10 Great Libertarian Works

Civil Disobedience-Henry David Thoreau

In 21 pages, Henry David Thoreau changed my life.  Civil Disobedience is a fantastic elucidation of American individualism and the necessity of an individual to follow his or her conscience no matter the consequences.

“I saw that the State was half-witted, that it was timid as a lone woman with her silver spoons, and that it did not know its friends from its foes, and I lost all my remaining respect for it, and pitied it.”

The Law-Frédéric Bastiat

One of the greatest political satirists, Bastiat is necessary reading to understand classical liberalism in the 19th century. The Law summarizes the argument for limited government and expansive freedom while dissecting socialist clichés that continue to haunt contemporary political discussion.

“The safest way to make laws respected is to make them respectable.  When law and morality contradict each other, the citizen has the cruel alternative of either losing his moral sense or losing his respect for the law.  These two evils are of equal consequence, and it would be difficult for a person to choose between them.”

For a New Liberty-Murray Rothbard

Murray Rothbard is one of the greatest (and controversial) radical libertarians who shaped the American libertarian movement.  A vehement hatred of the State and a passionate desire for liberty led Rothbard to pen some of the best libertarian works (along with some of the worst ideological tendencies) that are inspiring, influential and occasionally borderline insane.  No matter one’s opinion of Rothbard, an understanding of his ideas and influence is crucial.

“The libertarian creed…offers the fulfillment of the best of the American past along with the promise of a far better future. Libertarians are squarely in the great classical liberal tradition that built the United States and bestowed on us the American heritage of individual liberty, a peaceful foreign policy, minimal government, and a free-market economy.”

On Liberty-John Stuart Mill

John Stuart Mill was a radical before it was cool…in the Victorian Era.  On Liberty retains its inspirational quality and lucidity of thought on liberty, truth and societal order.  While his utilitarianism bothers me (especially the expanded scope it allows him to justify government interference), Mill is one of the great classical liberals who advocated liberty and tolerance for an open and prosperous society.

“If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.”


The Use of Knowledge in Society-F.A. Hayek

My first child shall be named Hayek.  Friedrich August von Hayek remained one of a handful of individuals (literally, they could be counted on one hand) throughout the 20th century that refuted socialism on an economic and moral basis.  Hayek thought socialism’s major flaw lay in its “fatal conceit” of human knowledge: humankind is too ignorant and information too dispersed to centrally plan an economy and polity.  Attempts to centrally plan lead to poverty and tyranny, no matter if it is attempted under a dictatorship or democracy.

“We shall never prevent the abuse of power if we are not prepared to limit power in a way which occasionally may prevent its use for desirable purposes.”

Fugitive Essays/One is a Crowd-Frank Chodorov

Frank Chodorov is a writer whom I only discovered recently.  A member of the so-called Old Right, Chodorov edited the second incarnation of The Freeman and analysis, and in 1953 founded the Intercollegiate Society of Individualists (with William F. Buckley, Jr. as president).  Deeply influenced by Albert Jay Nock, Henry George and Franz Oppenheimer, Chodorov went so far as to reject voting altogether and believing individuals are born either individualists or socialists.

“When people say ‘let’s do something about it,’ they mean ‘let’s get hold of the political machinery so that we can do something to somebody else.’ And that somebody is invariably you.”

The Conquest of Poverty-Henry Hazlitt

The Conquest of Poverty is not usually a highly-recommended Henry Hazlitt, but it exemplifies Hazlitt’s writing style and political views.  Hazlitt traces the history of government welfare and different methods attempted to mitigate poverty, then offers his interpretation: the free market conquers poverty better than any well-intentioned government program.  Also highly recommended is The Wisdom of Henry Hazlitt and his 1946 best-seller, Economics in One Lesson.

“The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups.”


Atlas Shrugged-Ayn Rand

As much as I disparage Rand, I cannot deny her influence.  While Rand loathed libertarians, the animosity was not completely mutual and Rand has great influence in the libertarian movement.  I prefer to remember Rand for her passion and not so much her Objectivism, and her ideas and writings remain a near pre-requisite for libertarians.

“I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.”

Isaiah’s Job/Our Enemy, the State-Albert Jay Nock

Albert Jay Nock, while not revolutionizing my political opinions, irrevocably altered how I view politics with his essay Isaiah’s Job.  Nock viewed the State as a parasite on society and the market; he referred to FDR’s death as “the biggest public improvement that America has experienced since the passage of the Bill of Rights.”  Nock “argued not merely for legal freedom but for the necessity of an overarching spirit of liberal tolerance.”  Co-editor of the first incarnation of The Freeman, writer for The Nation and the Atlantic Monthly, Nock’s fame is not as great in death as in life, and unjustly so.

“The positive testimony of history is that the State invariably had its origin in conquest and confiscation. No primitive State known to history originated in any other manner.”

In Defense of Freedom- Frank S. Meyer

Frank S. Meyer is known as the father of “fusionism,” a political philosophy combining libertarianism and conservatism.  Co-editor of National Review, Meyer wrote In Defense of Freedom in 1962, arguing that without free choice, individuals cannot be moral: when individuals cannot be immoral, they cannot be moral.

“A true libertarianism is derived from metaphysical roots in the very constitution of being, and places its defense of freedom as a political end in the context of moral responsibility for the pursuit of virtue and the underlying social necessity for the preservation of order.”


Honorable Mention:

The God of the Machine-Isabel Paterson

Paterson is often referred to as one of the “Founding Mothers” of the modern American libertarian movement (the other two being Ayn Rand and Rose Wilder Lane).  A superb writer and literary critic, Paterson had a close friendship with Rand (until their disillusionment, as nearly all of Rand’s friendships went).

“Most of the harm in the world is done by good people, and not by accident, lapse, or omission. It is the result of their deliberate actions, long persevered in, which they hold to be motivated by high ideals toward virtuous ends… …when millions are slaughtered, when torture is practiced, starvation enforced, oppression made a policy, as at present over a large part of the world, and as it has often been in the past, it must be at the behest of very many good people, and even by their direct action, for what they consider a worthy object.”