't really have a national primary system, and the decision is made by a convention that will be held next summer--but I hope whoever ends up winning the LP nomination embraces it.

What politicians out there vote, act, and talk like Libertarians but are Dem or Republican?

From a hardcore libertarian perspective, few measure up, though Ron Paul (R-Tex.), a former LP presidential candidate, is the best example, though even he is tougher on immigration than many libertarians. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) is another pretty libertarian congressman. For the most part, the best libertarians can expect from major party candidates is being right (that is, defending Americans liberties) on certain issues on certain occasions.

Did you have a particular audience in mind when you wrote "Radicals for Capitalism?" Insiders will absolutely LOVE it. But the rest of us – well, it's a little daunting, to say the least. But, extremely well-written & researched, cheers to you! Do you envision this book eventually being used in a college course, and if so, what kind of course would it be?

As this was apt to be my only go-around on these matters in a big way, I wanted to make it comprehensive, a one-stop shop on libertarian history and ideas. I hope it is colorful and interesting enough that anyone who wants to understand some of the more peculiar, but still important, parts of modern American political and ideological history would dig it. And I think any college course on late 20th century American political or ideological history would find it a useful tool.

You also wrote: "While no longer completely subterranean, and with very real effects on the world, libertarianism is still a radical, outsider movement." (intro, p. 12)

If Libertarianism, in the broadest sense of the term – suddenly became as popular as 'grunge' and the band Nirvana did, all of a sudden, and your book basically became the "Teen Spirit" for a whole generation of people all around the world, would it be easy to reconcile and preserve the very radical and alternative foundations of the movement? And, would it be the same kind of issue that Ayn Rand had in dealing with her Objectivist followers? (i.e: attracting large numbers of followers around a particular set of ideals, while simultaneously railing against it...)

In that sense, is the cause of Libertarianism, or even Radicals for Capitalism inherently at odds with the effects?

Libertarianism's radicalism is only relative to most Americans' demonstrated political beliefs for the past century--most Americans seem quite comfortable with a government that regulates, interferes in our personal life, and taxes far more than libertarians are comfortable with. But unlike the underground arts, there is nothing inherent in libertarianism that requires it to "not sell out, man." Of course, like with fans of the underground arts who would presume that the very fact that the masses start to embrace their old favorites means that their old favorites must inherently have deliberately sold out or watered down their art, some libertarians do believe that he only way "libertarianism" will achieve mass popularity in American is to water itself down--expressed most colorfully in this line in my book from old Libertarian Party hand Gary Greenberg, who, summoning some of the most colorfully extreme extensions of the libertarian belief in complete political liberty, said "there is no mass constituency for seven-year-old heroin deals to be able to buy tanks with their profits from prostitution." (Despite general antipathy toward laws against drug possession, prostitution, and weapons possession, as long as its all voluntary and no one is harmed against their will, Greenberg is expressing an opinion, especially when it comes to kids, that is superextreme even for libertarians.)

It is likely that most people who do nowadays mark themselves as libertarian, or who libertarians want to claim as part of a nascent libertarian mass constituency because of a general belief in social liberalism and fiscal conservatism (trying to keep government as small as possible in both the economic and personal realms) are not as radical about it as some of my book's characters, like, say, the anarcho-capitalist Murray Rothbard. These days, a rough sense that free markets work out pretty well, that central control, as we saw in the old Soviet bloc, is both inefficient and tends toward evil (a point libertarian hero and one of my book's big stars, F.A. Hayek, made in his famous 1944 book Road To Serfdom) and that we don't want people with guns bossing us around or treating us differently because of things like our sexual orientation or the drugs we choose to take is pretty widespread, especially among the young and on the Internet. But that doesn't mean that the more radical applications of libertarian ideas when it comes to, say, replacing most government regulation with tort law for proven damages, or complete drug freedom, aren't still a long way away from being widely embraced. But all it would take is for people to start to agree with libertarianism for it to start to seem less radical, and the mission of the people and institutions whose story I tell is to make them understand why they should agree. For example, gay marriage and medical marijuana seemed crazily radical two decades ago---now, they are in there fighting in the mainstream. (It is also true that, like with certain ill-tempered punk rockers, certain individual libertarians for psychological reasons enjoy being part of a minority they can view as both embattled and specially enlightened, but that's a personal thing, not an ideological one really.)

Rand's issues arose from the fact that her philosophy went beyond just politics, and she thought there was something seriously wrong with people who didn't embrace every aspect of her Objectivism from metaphysics on up to musical taste. Libertarianism per se, as opposed to Rand's Objectivism (and despite her railings, she absolutely WAS libertarian politically, and one of the major influences on the modern American libertarian movement, which is why her dramatic and strange story is told at length in my book) merely requires a belief that human social relations should be voluntary and peaceful to the maximal degree possible. Your reasons for believing it, or what peaceful and voluntary life you pursue, is your own business.

Special thanks to Jeanine Natale, whose questions were also used. The website for the book is at radicalsforcapitalism.com