I finished reading Brian Doherty's book about a month ago. I figure posting my obligatory reaction is a good way to end yet another long blogging hiatus.
For those of you at all interested in libertarianism, I can recommend it as not only informative but also really entertaining; for a 600 plus page book it seemed like a quick read. I especially enjoyed its treating of some of the more obscure figures in the movement's history, as well as it's coverage of Murray Rothbard, who emerged as a more sympathetic figure than my previous image of him, which was mainly as a crank and ideologue who's highly axiomatic system of economics and ethics made him basically incapable of engaging in any constructive discourse. The presentation in the book didn't totally alter that perception, but I did come away with more admiration for his principled opposition to war and to the state, to which I've found myself increasingly sympathetic.
The book also makes an important contribution in going to considerable lengths to show that libertarianism is a substantively different ideology from modern conservatism. I find this especially important, because I've recently felt that many libertarians have become too comfortable with conservatives, who have largely become advocates of the expansive state created by the progressives. Early libertarians seemed to understand the pernicious effects of America's involvement in the cold war, which clearly separated them from the mainstream of the conservative movement. Indeed, great thinkers like Mises and Hayek clearly understood that communism was bound to be moribund and was not the omnipresent threat that conservatives saw.
I do have a few minor complaints with the book. I came away with the impression that I didn't really have a much better understanding of libertarianism as a movement. I would have liked more exploration of the broader social context in which libertarianism came about. There is some of this- Doherty does address how utterly alien libertarian ideas seemed to almost all people until the 70's or so. Perhaps I'm just craving a neat historical-sociological thesis, which may well end up being contrived.
The book also has some stylistic flaws. I felt a few passages felt a bit tacked on in an attempt to convey the "free-wheeling" spirit of our movement (this phrase does in fact appear to have been literally inserted into the sub-title of the book shortly before publication, and also appears on the cover made to look like it was stuck in there by hand). Overall, however, the prose is very clear and avoids too many flourishes, and, as I mentioned, it is a very fun read.
I'll be sure to post any other thoughts that occur to me on this subject. Till then, I recommend you read it.
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