Table of Contents
Libertarianism typically isn’t something you’re taught in the American public education system. This makes sense. Just like the priests who teach at Catholic school might not hand out copies of God Is Not Great, so too would government employees shrink away from a curriculum centered around the shrinking United States government – or abolishing it altogether.
(Not to suggest that teachers are all frothing authoritarians. Miss Nelson who taught me freshman algebra was an absolute peach of a woman, and she smelled like peppermint schnapps.)
This means that many libertarians are at a relative disadvantage for not having been steeped in their political philosophy’s best books beginning at an early age. The tenets of liberalism and conservatism are available as easily as tuning a radio to NPR or Fox News, respectively. For libertarian ideas, you have to seek out libertarian literature.
The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith (1776)
Adam Smith’s aptly named The Wealth of Nations examines why some countries prosper better than others. Although Smith did not invent the concept of “laissez-faire,” its growing popularity throughout the 19th century was largely attributable to his book’s favorable argument for the economic system. Smith also introduced several principles that would become fundamental to modern economics such as gross domestic product, division of labor, and the “invisible hand” – the unseen force that drives a free market economy forward.
On Liberty, John Stuart Mill (1859)
John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty is a treatise on the importance of individualism and a rejection of conformity. The philosophical essay condemns any source of coercion, be it political or societal, that would make an individual’s actions or beliefs conform to those of authority. Without liberty, Mills argues, society can no longer develop, as opinions which are popular yet nevertheless patently false can neither be challenged nor done away with. Mills also sets forth the fundamental principle of nonaggression: “Your right to swing your fist ends where my nose begins.”
The Road to Serfdom, Friedrich Hayek (1944)
Friedrich Hayek wrote and published The Road to Serfdom (which is titled after Alexis de Tocqueville’s own work about the “road to servitude”) while WWII was still ravaging Europe. In it, the economist lays out how a country which turns to socialism invariably devolves into an authoritarian dictatorship. To Hayek, collectivism is a fierce contradiction of human nature, as relatively few individuals will ever truly share the same common goal. In essence, “the common good” can only be forced upon human beings who characteristically share little in common.
Human Action, Ludwig Von Mises (1949)
One of the most important books on political economy ever published, as well as foundational to the libertarian movement, Ludwig von Mises’ Human Action argues in favor of laissez-faire capitalism based on the concept of praxeology (the theory that people make thoughtful and purposeful decisions rather than merely react unintentionally to external factors, which the author’s own Austrian school helped to develop). Human Action explains how the free market created by people of their own volition trumps any government scheme – and indeed, serves as the underpinning of civilization itself.
Capitalism and Freedom, Miltion Friedman (1962)
In yet another aptly named piece of libertarian literature, Milton Friedman spells out how people can only enjoy the greatest economic and political freedom when their government is small, limited in power, and decentralized. Friedman believes that politicians who try to improve the economy by interfering with it truly exemplify the phrase “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” – and he explains every reason why in Capitalism and Freedom.
Man, Economy and State, Murray Rothbard (1962)
Man, Economy and State is one of the meatier reads on this list at over 1,400 pages, but Murray Rothbard’s prose is crystal. In this beast of a tome the Austrian school economist explains the entirety of his science: how conscious decision-making propels the free market; how money actually works, and what determines purchasing power; and why taxation does not actually combat price inflation. The failure to understand economics leads to tremendous social ills. So long as Man, Economy and State remains in print, people will only have their own ignorance to blame.
Economics in One Lesson, Henry Hazlitt (1946)
If Rothbard’s treatise on economics seems too formidable, then Henry Hazlitt’s Economics in One Lesson provides a far more accessible approach to basic economics. The journalist explains that government policies, as desirable as they may appear at face value, must be scrutinized according to their long-term implications. Rent control, for example, ultimately diminishes the supply of available housing and results in higher overall prices. Reading a book like this can be disheartening. Although published during the first half of the 20th century, politicians remain unaware (or more likely willfully ignorant) of its singular wisdom to this day.
Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Robert Nozick (1974)
Political philosopher Robert Nozick does not actually argue for total anarchy in his groundbreaking work Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Instead he champions the concept of the night-watchman state, “limited to the narrow functions of protection against force, theft, fraud, enforcement of contracts, and so on.” To Nozick, a state which extends its authority into any other sphere of private life necessarily violates its subjects’ personal rights – an untenable circumstance. (Incidentally, Robert Nozick looked exactly what you probably imagine a Harvard professor would look like.)
Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand (1957)
Not all libertarian authors worked in nonfiction. Ayn Rand’s epic novel Atlas Shrugged tells the story of Dagny Taggart, a railroad executive who witnesses firsthand how increasing state control over industry does little more than ensure its inevitable collapse. Dagny learns that a person’s greatest moral purpose is to achieve their own happiness – an ascension which the false song of government-enforced collectivism makes nigh impossible. Make certain also to read The Fountainhead if you like the queen bee of libertarianism’s storytelling, as well as Anthem which can be gobbled down in a single sitting.
The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, Robert Heinlein (1966)
In his novel The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, which is arguably his best, Robert Heinlein depicts a remarkably plausible future in which a lunar penal colony rebels against Earth’s oppressive absentee rule. Lunar society is a far cry from what most people would consider ideal (monogamists, at least), but Heinlein’s messages of self-reliance and the necessity of rebelling when independence is at stake are certain to resonate even with readers who may not consider themselves libertarian.
Honorable Mentions: More Great Libertarian Books
We would be remiss to omit several other great libertarian books just because the number ten looked so neat in this article’s title. Here are a few more to leaf through while you’re waiting to collect enough rainwater so you can brew your morning coffee.
- The Law, Frédéric Bastiat (1850): Bastiat begins with the premise that “each of us has a natural right – from God – to defend his person, his liberty, and his property.” He proceeds to argue that the further a government infringes on this right, the worse it becomes, and explains that a government concerned with philanthropy becomes effectively limitless in the scope of its power.
- No Treason, Lysander Spooner (1867): As one of natural law’s strongest proponents, Spooner contended that everyone is born with equal rights regardless of their race or sex. He then employs his razor-sharp legal wit to demonstrate precisely how the Constitution violates natural law.
- The State Against Blacks, Walter Williams (1982): Williams was a great economist – not a provocateur. Rather than solely blame racism for economic inequality, Williams identifies government policies such as minimum wage, property tax, and the creation of the welfare state as the primary drivers of disparity.
- Libertarianism: A Primer, David Boaz (1997): A primer in full, Boaz’s surprisingly accessible book offers a comprehensive guide to the history and ideas of libertarianism complete with illuminating anecdotes. (Updated as The Libertarian Mind: A Manifesto for Freedom in 1995.)
- The Revolution: A Manifesto, Ron Paul (2008): Based on notes written during his 2008 presidential campaign, The Revolution details the former congressman’s advocacy for constitutionalism, limited government, and auditing the Federal Reserve.
- The Berenstain Bears and Too Much Junk Food, Stan and Jan Berenstain (1985): In this classic of American literature, Papa, Brother and Sister Bear receive a much needed lecture from Dr. Grizzly about the perils of eating too much candy. Not necessarily a libertarian message, but indispensable advice all the same.
We hope you enjoyed our recommendations for your own libertarian reading list! Just be sure to buy your own books – we hear tell that socialists are now taking credit for the existence of libraries.