It's big: 619 pages of text, followed by 94 pages of notes, a four-page "Selected Bibliography", four pages of acknowledgements, and a 19-page index.
The subtitle is "A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement." The "Freewheeling" bit is important: Brian Doherty is the opposite of stodgy, and the 619 pages—I didn't go to the notes much—go by easily.
Doherty concentrates on five people forming the "spine" of the story he wants to tell: Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, Ayn Rand, Murray Rothbard, and Milton Friedman. But along the way, he discusses many, many others.
As might be expected from adherents to an individualist ideology that views authority with a high degree of skepticism, libertarians tend to be a fractious and colorful (occasionally downright wacky) bunch. There's a lot of infighting over matters which to an outsider might seem utterly trivial. (One noteworthy example: Milton Friedman wrote an early essay on rent control for the Foundation for Economic Education with colleague George Stigler; Ayn Rand disliked it enough to refer to the authors as "two reds".) And Doherty has all the lurid details of the Rand cult and her hanky-panky with Nathaniel Branden, which turned a lovers' quarrel into an ideological schism.
But there's also a lot of solid and serious discussion of libertarianism's philosophic and economic roots and evolution, and how that played out against the dominant political issues of the 20th century. There have been some victories: conscription is gone, and it's not coming back; believers in central economic planning have been pretty much defeated in theory (although unfortunately not always in practice.) But mostly, libertarianism remains politically marginal.
There are some things I could quibble with. Doherty makes more of the friction between conservatism and libertarianism than might be warranted. National Review's Frank Meyer gets a few cursory mentions, but as an advocate of "fusion" between conservatives and libertarians, I think he deserved a bit more attention. But, as I said: quibbles. Anyone interested in where libertarianism came from will want to read this book.
Doherty concludes with a quote:
"Quintessentially and metaphysically," Murray Rothbard once wrote, the libertarian "should remain of good cheer. The eventual victory of liberty is inevitable, because only liberty is functional for modern man. There is no need, therefore, for libertarians to thirst maniacally for Instant Action and Instant Victory, and then to fall into bleak despair when that Instant Victory is not forthcoming. Reality, and therefore history, is on our side."I'm too much a conservative to take that with less than a couple grains of salt, but I like it none the less for that.