So, you’ve tasted the first tantalizing fruit of the liberty-curious tree and you want more, do you? Well, never fear. If there’s one thing we nerds at Free the People know something about, it’s books. The list below should provide you both with some accessible jumping off points to learn more about the economics and philosophy of libertarianism, as well as some deeper cuts and more ambitious reads for the truly obsessed. Happy reading!
For the beginner, there’s no better place to start than Matt Kibbe’s own Don’t Hurt People and Don’t Take Their Stuff: A Libertarian Manifesto. Kibbe lays out the basic principles of libertarianism, while also relating the details of his own intellectual journey. Another similar work designed to introduce libertarianism to an unfamiliar audience is The Libertarian Mind: A Manifesto for Freedom, by David Boaz, which is a no-nonsense and approachable primer.
Of huge import not only to Matt Kibbe, but to the libertarian world at large, are the works of Ayn Rand who, unique among the authors here, used fiction to promote her message of free minds and free people. Her short novel Anthem is a science fiction dystopia that posits a futuristic society in which the individual was suppressed to the point where the word “I” was unknown. Having escaped from the Soviet Union as a girl, this was something Rand knew a lot about. This book also served as the inspiration for the rock band Rush’s epic “2112” album, which remains one of the most libertarian pieces of popular music ever produced. Rand followed Anthem with The Fountainhead, a manifesto for artistic integrity and creative freedom in which a gifted architect struggles against a world that doesn’t value excellence. Rand’s final novel, and her most famous, was Atlas Shrugged, which pits the businessman, the innovator, and the entrepreneur against a morally and philosophically bankrupt government filled with moochers and leeches. Rand’s passionate defense of the self and one’s right to one’s own happiness became distilled in a philosophical movement called “Objectivism” which boasts many adherents in libertarian circles.
If you’re interested in a libertarian approach to economics (and let’s be honest, who isn’t?) you can’t do better than to begin with Henry Hazlitt’s Economics in One Lesson, a short and simple book that explains why government intervention in the economy almost always fails. Hazlitt’s book is essentially an update of an essay by the French economist Frédéric Bastiat called That Which is Seen, and That Which is Not Seen, which along with The Law is essential reading for its clear-minded approach to the subject.
Bastiat is a favorite among libertarians, but he was not a member of the influential Austrian School which you may have heard about, and which constitutes a majority of libertarian economic theory. There are many Austrian economists worth exploring, but the two you should absolutely know are F.A. Hayek and Ludwig von Mises. Both have written many influential (and long, and difficult!) books, and it’s hard to know where to begin. Hayek’s last book, The Fatal Conceit, is arguably his most approachable, while The Road to Serfdom is his most popular and The Constitution of Liberty is a summation of his entire philosophy in a single volume. All of these works deal with Hayek’s understanding of the market as a complex process driven by the independent, yet related, actions of millions of individuals, and the impossibility of a central planner having enough knowledge to replicate the spontaneous order of an economy.
Ludwig von Mises’s magnum opus is called Human Action, an immense doorstopper that outlines his entire economic theory, beginning from the axiom that human beings act in order to satisfy wants and achieve goals. It’s a towering achievement, but for those who prefer something a little easier to start with his book Liberalism is a shorter, more digestible defense of economic freedom which focuses more on philosophy than economics. Mises’s book Socialism is also worth mentioning, as its systematic dismantling of socialist economic theory is what built Mises’s reputation, and remains influential to this day.
Before moving on from Mises and Hayek, two more books must be mentioned, both dealing with a similar topic: the idea that science can solve economic problems just as it can solve chemical or physical problems. This dangerous notion was highly popular in the early 20th century, and still gets us into trouble today. Mises addressed the fallacy of this idea in Epistemological Problems of Economics, which despite being saddled with one of the most boring titles in history, is actually very interesting. Hayek’s The Counter-Revolution of Science covers similar ground, and both are well worth reading.
There are a couple of other non-Austrian economists worth mentioning. Milton Freidman’s Capitalism and Freedom goes less far in its defense of free markets than it might, but was nevertheless one of the most popular and influential gateway points into libertarianism from one of the best communicators of liberty in the 20th century. Also of note are the works of James Buchanan, who founded what is known as the Public Choice school of economics, which makes the rather obvious insight that politicians and bureaucrats are often less interested in serving the public than in pursuing their own personal gains. None of Buchanan’s books are an easy read, but his most famous is The Calculus of Consent co-authored by Gordon Tullock.
For anyone interested in the philosophical roots of libertarianism, and the works which inspired America’s founders to pursue a limited system of government, John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government offers a justification and defense of private property rights, while John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty makes a philosophical case for individual freedom. Across the pond, Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments makes the moral case for liberty, while his The Wealth of Nations serves as the foundational argument for laissez-faire economic policy (though unless you’re exceptionally interested in the price of corn in the 18th century, probably only the first section is worth reading). Herbert Spencer was another British philosopher, as well as a psychologist, sociologist, and evolutionary biologist who argued for “the right to ignore the state” in his influential book Social Statics.
If you’ve made it this far and still want to go further, you me be interested in some of the more radical proponents of liberty, who instead of arguing for small government believe that it would be preferable to have no government at all. If this idea appeals to you, you may enjoy Murray Rothbard’s For a New Liberty and David D. Friedman’s The Machinery of Freedom. Rothbard was one of the most passionate and prolific anarchist thinkers of the 20th century, who wrote many interesting and entertaining books, but For a New Liberty was his manifesto defending the idea of a stateless society, and probably the best place to start. David D. Friedman is the son of Milton Friedman, mentioned above, who went rather farther than his father in advocating for a free society. His book takes a more pragmatic view on anarchy when compared with Rothbard, who concerns himself more with moral principles than with utilitarian outcomes. Also worth mentioning is Samuel Edward Konkin III’s New Libertarian Manifesto, a short anarchist tract which argues that freedom cannot be obtained through the political process, but should rather be pursued by individuals circumventing and subverting the existing structure, a strategy Konkin dubs “agorism.” Finally, the anthology Anarchy and the Law, edited by Edward Stringham, gathers together many of the most important writings from American individualist anarchists, as well as debates with more moderate libertarian thinkers for a balanced view.
A few other miscellaneous works bear mention before concluding. Karl Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies is an excellent summary of the bad ideas that have led to totalitarian government’s throughout history, starting with Plato and concluding with Marx and Hegel. Butler Shaffer’s wonderful Boundaries of Order offers a defense of property rights in a libertarian society. The short essay The Politics of Obedience by Étienne de la Boétie points out that even the most tyrannical government require the consent of the governed to function, and Envy by Helmut Schoeck provides a tremendously insightful explanation into the collectivist instinct that has driven so many failed states.
This should serve as a great beginning for the liberty-curious. If you want more recommendations about a specific topic, please don’t hesitate to contact us. This is just the tip of the liberty iceberg, and we’re always happy to help out anyone who wants to dig a little deeper.