There are books that every libertarian should read and books every libertarian has read, but those circles don’t perfectly overlap. Here are 13 diverse book recommendations for well-rounded thinkers.
Economic Sophisms – Frederic Bastiat
The great French liberal and economist Frederic Bastiat is best known for his pamphlet The Law — a scathing indictment of the threat that socialism poses to justice and the rule of law. But he produced another great work in Economic Sophisms, a collection of essays meticulously exposing and ridiculing the economic fallacies committed by his fellow deputies in the French National Assembly.
Sophisms includes his satirical “Petition From the Manufacturers of Candles, Tapers, Lanterns…and Generally of Everything Connected with Lighting” to the French legislature, asking for the government to blot out unfair foreign competition from a cheaper source of light — the sun.
Ahead of his time in many fields, he ruthlessly demolished fallacious arguments for protectionism, socialism, and redistribution with wit, humor, and incisive analysis.
Thomas Sowell’s Basic Economics is one of the clearest introductions to the economic way of thinking and how it can be applied to a vast number of real world problems. Don’t be intimidated by its brick-like dimensions — it’s written with common sense and plain English. It’s highly readable and easy to digest in pieces, if you don’t finish it off in one sitting. If you get to the end and want more, don’t worry — you can continue “thinking beyond stage one” with Sowell’s Applied Economics.
Beyond Politics: The Roots of Government Failure – Randy Simmons
Public Choice is the most important branch of economics for understanding how and why governments work the way they do. Public Choice is essentially the science of political skepticism: using economic analysis to examine how the incentives of democracy guide the decision making of politicians, bureaucrats, voters, and special interests.
Randy Simmons’ Beyond Politics is the best and most accessible survey of Public Choice, explaining in clear and concrete terms just what things government cannot do — and what the consequences are when it tries to do them anyway.
The Problem of Political Authority – Michael Huemer
In this text, philosopher Michael Huemer exposes the shaky foundations of the most basic premises of government. Carefully tracing the implications of basic moral tenets that nearly everyone accepts, Huemer shows that the authority of the state is a chimera: there is no way to get from the ethical rules that govern how individuals should treat each other to a system that empowers a few people — “the state” — with the privileged moral position to issue coercive commands, while imposing on everyone else the moral duty to obey them. Huemer throws down the gauntlet and challenges the very notion of political authority — and with it, the special standard to which government actions are held.
The Myth of the Rational Voter – Bryan Caplan
The biggest reason why democracies choose bad policies is not selfishness, corruption, or lobbyists — it’s the voters themselves. Bryan Caplan documents the overwhelming empirical evidence that voters are not just ignorant about the most basic aspects of law, government, and economics, but they are also actively irrational in their preferences. In other words, voters are not just wrong but passionately and systematically wrong.
Worse, Caplan shows that these problems are inherent to the democratic system: voters have no incentive to be rational, well-informed, or coolheaded, and politicians have every reason to stoke prejudice and exploit voters’ ignorance. Limiting the scope of democratic power is the only sure way to limit the damage irrational voters can do.
The Theory of Moral Sentiments – Adam Smith
Everyone knows Adam Smith’s magisterial work The Wealth of Nations, but his first book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, is essential for laying the ethical, psychological, and sociological groundwork for his later work in economics and philosophy. Today, Adam Smith is frequently demonized as the patron saint of greed and selfishness, but Moral Sentiments shows that Smith had a nuanced and deep understanding of human nature, our drives for virtue and vice, and the spirit and sympathies that help human beings thrive.
This book, published in 1759, was vastly ahead of its time in many fields, foreshadowing later developments in social science, moral philosophy, and social psychology. But it is also packed with deep and practical insights for any student of human nature. If you find Smith a little too daunting on the first attempt, Russ Roberts’ How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life is a short and friendly introduction to some of the insights in Moral Sentiments.
The God of the Machine – Isabel Paterson
First published in 1943, The God of the Machine was one of four books that emerged in the depths of World War II — along with Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, F.A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, and Rose Wilder Lane’s The Discovery of Freedom — that launched the modern libertarian movement and helped turn the intellectual tide against collectivism.
At a time when socialism and fascism were conquering whole continents, Paterson set out a defense of individualism, the free market, and limited government that remains powerful and timely to this day. By tracing the role of individual freedom in the rise and fall of civilizations, the book re-centered the discussion of human history on its true subject: the individual.
No Treason: The Constitution of No Authority – Lysander Spooner
Legal theorist Lysander Spooner wrote this devastating critique of the U.S. Constitution in 1867. It remains one of the most thoughtful and hard-hitting criticisms of the American government and federal power. Spooner illustrates why the Constitution can carry no binding authority as a “contract” among “we the people.” At most, he argued, it could only bind and apply to the people who were actually alive at the time of its adoption, and then only to those who explicitly consented to its adoption. Therefore, breaking away from the union of states is “no treason.”
No Treason is also one of the most quotable individualist anarchist works. Any anarchist worth his or her salt knows by heart Spooner’s concise indictment of the Constitution: “But whether the Constitution really be one thing, or another, this much is certain – that it has either authorized such a government as we have had, or has been powerless to prevent it. In either case, it is unfit to exist.”
Radicals for Capitalism – Brian Doherty
Radicals for Capitalism is a weighty tome, summarizing centuries of classical liberal and libertarian history in one book. Reason magazine senior editor Brian Doherty goes to great lengths to capture the varying influences and factions within the broader libertarian movement. This book is an essential part of any collection on American political history, and friends of liberty will find a lot to learn and enjoy in its eyewitness histories and firsthand accounts of the motley crew that created and compose the modern American libertarian movement.
Democracy in America – Alexis de Tocqueville
Alexis de Tocqueville came to the United States to study prisons for the French government, but he ended up making his most important contributions by studying America’s free society in action. De Toqueville toured the country for nine months, observing how U.S. political, economic, religious, and social institutions worked together to foster human cooperation, and how that process of cooperation led to a thriving social order.
As Daniel J. D’Amico explains, “America’s early and rapid rate of economic development and its functioning social order resulted from a life spring of vibrant civil society. Families, clubs, churches, and various community groups provided early Americans with diverse opportunities to practice the art of association.”
The text, first published in 1835, endures as an influential and insightful account of American society and culture — it has been called the best book ever written about America — but more importantly, it describes the principles underlying social order itself. “In democratic countries the science of association is the mother science,” De Tocqueville wrote, “the progress of all the others depends on the progress of that one.”
The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress – Robert Heinlein
This novel explores a futuristic society in which a lunar colony revolts against rule from Earth. It is widely regarded as one of the best science fiction novels of all time, but its compelling portrait of a dystopian future and discussion of libertarian ideas make it an essential part of a libertarian bookshelf. Characters in the book range in their politics from self-proclaimed anarchist to would-be authoritarian, and the novel touches on libertarian themes such as spontaneous order, natural law, and individualism. Harsh Mistress would go on to win various awards, including the Hugo Award for best science fiction novel.
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich – Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
“The days rolled by in the camp — they were over before you could say ‘knife.’ But the years, they never rolled by; they never moved by a second.”
In this short novel, Russian author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn lays out — in brutal detail — an ordinary day in the life of one prisoner held in Stalin’s Siberian gulags: the bitter cold, the pervasive hunger, the savage punishments, the powerlessness, despair, and fear. Solzhenitsyn himself spent ten years in the gulag for insulting Stalin, and his own personal experience sharpens the story with heartbreaking detail. Tens of millions were churned through the gulags and slave labor camps in the Soviet Union; more than one million people would die there. Ivan Denisovich helps to humanize an ocean of terror and human suffering that all too easily blurs into a pile of statistics.