“Read Magazines, not Books” – Review of The Complete Libertarian Forum: 1969-1984
By Duncan Whitmore
“Read magazines, not books”. Such was the advice given to me by Theodor H Nelson, for whom I had the privilege of working for a number of years when I was a fresh-faced graduate. In Dream Machines (1974) Nelson, who is not a libertarian, had earlier justified his imperative by stating that “magazines have far more insights per inch of text, and can be read much faster”.
It is only after having finished The Complete Libertarian Forum: 1969-1984 (LF) – two, formidable volumes of a total of 1,200 pages of small print, the reading of which has occupied me on and off for the past year or so – that I can see precisely what Nelson meant, and more. For LF is not only a treasure trove of ongoing theoretical debates within libertarianism and of libertarian viewpoints on important global events at the time; it is a record of the successes, failures, triumphs and tragedies of the libertarian movement in one of the most turbulent periods in recent history.
LF was a monthly (occasionally twice-monthly or – by the end of its life – bi-monthly) periodical that was conceived by Murray N Rothbard and Joseph R Peden in response to a number of events at the end of the 1960s:
- The growth of the libertarian movement beyond the confines of Rothbard’s own living room;
- The dearth of libertarian journalism generally at the time, particularly with the closure of the journal Left and Right (1965-8) which had attempted to extract and unite libertarian residuals from Buckleyite conservatism on the right and also from the emerging “New Left” with its opposition to the Vietnam War, the draft and the military-industrial complex;
- The looming threat of the new Nixon administration which (at the time) looked set to swallow the right in a new aura of presidential idolisation similar to how “Eisenhower coddling […] had helped to wreck the Old Right in the 1950s” (Vol. VI, No.4, p.2). LF launched its assault on the Nixon administration from in its very first issue.
The number of regular contributors was always small (as was the budget – the magazine’s middle period, in particular, suffers from an unfortunate plethora of typographical errors). In fact, the vast majority of the material is written by Rothbard, who served as editor. Nevertheless, in addition to Rothbard, Peden and Karl Hess (who had a regular “Washington” column in the magazine’s earlier days), there is a sufficient number of guest writers who, between them, provide ample variety – notably Leonard P Liggio, Jerome Tuccille, Butler Shaffer, Roy Childs Jr., Bill Evers, Ralph Raico, David Osterfeld, Joseph R Stromberg, Richard M Ebeling, Randy E Barnett, Justus Drew Doenecke and Walter Block. The late Chris R Tame, the founding director of the Libertarian Alliance, also contributes a couple of items in the early 1970s.
LF provides real-time, libertarian commentary on a number of important US and global events:
- The campaigns, elections and presidencies of Nixon, Ford, Carter and Reagan (the assessments of how these administrations would later unfold is especially interesting, and often accurate);
- The closing of the gold window by Nixon;
- The proliferation of the Vietnam War and the draft;
- Wage, price and other economic controls in the wake of the stagflationary environment and the oil crises of the early 1970s;
- Watergate and its fallout;
- The end of the “Keynesian consensus” and the rise of monetarism;
- The foreign policy foibles of the US and its allies throughout the period; in addition to Vietnam, there is, notably, the Israel-Palestine conflict, the Falklands War, the Iranian Revolution, and forays into the Middle East, South America, etc.
- Communism and the Cold War.
In addition there were plenty of events which had a significant impact on the libertarian movement:
- The rise and subsequent decline of the Libertarian Party (founded 1971);
- The passing of Mises (1973) and the subsequent award of the Nobel Prize to Hayek (1974), which led to a resurgence in “Austrian” scholarship;
- The publication of Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State and Utopia (1974).
- The founding of the Cato (1974) and Mises (1982) Institutes.
More than this, however, LF is a gold mine of theoretical debates on both timeless and topical subjects such as abortion, education, drugs, taxes, homesteading, punishment, “Reagonomics”, the Women’s Liberation Movement, secessionist and independence movements (such as in Quebec), the rights of Native Americans, nuclear warfare and nuclear power, and the domestic politics of foreign countries (including an unfavourable opinion piece on Margaret Thatcher from before she became Prime Minister). Many of these take the form of back and forth articles by a number of contributors with differing views.
As if this was not enough, LF also branches into revisionist history (Ralph Raico’s devastating assault on Winston Churchill spans an entire issue), book reviews, obituaries, reprints of some old and rare essays, and Walter Block publishes some earlier drafts of chapters that would later be consolidated into the highly popular Defending the Undefendable.
Amongst all of this, one of the ongoing topics in the volumes that may be most relevant to us today is the ebbing and flowing fortunes of the libertarian movement throughout this period – what it did right, what it did wrong, and how it both benefited and suffered from circumstance. There is much to learn from this record about the pitfalls of steering a political movement, and in this regard the rise and fall of the Libertarian Party (with which Rothbard was heavily involved) is a case in point.
The LP achieved considerable growth and electoral success on the wave of increasing disillusionment with state authority in the post-Nixon, stagflationary milieu of the 1970s. It then suffered a decline after 1980 as the free market rhetoric of Reagan drained the party of support, and Reagan himself restored faith in both the office of the president and in the state more generally (in presidential elections the LP did not exceed its 1980 tally of 921,128 votes for another thirty-two years). Among the specific lessons that libertarians today can learn from the trials and tribulations of the LP are the following:
- Relying on a single, wealthy donor is fraught with risk. In this case, the individual concerned was billionaire oil magnate Charles Koch, whose overarching influence on the LP through his network of subordinates Rothbard nicknamed the “Kochtopus”. While access to huge funds obviously allows a movement to accomplish much more than it otherwise would, the price tag is the danger of the entire movement falling under the preoccupations and priorities of the particular donor (which may or – more likely – may not be what the movement needs to achieve success);
- In this vein, political movements or parties need to have a number of centralised and decentralised elements that keep each other in check; too much power at the top results in a boundless dictatorship; too much power scattered across many centres of influence results in a lack of focus and drive;
- Avoiding short term opportunism and adhering to principle was a major difficulty for the LP during this period; not all libertarians necessarily have the same priorities on the same timescales, nor, consequently, is an agreed platform necessarily easy to formulate; the gradual straying onto opportunistic paths was, in this case, greased along by the machinations of the “Kochtopus”;
- In some cases, ideology cannot always trump effectiveness – it is often better to hire a non-libertarian if he is better at a certain task than it is to hire a lesser able person who happens to have healthier libertarian credentials;
- Libertarians are not necessarily nice to each other(!) All of the usual failings of human beings – pride, egotism, narrow-mindedness, competitiveness, personality clashes, etc. – are as present in libertarians as they are in everyone else. A general, shared commitment to a philosophy does not necessarily guarantee harmony (and, in some ways, may even be a stumbling block in a movement in which disagreements can be caused by varying commitments to ideological “purity”).
One slight drawback of the continuing narrative on the Libertarian Party in this era is that it is nearly all authored by Rothbard, who was an active participant in the events he discusses. As a result, the picture is rendered entirely by his opinions and whichever side of any disagreement or debate he happened to be on. Occasionally, therefore, one feels that it would be nice to hear from the other side. (Rothbard, as LF editor, does allow opinions contrary to his own to be published, but this seems to be lacking when it comes to the LP, probably because LF was known to be Rothbard’s “baby” and so any “rivals” in the LP were nearly always writing in publications which belonged to other factions). None of this, however, diminishes the value of the lessons outlined above.
An additional delight in every issue of LF is a number of more light-hearted, comedic columns. In “From the Old Curmudgeon” Rothbard pokes fun at the absurdity of modern fashions, trends and bandwagons, while under the pseudonym “Mr First Nighter” he reviews accomplishments in the arts (mostly films and jazz music) in the same vein. Needless to say, “Mr First Nighter” rails against the avant-garde in defence of old-fashioned, “bourgeois” values such as those displayed in spy, detective and Western movies, often reserving particular savagery for films that displease him: in a noted edition, Rothbard describes 2001: A Space Odyssey as a “pretentious, mystical, boring, plotless piece of claptrap” while Star Wars is written off as a “silly, cartoony, comic-strip ‘movie’ that no one can possibly take […] seriously”.
Finally, another amusing column appearing in the magazine’s earlier days is the tongue-in-cheek “Shaffer Dictionary” (authored by Butler Shaffer) that defines political terms in light of reality. I leave you with some of the more amusing entries while hoping that this review has encouraged you to dig deeper into this wonderful set of volumes.
EDUCATION: The method I use to promote my ideas
PROPAGANDA: The method you use to promote your ideas
GREEDY: One who puts his selfish interests ahead of mine
GENERAL WELFARE: That which serves my personal interests
BOONDOGGLE: That which serves yours
POLITICIAN: one who, recognizing the value of truth and reason, seeks to preserve the same by economizing their use
CANNIBALISM: Pre-capitalistic socialism
The Complete Libertarian Forum: 1969-1984 can be downloaded for free from the Ludwig von Mises Institute.