David M. Brown's Blog

September 9, 2009

Why I haven’t finished Radicals for Capitalism, maybe

Filed under: News — davidmbrowndotcom @ 6:22 am

I’ve had the book on my shelf for a few years now. But although I have a devouring interest in its subject, the history of the modern libertarian movement, and in all the movers and shakers and what was right and wrong with them, I could never quite get into Brian Doherty’s throughgoing historical survey Radicals for Capitalism. I’ve dipped in and out. Something about the approach of the book seemed annoyingly detached, as if it were in the mode of a determinedly neutral Wikipedia entry, even when the author is taking jabs (e.g., at Ayn Rand). Does objectivity mean that you’re above the fray?

In a 2007 review published at the Mises.org site that I just stumbled across, economist Joseph Salerno may have articulated what put me off. I say “may have” because I have yet to slog through the book in its entirety. So, Salerno, let’s just keep this between you and me for now. But I think you’ve probably hit the nail on the head in at least this passage of your essay:

The outstanding merit of Brian Doherty’s book is that it contains a treasure trove of valuable information regarding the events, personalities, periodicals and organizations whose complex interplay influenced the intellectual and institutional development of the modern American libertarian movement. But its merit also becomes its defect in the hands of the author, who appears at times to be completely overwhelmed by the wealth of information he has collected, unable or unwilling to critically evaluate the facts and events he recounts and assimilate them into a coherent narrative.

For the most part, we remain agnostic on just why the author proceeds in this manner. He may believe that such a disorganized and uncritical “freewheeling” approach is more entertaining to read. He could, for strategic reasons, be attempting to obscure his own biases or the uncomfortable conclusions that a critical analysis of his facts lead to. Or he may simply be an inept or lazy reporter. Whatever the case his method does not serve the cause of truth and historical accuracy.

It is incumbent upon the historian to carefully evaluate and weigh the accuracy and truth value of the sources, especially the participants’ accounts, relating to the historical episode or epoch that he seeks to recount and explain. He is not a mere chronologist of brute facts and occurrences, but an interpretive analyst identifying and weighing the relative significance of the causes of the complex events that he weaves together into an intelligible narrative.

Doherty’s abdication of this essential role of the historian at critical points is bad enough, but to make matters worse he enlists interested participants in the movement not only for their recollections and descriptions but for the interpretive analysis that he is so derelict in supplying.

If this observation is correct, or partly correct, it lessens but does not eliminate the value of having all the information on all these threads about the modern libertarian movement compacted into one volume. And even if he did blunder in setting his approach to the project, Doherty is a clear and able writer. The job of synthesis that must have been required to tell the book’s story, probably entailing many years of research, is impressive.

Doherty responded to Salerno in a 2007 post about “The Austrian Economics Wars.” (I could not reach the page directly so am linking to a cached version of it.) Discussion by economist Pete Boettke and others of Salerno’s criticism of Boettke’s perspective on obstacles to the academic progress of Austrian economics, an off-the-cuff rumination that is liberally quoted in the book and that is the focus of most of Salerno’s review, may be found at The Austrian Economists blog.

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