Thursday, March 22, 2007

Radicals for Capitalism ... Gotta Say It!

Two libertarian authors celebrated the publication of their new books over the past two days, speaking to enthusiastic and engaged audiences more than 100 miles apart.

Today at the Cato Institute in Washington, Brian Doherty summarized, in about ten minutes, his 800-page retrospective, Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement. Last night at the Omni Hotel in Charlottesville, syndicated radio talk-show host Neal Boortz spoke to about 200 fans and signed copies of his new book, Somebody's Gotta Say It. Boortz is on the fifth week of a six-week book promotion tour.

Introduced by executive vice president David Boaz as a former Cato intern, Doherty explained that the genesis of his book came more than ten years ago when he was working at Cato, the result of water-cooler conversations with other interns and with staff members. He noted that “a great sign of how much the libertarian movement has grown,” is that, in the early 1990s, “I was the PR department of the Cato Institute.”

Getting to the substance of his remarks, Doherty explained that “one of the great things about” the story he tells in the book is that it “has a great feminist hook,” in that three of the major intellectual figures of the movement were women: Isabel Paterson, Rose Wilder Lane, and Ayn Rand. “We would not have the libertarian movement today,” he said, “without these three women.”

Paterson, Lane, and Rand all inspired Leonard Read, who established the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE), the first libertarian think tank.

Doherty explained that he “grew up in a world where there was a Libertarian Party and a Cato Institute, but that libertarian world did not exist” for people like Leonard Read. For them, living in the 1930s and 1940s, the libertarian world remained to be created. “The fact is,” Doherty said, “ these people had to forge something new for themselves – and that explains a lot.” Among other things, it explains why so many of the characters described in his book appear to be eccentric, or at least “strong-willed.”

In the early years of the libertarian movement, the movement was mostly about education, teaching people about individual liberty and personal responsibility. It was not until the 1970s, Doherty explained, that “organizations arose that saw the intersection of ideas and politics.” Among these were the Libertarian Party (LP), Cato, the Reason Foundation (which grew out of Reason magazine, then as now a major journal for the movement).

These organizations brought into public view ideas about limited government that included Social Security reform, school choice, privatization of municipal services, the end to the military draft, and the relegalization of narcotics.

“While we absolutely do not live in a libertarian dream world,” Doherty said, “the world is much improved since the 1940s,” the era explored at the start of his book.

Today we live in a world that his been influenced by such people as Ronald Reagan – who said libertarianism is the heart of conservatism – and Milton Friedman. Still, Doherty admitted, “there is no direct, 100% link between the success of libertarian ideas and the efforts of individual libertarians.” Nonetheless, “even the craziest and most adorable people have had their effects” in creating a world that libertarians aim for, one in which people can do “anything that’s peaceful.”

Responding to Doherty’s remarks was Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne, author of Why Americans Hate Politics and other books. Dionne admitted that “it is indeed true that I once went through what a Catholic would call the ‘libertarian temptation,’ but I turned it back.”

Complimenting Doherty, Dionne said, “This is a really good book, a really important book, a fascinating book.” (This was a sentiment shared by several audience members, who expressed it during the question-and-answer period later in the afternoon.)

“One of the great values of this book,” Dionne said, despite libertarians oft-expressed disdain for tradition, “is that libertarians need to be aware of the rich tradition from which they came.”

Libertarianism, said Dionne, “is the latent and unconscious ideology of millions of Americans,” a position borne out by various public opinion surveys over the years.

Looking back at the high-water mark of the Libertarian Party’s presidential ambitions – the election of 1980, in which LP candidate Ed Clark won nearly one million votes across the country – Dionne offered this analogy: “Ed Clark was to Ronald Reagan what Norman Thomas was to Franklin Delano Roosevelt.”

Reagan, he said, “was free-market enough to undercut the momentum of the Libertarian Party.”

Coming back to the present, Dionne suggested that there is now a “crack-up” between libertarians and conservatives because “six years of George W. Bush makes liberals and liberalism look very good” to libertarians.

During the Q&A, economist Arnold Kling asked why libertarian ideas have not “infected” academia, leading to two widely different responses from Doherty and Dionne.

Doherty answered Kling by saying that, thanks to the efforts of the Institute for Humane Studies, resistance to libertarian ideas in the academy is diminishing. Still, he cautioned, “most people, even when exposed to libertarian ideas, do not embrace them.” The bottom line is that “you have to have a revulsion about solving social problems at the point of a gun” in order to be a strong libertarian.

For his part, Dionne said, somewhat ruefully (by his own admission) that “libertarianism has made enormous strides in academia.” He pointed to how the law and economics movement, which did not even exist 30 years ago, has established itself in law schools across the country. He added that, again to his regret, “public choice theory is increasingly powerful in political science.”

Asked why libertarians are still marginalized in the political sphere, Doherty replied by saying that this is not the case, at least not compared to the situation of the 1940s. He mentioned having a recent conversation with a George Mason University student who pointed out to him that “in the world of Facebook, there are hundreds of thousands of young libertarians.” Consequently, Doherty concluded, “I am extremely optimistic about the libertarian future.”

The book forum at the Cato Institute was perhaps unusual in that so many people who are featured in Radicals for Capitalism were present. Obviously some of the influential characters in the book – Milton Friedman, Ayn Rand, Murray Rothbard, Friedrich Hayek – are no longer with us.

But there in the Hayek Auditorium, listening to this brief history lesson, were people like Lee Edwards, who worked on Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign; Don Ernsberger, one of the early Libertarian Party activists; Cato chairman William Niskanen, president Ed Crane, and executive vice president David Boaz; constitutional scholar Randy Barnett; draft-registration resister and citizen-empowerment activist Paul Jacob; and many others among the standing-room-only crowd. How rare it is to be able to have lunch with a book’s index.

* * *

Back in Charlottesville last night, “talkmeister” Neal Boortz – co-author of the earlier New York Times best-seller The Fair Tax Book – also drew an overflow crowd at an event cosponsored by the Virginia Festival of the Book and WINA-AM radio.

Joined on the dais by WINA morning show hosts Jane Foy and Rob Schilling, Boortz entertained the crowd for about 30 minutes with anecdotes and quips before autographing copies of his latest book, Somebody’s Gotta Say It, which is based on the program notes from his daily radio show and addresses a wider range of issues than his earlier book, which dealt only with tax reform.

“Charlottesville,” Boortz began, “is one of the radio markets I’m in that I get unbelievable support, which is amazing because it has to be the bedwetting capital of Virginia.” (The home of the University of Virginia is widely known for its liberal/progressive/socialist populace.)

Joking with former City Councilor Schilling, Boortz said, “All men are born with the same number of hormones; Rob has been using his to grow hair.” Retorted Schilling: “I am a hair libertarian.”

Replying to that in words that would be echoed at the Cato Institute the next day, Boortz suggested that “most people are [libertarian] but they don’t recognize it.”

Moving on to the topics of the day, Boortz proclaimed: “I am a global warming denier. When somebody explains to me how our carbon emissions are causing the ice caps on Mars to melt, I’ll start listening to Al Gore.”

Boortz explained that his new book was started over three years ago, even before The Fair Tax Book (which he wrote with Georgia Congressman John Linder, who has introduced the Fair Tax legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives). As published, he said, “the book is 100,000 words long – pared down from 250,000.” The original manuscript, if it hadn’t been edited, “was going to take 800 pages” (about the same as Brian Doherty’s Radicals for Capitalism, as it happens).

On another issue – his opposition to the war on drugs – Boortz said that “this is one of the good things about the Libertarian Party and one of the worst things.” It’s one of the good things, he said, because the LP recognizes that “we would save tens of thousands of lives and billions of dollars by treating drugs as a public health problem rather than as a law enforcement problem.” It is one of the worst things because, when the average American is confronted with the Libertarian platform, his first response is, “You’re the guys who want to legalize drugs” – as though that was the only principle on the LP’s agenda.

If we ended the war on drugs, Boortz explained, “you wouldn’t have the criminal element. We arrest 800,000 people a year for using or possessing marijuana,” which is safer than cigarettes or alcohol. “There is not one known case,” he continued, “of a death from an overdose of marijuana.”

In addition to these costs, he added, there is the “misery we force on people by denying them access to medicinal marijuana” to reduce the pain and suffering from terminal cancer, for instance.

Commenting on life in Charlottesville, Boortz joked that there should be a sign at the city limits that says: “Entering Charlottesville: Suspend Reality.”

Reality, he said, “doesn’t exist in a university town,” because when school is in session, the town is comprised of “people at the age who know everything and have all the answers.”

Asked how we can get Congress to pass the Fair Tax, Boortz related a story he heard from former Majority Leader John Boehner, who had told John Linder that at 27 townhall meetings in 17 states in the run-up to last year’s election, either the first or second question asked at each meeting was about the Fair Tax. “Across the country,” Boortz said, “we have to get people to hammer the subject” to their legislators, who do not like the Fair Tax because it takes power away from them and returns it to the individual.

Boortz asserted that the Fair Tax is the “most researched piece of legislation ever put before Congress,” and noted that “in order to criticize it, people have to change its terms” by, for instance, saying there should be exemptions or the percentage of the tax should be higher or lower.

The Fair Tax, Boortz said, “is a tax plan not devised by politicians. They’ve had their chance, and they screwed it up.”

Relating a story about a Brazilian politician who wanted to talk to him about the Fair Tax, Boortz warned that some other country “is going to do this [adopt the Fair Tax] and become the world’s number one tax haven, and the United States will have to play catch-up.”

Jane Foy asked Boortz what the most controversial chapter of his book has been, and he answered that it was his complaint that “teachers’ unions are a greater threat to the United States than Islamic terrorists,” which attracted quite a bit of media attention about a month ago.

Boortz went on, however, to talk about his view that “there is no right to vote in this country” – at least no constitutional right to vote in federal elections. There might be a right to vote in state constitutions, but not in the federal constitution, he said. Referring to the members of the Electoral College, Boortz suggested that “the state of Virginia could decide that the 13 best-looking Hooters waitresses in Virginia could be [our presidential] Electors.”

The question, Boortz said, is “who are we going to keep away from the polls.” The answer, he said, is to “limit the vote to people who know what the hell is going on.”

No comments: