A beginning libertarian reading list
I grew up a political junkie — probably starting when my kindergarten teacher held a “vote” in the fall of 1980 in our class (it was a small private, evangelical Christian school, so not surprisingly, the results were a landslide).
I’d listen to talk radio and devour the opinion pages of the newspaper, but I remember being very intrigued in 1988 by the concept of third parties, that there were more than just George Bush and Mike Dukakis on the ballot, that there could be more than two standard-issue visions for how to govern. Ron Paul, and four years later, Andre Marrou, intrigued me because they seemed to take what looked on the face like outlandish positions, but looking deeper, they were very principled.
I’d always been drawn to the concept of libertarianism, I just didn’t quite know how to voice it or have role models who could help me understand a libertarian worldview — that of individual sovereignty, maximum freedom and limited government. Once I finally began to make the plunge a decade ago, I began to devour everything I could to understand the libertarian worldview.
A few days ago, I was in a group chat with a number of other Libertarians, some of whom are fairly new to the movement (or to the Libertarian Party), as I was a decade ago. Libertarianism and classical liberalism has a very deep, rich intellectual tradition, one that is growing with a number of tremendous academics working to promote liberal ideas. That chat inspired me to think about a reading list for “new” libertarians. If you’re interested in understanding the underpinnings of the libertarian/classical liberal philosophy and don’t quite know where to start, here are a few places to do so.
A great starting point
Understanding economics is to understand the foundation is voluntary cooperation for mutual benefit. Adam Smith does this very well in the “The Wealth of Nations.” I’d focus specifically on the first three chapters, as they explain the concept of the division of labor, voluntary exchange and mutual benefit.
It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.
In Book IV, Chapter 2, Smith discusses the concept of the invisible hand, where by working in our own self-interest, we also promote society in a way that was never our direct intention.
As every individual, therefore, endeavours as much as he can both to employ his capital in the support of domestic industry, and so to direct that industry that its produce may be of the greatest value; every individual necessarily labours to render the annual revenue of the society as great as he can. He generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it. By preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry, he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was no part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it.
A more modern version of the “Invisible Hand” concept comes from Leonard Read’s, “I, Pencil.” We learn how it takes the voluntary cooperation of many people, all acting in their own self-interest and using their own knowledge and expertise, to create something as simple as a pencil. It’s a great parable to show the miracle of markets, the division of labor and voluntary exchange and how they work to coordinate our actions. The Competitive Enterprise Institute has created a tremendous video version I frequently share with my students.
More economics in a bit, but I also like to direct people to Frederic Bastiat as a starting point.
One of my favorite political philosophers is Frederic Bastiat. He predates the formal “Libertarian” movement by a century, but many of his ideas are central to the libertarian philosophy.
He has two excellent contributions to the economic field. One is “That Which is Seen and That Which is Not Seen,” which begins with the tremendous “Parable of the Broken Window,” the story of how a shopkeeper has his window broken. His friends say “hey, this is great. Think of the jobs that will be created fixing it,” but the shopkeeper is nonplussed. What we don’t see is that the shopkeeper would’ve spent his money elsewhere, enhancing himself and someone else, and that’s what we don’t see. Every economic decision has a trade-off, and we often don’t see those trade-offs. Another way the Parable of the Broken Window is relevant is to refute the idea that war and destruction create economic growth. They don’t — they merely divert money from building something new and send it instead to replacing that which has been destroyed. This is taken a step further in Henry Hazlitt’s “Economics in One Lesson,” which expounds on Bastiat’s theory in several different ways.
A second economics piece by Bastiat is “The Candlemakers’ Petition,” which makes the argument for free trade by using a bizarre petition by candlemakers to show the folly of protectionism.
Libertarians believe in individual sovereignty and limited government.The Law is a piece that explains the proper function and role of government. Bastiat explains the role of a just government and the proper function of law, as well as a diatribe against the “legal plunder” of socialism.
Each of us has a natural right — from God — to defend his person, his liberty, and his property. These are the three basic requirements of life, and the preservation of any one of them is completely dependent upon the preservation of the other two. For what are our faculties but the extension of our individuality? And what is property but an extension of our faculties? If every person has the right to defend even by force — his person, his liberty, and his property, then it follows that a group of men have the right to organize and support a common force to protect these rights constantly. Thus the principle of collective right — its reason for existing, its lawfulness — is based on individual right. And the common force that protects this collective right cannot logically have any other purpose or any other mission than that for which it acts as a substitute. Thus, since an individual cannot lawfully use force against the person, liberty, or property of another individual, then the common force — for the same reason — cannot lawfully be used to destroy the person, liberty, or property of individuals or groups.
I’d suggest anything from Hayek, but specifically, there are a few pieces that are good starting points.
“Individualism: True and False” is a long essay, but is a primer on understanding how individualism works in a liberal society (and how the concept of individualism was corrupted by others in Europe). Note: When I use the term “liberal,” it’s in the context of classical liberalism, not modern progressivism, which is frequently the opposite of liberalism.
If the individual is to be free to choose, it is inevitable that he should bear the risk attaching to that choice and that in consequence he be rewarded, not according to the goodness or badness of his intentions, but solely on the basis of the value of the results to others.
“The Use of Knowledge in Society” is one of Hayek’s best works — and best-known. It discusses how our knowledge is dispersed and incomplete and nobody can possess enough to centrally plan an economy. Through that dispersed knowledge, competition, and the voluntary exchange of goods and services using market prices, we can direct goods to where they are most needed. Prices communicate knowledge we cannot — and don’t need to — possess. We act as if we had perfect knowledge just using prices.
If we can agree that the economic problem of society is mainly one of rapid adaptation to changes in the particular circumstances of time and place, it would seem to follow that the ultimate decisions must be left to the people who are familiar with these circumstances, who know directly of the relevant changes and of the resources immediately available to meet them. We cannot expect that this problem will be solved by first communicating all this knowledge to a central board which, after integrating all knowledge, issues its orders. We must solve it by some form of decentralization. … There is hardly anything that happens anywhere in the world that might not have an effect on the decision he ought to make. But he need not know of these events as such, nor of all their effects. It does not matter for him why at the particular moment more screws of one size than of another are wanted, why paper bags are more readily available than canvas bags, or why skilled labor, or particular machine tools, have for the moment become more difficult to obtain. All that is significant for him is how much more or less difficult to procure they have become compared with other things with which he is also concerned, or how much more or less urgently wanted are the alternative things he produces or uses.
Michael Munger does a good job of summarizing this in a Learn Liberty video titled “What do prices know that you don’t?” I also like this one from Don Boudreaux.
Hayek’s best-known work, especially in the United States, is “The Road to Serfdom” (an abridged version is available here). It discusses the problems with centralized planning and how liberal governments like those in the west should avoid the temptation of centralization, as it leads to bad outcomes. He was writing this from Europe, observing and commenting on the rise of communism in the USSR and fascism in Germany, Spain and Italy. My personal favorite chapter is “Why the Worst Get On Top,” but the whole book is a great and fairly easy read.
For a more advanced look: Hayek’s “The Constitution of Liberty” is his magnum opus. It’s nearly 600 pages. Margaret Thatcher is believed to have told her other compatriots, “this is what we believe” while laying the book on a desk (a PDF version is available here).
The Austrian economic tradition has been intertwined with the libertarian movement from the beginning, a line that flows from Menger to Bohm-Bawerk to Mises to Hayek (and later Kirzner, Lavoie and a number of modern scholars).
In the first half of the 20th century, the Austrians were at the forefront of critiquing the problems of socialism and central planning, even when the rest of the world seemed to be embracing centralized economic planning in some form. One of the many problems with socialism is the economic calculation problem — the idea that central planners cannot reliably know how to allocate resources because they have no means of calculating peoples’ wants and needs without market prices.
Ludwig von Mises’ “Economic Calculation in the Socialist Commonwealth” succinctly describes the problems with socialist calculation and how no socialist society can truly operate.
The first paragraph is fabulous.
There are many socialists who have never come to grips in any way with the problems of economics, and who have made no attempt at all to form for themselves any clear conception of the conditions which determine the character of human society. There are others, who have probed deeply into the economic history of the past and present, and striven, on this basis, to construct a theory of economics of the “bourgeois” society. They have criticized freely enough the economic structure of “free” society, but have consistently neglected to apply to the economics of the disputed socialist state the same caustic acumen, which they have revealed elsewhere, not always with success. Economics, as such, figures all too sparsely in the glamorous pictures painted by the Utopians. They invariably explain how, in the cloud-cuckoo lands of their fancy, roast pigeons will in some way fly into the mouths of the comrades, but they omit to show how this miracle is to take place. Where they do in fact commence to be more explicit in the domain of economics, they soon find themselves at a loss.
With a start like that, the rest of the book doesn’t disappoint.
For a more advanced look: Don Lavoie’s book “Rivalry and Central Planning” expands on the socialist calculation debate. Lavoie’s other book, “National Economic Planning: What is Left” is also a good read.
Hayek also wrote multiple essays on the socialist calculation debate, which are collected in “Individualism and Economic Order”
For a deeper understanding of the Austrian economic tradition, Steve Horwitz’s monograph “Austrian Economics: An Introduction” gives a really solid overview of the Austrian school, from its origins with Carl Menger to the market process, spontaneous order, capital allocation, socialist calculation and modern trends in the Austrian school. A seven-part video lecture series accompanying the book is also available. A book version is available here.
I could point you to many of Horwitz’s works, as he was not only a friend of mine, but one of the brilliant economists of the late 20th and early 21st centuries and communicated his ideas in an easily-understandable way. One of my favorites in discussing how markets work is the “Double Thank You” essay. Other solid pieces: this one on transaction costs, this one on emergency pricing, how markets lift people out of poverty and asking “are we really worse off than our parents?” His “Open Letter to My Friends on the Left” explaining the 2007 financial crisis is also a tremendous read. This blog is an outgrowth of Steve’s inspiration to teach economics in as many vehicles as possible.
FEE president emeritus Lawrence Reed’s “7 fallacies of economics” is a very succinct must-read.
Another great read and follow is Michael Munger. This essay on emergency pricing, “They Clapped,” discusses markets and the unintended consequences of bad laws.
To go a bit deeper, Peter Boettke’s “Living Economics” is very good. He gives readers a deep look at several of the key figures in the Austrian school and their scholarship.
Public choice theory has become a greater interest of mine. Buchanan & Tullock’s “The Calculus of Consent” is considered the prime work on public choice theory, but at more than 350 pages, one might want to start with an easier read. One of my personal favorites is Antony Davies, who explains public choice theory very well in this video (give yourself 30 minutes to watch, you won’t be disappointed). Davies and James Harrigan have recently written “Cooperation and Coercion” that describes the relationship between voluntary cooperation and coercion.
Walter Williams was not necessarily an Austrian or a public choice theorist — he graduated from the also free-market UCLA school of economics — but explains complex economic concepts in layman’s terms better and more passionately than anyone. His documentary “Good Intentions” is from the 1980s, but still holds up as a critique of public policy and how unintended consequences derive from well-intended policies.
You might note I left out Mises’ magnum opus “Human Action.” While wide-ranging, this was largely a primer for those seeking an introduction to libertarian thought. Human Action is a huge book to tackle at 900+ pages. But if you have a month or two to spare, it’s worth the read.
There’s so much more out there and this barely scratches the surface. I haven’t even mentioned works by Dierdre McCloskey on human welfare, Elinor and Vincent Ostrom on polycentric governance, et al. A few people whose work I enjoy following these days are Art Carden, Michael Munger, Russ Roberts (and his weekly “EconTalk” podcast) and Alex Salter on economics, as well as Antony Davies & James Harrigan (and their podcast “Words and Numbers”) on public choice. I’m leaving quite a few out, but hopefully this is a good starting point for someone interested in classical liberalism and libertarian thought.