The Cato Home Study Course

This is a self-paced home study program, enabling you to spend time with brilliant minds wherever and whenever you have an opportunity to listen and think. Each program is presented by professional actors and broadcasters, and the content is lively, dynamic, and truly thought-provoking.

The Cato Home Study Course is a series of audio recordings that, taken together, give an in-depth survey of the libertarian intellectual tradition. It is by no means a complete survey—libertarianism is far too broad and deep for that. Following the introductory first lecture, most of the lectures are centered on an important libertarian text and that text’s author. The final three lectures give a history of liberty from the 1800s onward. On the page associated with each of the lectures, you will find a brief synopsis of the lecture, discussion questions, and suggested readings. This information is also collected in the e-book associated with this Guide, Learning About Liberty: The Cato University Study Guide.

The first lecture provides a broad overview of libertarian thought. The classical liberal, or libertarian, approach to morality and politics brings together related themes that will be both placed in their historical context and woven together more tightly in the coming modules. The basic ideas of individual and imprescriptible rights, spontaneous order, and the rule of law are presented and examined. Each of these ideas is implicated in the others: the spontaneous order of the free society is built on a foundation of secure individual rights, and law is intimately connected with liberty, for to be free in society is for all to be equally subjected to the same known law, a law that allows us to coordinate our activities with others and thus to create complex forms of social order. The deep roots of these ideas, reaching back into antiquity, give libertarianism a solidity other political philosophies lack.

Lecture two focuses on Enlightenment political philosopher John Locke (1623-1704). Locke was undoubtedly one of the most influential individuals who ever lived. He considered the great questions of slavery, religious toleration, constitutional government, individual rights, property, the market economy, and the foundations of justice. He was a physician, a philosopher, an economist, and an activist for liberty and limited government. He is also important as an “intellectual bridge” between the broader European civilization and the American revolutionaries whom his work inspired.

Lectures three and four concern the American Revolution. The Revolution is all too often confused with the War for Independence. As John Adams noted in a letter of 1815 to Thomas Jefferson, “What do we mean by the Revolution? The war? That was no part of the Revolution; it was only an effect and consequence of it. The Revolution was in the minds of the people, and this was effected, from 1760 to 1775, in the course of fifteen years before a drop of blood was drawn at Lexington.” These two lectures reveal the way in which the American experiment in liberty and limited government arose out of the intersection of libertarian moral and political philosophy and the political conflicts of the day.

The third lecture focuses on Thomas Paine (1737-1809) and his remarkably influential pamphlet Common Sense, published in January 1776 and reprinted 25 times in the next year. Paine wrote several books and pamphlets that greatly contributed to “delegitimizing” the claims to authority of the British state. Paine asserted that “society in every state is a blessing, but government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one” and directed the reader to the discussion of the nature of rulers in the Bible (I Samuel 8). As to the particular claims of the British monarchy, Paine noted, “No man in his senses can say that their claim under William the Conqueror is a very honorable one. A French bastard, landing with an armed banditti and establishing himself king of England against the consent of the natives, is in plain terms a very paltry rascally original. It certainly hath no divinity in it.”

Lecture four concerns The Declaration of Independence. It is more than a mere declaration of intention to sever political ties with Britain, as its name might suggest. It is a carefully crafted argument justifying that intention. The Declaration ranks as one of the greatest and most influential political documents of all time. The Founders offered a careful set of arguments for armed revolution, a course that was not undertaken lightly, with full awareness of the consequences. When he signed a document that concluded, “We mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor,” each signatory knew that he was signing his own death warrant in the event of failure.

Lectures five and six are about Adam Smith (1723-90) and his magnum opus of economic theory, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. Smith was not the first to try to understand the market economy, but he may have been the most influential and eloquent observer of economic life. His observation that a person may be “led by an invisible hand to promote an end that was no part of his intention” became the guiding star of an investigation of the beneficial unintended consequences of voluntary exchange, an investigation that still continues strong after more than two hundred years.

In addition to seeking to explain how markets work and how order emerges spontaneously from the voluntary interactions of countless market participants, Smith was very concerned with understanding how virtue fares in commercial society.

The results of Smith’s investigations of the natural rules or laws of exchange are explained and then reinterpreted in light of the “marginal revolution” of the 1870s, which allowed Smith’s enterprise to be put on much more secure footing.

The seventh lecture concerns The Constitution of the United States of America. The Constitution is part of a long line of charters written and implemented to establish strictly limited governmental power that is nonetheless strong enough to secure the rights of the people. As the fundamental law of the land, the text of the Constitution should be known by every American citizen. In this lecture, the historical background to the proposal for a new Constitution is examined in detail, as well as the text of the Constitution itself and the struggle between its opponents and its advocates over ratification.

The eighth lecture focuses on the Bill of Rights. The fight over ratification of the Constitution was won by its proponents, the Federalists, only by means of a compromise with their opponents, the Anti-Federalists. That compromise was the addition of the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the Constitution. This lecture explains the background and meaning of each of the amendments in the Bill of Rights, as well as the debates over their ratification. In addition, all of the subsequent amendments to the Constitution are examined and explained.

Lecture nine discusses John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), one of the best known intellectual figures of the nineteenth century, especially revered by civil libertarians for his 1859 essay On Liberty. Mill’s principal concern was to ensure that individual liberty was not swallowed up in the move toward popular sovereignty. Mill’s account of the need to protect individual liberty from “the tyranny of the majority” has been highly influential—notably his defense of freedom of speech as a process of determining the truth; being “protected” from falsehood is the same as being “protected” from the possibility of knowing truth.

The topics of lecture ten are Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) and her book A Vindication of the Rights of Women. Wollstonecraft is increasingly acknowledged as one of the most influential thinkers on women’s rights and also as an incisive and observant writer on politics, education, and social issues. Although not consistently libertarian, she was consistently in favor of equal legal rights for men and women, and she operated within a generally classical liberal framework. The lecture presents an account of her life as a radical individualist writer as well as discussion of her arguments for equality before the law. It also treats the issues of equal rights, especially with reference to women and to the flourishing of individuality and pluralism in a free society. The grounding of the libertarian view in individual rights, rather than in collective claims, provides important insights into the contemporary debate on “multiculturalism.”

Lectures eleven and twelve explore political obligation generally, including the questions whether one should submit to unjust demands from political authorities and whether a citizen should acquiesce when the state makes him or her, as Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)  put it, “the agent of injustice to another.”

Henry David Thoreau, perhaps best known as the author of Walden, was a deep believer in the demands of conscience over the demands of the state. His refusal in July 1846 to pay a tax led him to write the essay Civil Disobedience, which was to exercise a great influence on subsequent generations of thinkers. Thoreau and Civil Disobedience are discussed in lecture eleven.

The subject of lecture twelve, William Lloyd Garrison (1805-1879), was moved to devote all of his energy and resources to a tireless crusade for abolition. In response to those who criticized him for his enthusiasm, he retorted, “I have need to be all on fire, for there are mountains of ice around me to melt.” His “immediatism” was realistic but uncompromising: “We have never said that slavery would be overthrown by a single blow; that it ought to be, we shall always contend.”

Lectures thirteen, fourteen, and fifteen concern the rise, fall, and revival of libertarian thinking, beginning in the nineteenth century and continuing through the twentieth.

Lecture thirteen discusses classical liberalism in the nineteenth century. During the nineteenth century the principles of individual liberty, constitutionally limited government, peace, and reliance on the institutions of civil society and the free market for social order and economic prosperity were fused together into a powerful synthesis now often called “classical liberalism.” This lecture examines important debates within the classical liberal tradition, such as those between utilitarians and natural rights advocates and between supporters and opponents of state involvement in education, and traces the rise and the ultimate collapse of liberalism. By the end of the nineteenth century, liberalism had all but died as an intellectual and political movement. It was replaced by various forms of collectivism, such as socialism, fascism, racism, nationalism, imperialism, and corporatism.

Lecture fourteen explores the contributions made to the understanding of liberty by the “Austrian” economists, mainly Ludwig von Mises (1871-1973) and F. A. Hayek (1899-1992). Both Mises and Hayek drew on their study of economic processes to build a wider case for the liberty of the individual under limited, constitutional government.

In the 1920s and for many years thereafter, Mises was one of a handful of scholars willing to criticize collectivism in general and socialist economic planning in particular. He was reviled and scorned for his work, but recent years have seen almost universal, albeit grudging, acknowledgement that he was right: socialism cannot solve the problem of economic calculation.

The critique of socialism launched an enormous investigation of how markets actually work. Model builders who merely included prices in their models and then assumed that prices adjust automatically overlooked the crucial problem of the decentralization of knowledge (described in Hayek’s essay “The use of Knowledge in Society”) and the central role of the profit-seeking entrepreneur in adjusting prices. Hayek devoted great attention to understanding the proper role of law in guaranteeing rights and became convinced that law itself was a discovery process, analogous to the market process. Just as market institutions evolve, so the legal order is the result of an evolutionary process.

The fifteenth and final lecture examines the rebirth of libertarian thought from the 1940s onward. The collapse of classical liberalism in the face of both the collectivist intellectual assault on civilization and its own internal flaws and conflicts (especially notable is the debate between utilitarians and natural-rights advocates) is presented as background to the story of the remarkable people who brought libertarian thinking back from the dead. Their insights and activities are both inspiring and instructive. They had the courage and the foresight to undertake a long-term defense of civilization against the collectivist assault. Among the important contributors to the libertarian revival discussed in this lecture are Rose Wilder Lane, Isabel Paterson, Ayn Rand, Ludwig von Mises, F. A. Hayek, and Milton Friedman.


These lectures provide a general overview of the tradition of libertarianism and of the rich insight it provides into social, economic, cultural, and political life. The Cato Institute is dedicated, not only to preserving, but to extending, refining, and applying the insights of the libertarians of the the past. 

The Ideas of Liberty

Featuring George H. Smith

The basic ideas of individual rights, spontaneous order, and the rule of law are presented and examined in this first installment of the Cato Home Study Course.

About the Lecturer

Lectures written by George H. Smith, Wendy McElroy, David Gordon, Jeffrey Rogers Hummel, and William H. Peterson. Narrated by Craig Deitschmann, Jeff Riggenbach, Walter Cronkite, and Louis Rukeyser (with additional voices).