“Liberty is a rare and precious thing,” Jim Powell, former editor of Laissez-Faire Books, writes in his book The Triumph of Liberty.
Human history, Powell explains, is rife with warmongers and mindless warriors, slave-drivers and slaves, dictators and serfs. And the past century is no exception: “The 20th century,” Powell points out, “was drenched in blood.”
Liberty, from the apogee of human history, isn’t even a blip on the radar.
Yet, despite (or maybe as a result of) exiting a blood-drenched century, mixed with technological leaps, the ideas of liberty have never been so widespread and readily available than they are now.
Liberty might be rare, but the ideas of liberty are aplenty. There’s almost too much to choose from these days.
Which, of course, is a great problem to have. But, because of this, distilling it down for those just entering the liberty-sphere can present a challenge.
This is why, back in 1999, the Libertarian Party asked Powell one question: ‘If you were going to put together a library of 20 books about liberty, which books would you pick?’
And Powell, in our eyes, hit it out of the park.
If you’re looking for more essentials to add to the collection — or have a friend who is ready to be dewormed of faulty and dangerous Statist ideas — the following list is priceless.
Enjoy (and share!)…
The 20 Best Liberty Books Ever Written
By Jim Powell
Today, the libertarian movement is being energized by an outpouring of solid work in economics, law, philosophy, history and other fields. Although libertarians still have to work hard for votes, we are ablaze with compelling ideas which have already started to change history.
I’ve been asked from time to time to compile top 10 or top 20 lists of the most important books on liberty, and I always enjoy doing it. This time the focus is on introductory books currently available, including classic libertarian works of the 20th Century.
There are a number of tough choices, and I’ll explain those. If you aren’t familiar with all the titles, be assured the list offers you joyous reading.
There’s insight, passion, and eloquence aplenty.
* BOOK #1: An enduring favorite is journalist Rose Wilder Lane’s The Discovery of Freedom (1943) which helped inspire the modern libertarian movement.
“Why did men die of hunger, for six thousand years?” she asked. “Why did they walk, and carry goods and other men on their backs, for six thousand years, and suddenly, in one century, only on a sixth of this earth’s surface, they make steamships, railroads, motors, airplanes, and now are flying around the earth?”
Incidentally, Lane turned her mother Laura Ingalls Wilder’s story outlines into the extraordinary Little House books about personal responsibility, self reliance, courage, and love.
* BOOK #2: Ayn Rand has brought more people into the libertarian movement than anybody else because she was a dramatic storyteller who made a moral case for natural rights. Many of Rand’s admirers would include The Fountainhead(1943) on a top 20 list.
That thrilling book helped inspire the libertarian movement, but if we’re limited to a single title, I’d go with her more philosophical novel Atlas Shrugged (1957) which has sold almost 5 million copies.
According to a survey by the Library of Congress and the Book-of-the-Month Club, Atlas Shrugged ranked second after the Bible as the book that most influenced people’s lives.
* BOOK #3: The best introductory case for economic liberty is Henry Hazlitt’sEconomics in One Lesson (1946) which he wrote while working for the New York Times. He rebuts the most destructive economic fallacies persisting to this day.
The art of economics, he explains, consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer term effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups. This unusually easy-to-read book, with the audacious title, has sold over a million copies.
* BOOK #4: For the past two decades, Thomas Sowell has maintained his position as the most prolific author on liberty, and I’m not talking about his Forbes articles or his newspaper columns which have filled several volumes.
You’ll find Sowell fans who would rate Conflict of Visions (1987) as his greatest book, while others would pick Vision of the Anointed (1995) or Inside American Education (1993) or Ethnic America (1981) or Conquests & Cultures (1995).
Sowell himself has said he considers Knowledge and Decisions (1980) his most important work. Building on insights from Hayek, he explains that a successful society requires all kinds of knowledge which, dispersed in the minds of millions, cannot be centralized.
That’s why governments tend to make bad decisions. A profound critique of government intervention.
* BOOK #5: Way back in 1920, long before mainstream intellectuals admitted the horrors of socialism, Ludwig von Mises identified the reasons why it would impoverish millions.
Mises expanded on his discovery in the book Socialism (1922) which is about as thorough an intellectual demolition job as you’re likely to see. Mises was vindicated by the collapse of the Soviet empire. What about including Human Action (1949), Mises other major work, on a top 20 list? Certainly many people would favor this overSocialism.
Human Action presents the most comprehensive case for economic liberty ever written, and it exposes the errors of every type of government intervention, so this would be an excellent choice, too.
* BOOK #6: In The Road to Serfdom (1944), F.A. Hayek showed that political liberty, which mainstream intellectuals cherished, was impossible without economic liberty, which they disdained.
Hayek explained that while most people might agree on a few basic functions of government, like national defense, there’s increasing disagreement as government ventures into more and more areas.
This means government must use increasing amounts of coercion, and it tends to attract thugs. Hence his famous chapter about why the worst get on top.
* BOOK #7: Milton and Rose Friedman adapted Free to Choose (1980) from the acclaimed TV documentary which attracted big audiences in the United States and was smuggled into China, the Soviet Union, and other totalitarian countries.
The book is a compelling case for economic liberty. The Friedmans make clear that those who give up liberty in the hopes of gaining security end up losing both.
The book sold over a million copies. I might add that sensational Free to Choose videos are still available, too.
* BOOK #8: Nobody did more than Murray Rothbard to promote the view that life would be better without government interference.
His book For a New Liberty, The Libertarian Manifesto (1973), resulted from a controversial op-ed he wrote in the New York Times, and the work went on to become a perennial seller.
He provides a stirring survey of libertarianism and explains how private individuals, working through free markets, can do just about everything that needs to be done.
* BOOK #9: Pioneering science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein wrote five novels which chronicle rebellion against tyranny, and his writings abound with declarations on liberty. He expressed his most complete libertarian vision in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1966).
For example, revolutionary philosopher Professor Bernardo de la Paz says: “In terms of morals, there is no such thing as ‘state.’ Just men. Individuals. Each responsible for his own acts.” Heinlein has sold over 100 million books world-wide.
* BOOK #10: Charles Murray has the rare gift of plain talk, explaining complex things simply as if you’re across a kitchen table.
This is apparent in What It Means to Be a Libertarian (1997), a book from the heart. An adult making an honest living and minding his own business, Murray writes, deserves to be free.
* BOOK #11: Bestselling author Harry Browne’s How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World (1973) offers much practical advice.
He tells how to deal with government restrictions as well as restrictions that are self-imposed. You’ll learn how to avoid social restrictions without becoming a hermit, how to avoid the common problems of marriage without giving up love, how to achieve big tax savings without going to jail, and how to succeed in your career and still have a life.
* BOOK #12: I well remember how David Friedman used to run intellectual circles around me, when we shared an apartment at the University of Chicago.
There, he wrote the essays which became The Machinery of Freedom, A Guide to a Radical Capitalism (1973). It abounds with keen insights and provocative lines. “Greedy capitalists get money by trade,” he quips. “Good liberals steal it.”
This is one of the early books to make a case for free market medicine, free market environmentalism, and much more.
* BOOK #13: Richard Grant’s The Incredible Bread Machine (1966) was a spirited underground classic which sold thousands of copies entirely by word-of-mouth, and a new edition is now available.
“Can we assume that a thing is right if it is legal?” he asks. But slavery was once legal; Nazism was legal. Well, can we assume a thing is “right” if it is endorsed by majority rule? But a lynch mob is majority rule. Well, how about the Constitution? But again we run into difficulties, for the Constitution can be amended to say anything the society wishes it to say.
The moral basis of capitalism is the right of each individual to live his own life, for his own sake.
* BOOK #14: Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State and Utopia (1974) caused a sensation when it was published. Here was a philosopher at Harvard, no less, who decisively refuted the egalitarian doctrine of distributive justice (basically, what’s yours is mine and what’s mine is mine).
The book couldn’t be ignored, and it got a lot of ink. It requires close attention as Nozick proceeds, step by step, to demolish the rationale for the welfare state.
* BOOK #15: Intellectual fireworks go off when Richard A. Epstein starts to write. He’s the James Parker Hall Distinguished Service Professor of Law at the University of Chicago.
The choice here would seem to be between Principles for a Free Society, Reconciling Individual Liberty with the Common Good (1998); and Simple Rules for a Complex World (1995). Principles tells why government efforts to remedy alleged market failures make people worse off.
I’d probably go with Simple Rules, which presents a sophisticated case for scrapping most laws and regulations.
* BOOK #16: One of the most original thinkers now is Randy E. Barnett, the Austin B. Fletcher Professor at Boston University’s School of Law.
His book, The Structure of Liberty,Justice and the Rule of Law (1998), applies natural law principles to the criminal justice system. In particular, he explains why crime is likely to fall if the criminal justice system is privatized and if criminals must pay restitution to victims.
* BOOK #17: How did the West achieve phenomenal prosperity much sooner than other regions of the world — some of which remain mired in poverty worse than anything we’ve experienced here?
Historians have attributed Western success to all kinds of things including natural resources, technology, imperialism, and slavery. Nathan Rosenberg and L.E. Birdzell’s How the West Grew Rich, the Economic Transformation of the Industrialized World (1986) shows how material success was a byproduct of the struggle for liberty.
* BOOK #18: For a solid libertarian round-up on issues of the day, you probably can’t do better than More Liberty Means Less Government by Walter Williams, chairman of the economics department at George Mason University (as well as popular radio talk show host and newspaper columnist).
He covers race, sex, taxes, gun rights, government schools, Social Security — just about all the things people are debating today. He does it with wit and style.
* BOOK #19: Cato Institute Executive Vice President David Boaz does a splendid job linking libertarianism today to the libertarian tradition.
He wrote Libertarianism, A Primer (1997) and he edited The Libertarian Reader (1997).
Both books belong in every libertarian’s library, but if I had to pick only one, it might be The Libertarian Reader because it performs a unique role in the literature, drawing from key writings on liberty going back several thousand years to Lao-Tzu. I don’t know any other volume where you can get such a generous sampling. Sixty-eight selections altogether.
* BOOK #20: James L. Doti and Dwight R. Lee edited The Market Economy: A Reader (1991) which gathers together the very best recent writing about the philosophical underpinnings of economic liberty.
This includes Ayn Rand (The Moral Meaning of Capitalism), F.A. Hayek (The Creative Powers of a Free Civilization), Milton Friedman (Social Responsibility of Business and Labor), and R.H. Coase (The Problem of Social Cost, the most widely-cited article in the entire economics literature), among others. Forty-four selections.
That’s my list. I realize many readers will be quick to note great books that aren’t on it. For example, Isabel Paterson’s The God of the Machine (1943), a passionate attack on collectivism and defense of free markets. Linda and Morris Tannehill’s The Market for Liberty (1970) is an influential case for life without government interference.
Many people admire George Reisman’s monumental Capitalism (1996). Paul Johnson’s Modern Times (1983), the magnificent story of 20th Century tyranny, sold 5 million copies in 20 editions.
There are many more books that should be on the list, but if we’re limited to 20 currently available, the question is always which book will be bumped to make room.
The list reminds us that the literature on liberty is incredibly rich. I envy those of you who are about to discover, or rediscover, some of these works.
You’re going to have a wonderful time and learn a lot more about this glorious subject!
Senior Fellow, CATO & Author, The Triumph of Liberty