November 3, 2011 essays

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Introducing Libertarianism: A Reading List

The eight books on this list offer a thorough but accessible introduction to libertarianism.

Libertarianism—its theory, its practice—is an awfully big topic. This reading list gives you a place to start. A combination of newcomers and established classics, these books offer accessible introductions to variety of libertarian thought, from philosophy to history to economics.

Start Here

Libertarianism: A Primer by David Boaz

Boaz’s book provides exactly what its title promises.Libertarianism: A Primer is a quick and easy read, but it’s also a remarkably thorough introduction to libertarianism. It covers the historical roots of libertarianism and the basics of libertarian political philosophy and economic thinking. Boaz then applies these ideas to major policy areas, showing how free association and free markets, not government coercion and bureaucracy, can solve our most pressing social issues.

Further Reading

The Law by Frédéric Bastiat

Everything this 19th century Frenchman wrote is worth reading—and The Law is a great place to start. Bastiat’s knack is tackling head-on, with great wit and clarity, the fundamental errors and hidden interests behind much economic and political thinking. With The Law, published in 1850, his target is “legal plunder” or state-authorized confiscation of property. The law exists to protect our basic rights, Bastiat argues. When it instead becomes a means of coerced redistribution, “the law has been used to destroy its own objective: It has been applied to annihilating the justice that it was supposed to maintain; to limiting and destroying rights which its real purpose was to respect. The law has placed the collective force at the disposal of the unscrupulous who wish, without risk, to exploit the person, liberty, and property of others.”

The Machinery of Freedom: Guide to a Radical Capitalism by David Friedman

Libertarianism represents a spectrum of political philosophies, all sharing a general presumption of liberty. These philosophies vary in how much of a role they grant the state. Classical liberals, for instance, allow government to tax for the provision of many services, including education and social safety nets. Minarchists see government’s only legitimate role as providing rights protection in the form of police, courts, and national defense. At the extreme are the anarcho-capitalists, who would abolish the state altogether and replace it with purely private and voluntary provision of services, including for the law itself. David Friedman’s The Machinery of Freedom offers an introduction to anarcho-capitalism, arguing from a “consequentialist” perspective that the state is both unnecessary for achieving a desirable society and that it in fact makes the world worse through its actions. The questions Friedman raises and the analysis he offers will benefit any student of liberty.

Free to Choose: A Personal Statement by Milton Friedman and Rose Friedman

Published as the companion volume to the 10-hour documentary of the same name, Free to Choose was one of the bestselling books of 1980. Here Nobel laureate Milton Friedman and his wife, Rose, give a spirited and readable critique of the interventionist state, focusing on concrete examples and explanations. Free to Choose is an excellent introduction to the productive power unleashed by freedom—and also a primer on the economic analysis of public policy. The Friedmans examine the workings of markets, look at how well-meaning policies like the minimum wage hurt the poor, and explain the causes of the Great Depression. Covering much the same ground as the documentary series, though in more depth, Free to Choose is a perfect introduction not only to the thought of Milton Friedman, one of the 20th century’s foremost champions of liberty, but also to the under-appreciated and often misunderstood benefits of laissez faire.

Eat the Rich: A Treatise on Economics by P. J. O’Rourke

Proving that economics need not be a dry, textbook affair, P. J. O’Rourke’s Eat the Rich sets out to answer the critical question, “Why do some places prosper and thrive while others just suck?” O’Rourke, one of America’s premier humorists, travels the world, visiting Wall Street, Albania, Sweden, Cuba, Russia, Tanzania, Hong Kong, and Shanghai, and uses his experiences to untangle the relationship between markets, political institutions, and culture. While Eat the Rich is a breezy and hilarious read, it is far from facile. O’Rourke’s explorations and the insights he draws from them make the book live up to its subtitle, “A Treatise on Economics.” If you’ve never taken Econ 101 and the thought of supply and demand curves makes you want to nod off, Eat the Richis a perfect book.

Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand

A perennial bestseller since its publication in 1957, Ayn Rand’s mammoth novel Atlas Shrugged has probably turned more people on to libertarianism than any other book. Atlas Shrugged explores a dystopian future, where the government has enthusiastically embraced collectivism in the name of fairness and equality and leading innovators, industrialists, and artists have begun disappearing. The book served as Rand’s platform for promoting Objectivism, her comprehensive philosophy of “rational selfishness.” While Rand’s philosophy remains deeply divisive to this day, it is impossible to deny the enormous impact she’s had on promoting the benefits of free markets and dynamic capitalism.

The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves by Matt Ridley

The newest book on this list, Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimistemploys the grand sweep of human history and pre-history to argue for the incredible significance of free trade—and against those who would seek to restrict it. In so doing, Ridley offers what amounts to a book-length answer to the question, “Why are people rich?” Most humans who have ever lived did so in unimaginable poverty. It was only recently that standards of living began their remarkable—and accelerating—climb. What happened? Free exchange. “Just as sex made biological evolution cumulative,” Ridley writes, “so exchange made cultural evolution cumulative and intelligence collective, and that there is therefore an inexorable tide in the affairs of men and women discernible beneath the chaos of their actions.”

Basic Economics: A Common Sense Guide to the Economy by Thomas Sowell

While the libertarian vision is much more than just free markets, economic thinking greatly informs the libertarian approach to public policy. When you’re ready to move beyond the brief introduction provided by P. J. O’Rourke’s Eat the Rich, Thomas Sowell’s Basic Economics is the ideal place to turn. Sowell presents the fundamentals of economic reasoning in clear, jargon-free prose. He addresses everything from incentives and the role of prices, to international trade, monetary policy, and the banking system. Sowell shows how so many government programs, enacted with the best of intentions, run afoul of simple economic truths and, as a result, often do far more harm than good.

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