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Bibliographies are wonderful. What follows is my own feeble attempt to put together a core library for LRC readers. This essay would be a lot longer if I listed all the books I love and heartily recommend. But I offer this short account as a list of volumes essential to my understanding of the world.
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And forget that “summer reading” nonsense. Reading is a lifetime occupation. Even then, you will only be able to read a tiny number of the books you should read. These should be among them.
In economics, there are two pillars: Human Action: The Scholar’s Edition by Ludwig von Mises (Auburn, AL: Mises Institute, 1998 ) and Man, Economy, and State by Murray N. Rothbard (Auburn, AL: Mises Institute, 1993 ). What’s in Mises’s book? Enough to ignite a revolution in the social sciences and in the political realm as well. It’s hard to believe that one mind could produce such a treatise. Rothbard’s book, meanwhile, began as a textbook on Human Action but became its own independent treatise, one especially valued by economics students who require a rigorous theoretical apparatus to counter fallacies taught in the classroom. I would say that both need to be thoroughly understood but, in fact, that is unrealistic for most people in a lifetime. In any case, they both should be read.
Continuing with Mises, his volume Bureaucracy (New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House, 1969 ) applies his argument against socialism to explain why the public sector doesn’t work. His Economic Policy: Thoughts for Today and Tomorrow (Irvington, NY: Free Market Books, 1995 ) is a transcript of lectures and has proven very popular over the years. His Socialism: an Economic and Sociological Analysis (Indianapolis: LibertyPress/LibertyClassics, 1981 ) is more than an economic attack on collectivism; it counters a huge range of social, cultural, and political arguments for socialism. And it is written with an intellectual exuberance that could have only come from the ferment of interwar Austria.
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Mises’s first book, The Theory of Money and Credit (Indianapolis: LibertyPress/Liberty Classics, 1981 ), still goes a long way towards explaining the monetary disorders of our time. Finally, his Theory and History: an Interpretation of Social and Economic Evolution (Auburn, AL: Mises Institute, 1985 ) is a systematic exposition of the place of economics within the social sciences and a systematic argument against anti-economic ideologies.
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Continuing with Rothbard, don’t overlook Power and Market: Government and the Economy (Kansas City: Sheed Andrews and McMeel, 1970), a wonderful account of everything that is wrong with state intervention. His An Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought (2 vols., London: Edward Elgar, 1995) shows that economics predated Adam Smith and that the British school was something of a comedown from the Continental tradition.
Rothbard’s What Has Government Done to Our Money? (Auburn, AL: Mises Institute, 1990) has been translated into many languages for a reason: it is the single best account of how the free market can manage money better than the state. His History of Money and Banking in the United States: the Colonial Era to World War II (Auburn, AL: Mises Institute, 2002) applies the lesson to American history. For shorter articles on applications of Austrian theory, and to see why he is the greatest writer economics ever produced, see his Making Economic Sense (Auburn, AL: Mises Institute, 1995).
For an introduction to Austrian economics, see Gene Callahan’s Economics for Real People: An Introduction to the Austrian School (Auburn, AL: Mises Institute, 2002), and for the origins of the science in the High Middle Ages, see Alejandro A. Chafuen, Faith and Liberty: The Economic Thought of the Late Scholastics (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2003).
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David Gordon provides An Introduction to Economic Reasoning (Auburn, AL: Mises Institute, 2000) while Henry Hazlitt’s famous Economics in One Lesson (Fiftieth Anniversary Edition, San Francisco: Fox & Wilkes, 1996) still holds up. For further elaboration on the implications of economic science for the world, I recommend Hans-Hermann Hoppe’s The Economics and Ethics of Private Property: Studies in Political Economy and Philosophy (Norwell, MA: Kluwer, 1993) and A Theory of Socialism and Capitalism (Norwell, MA: Kluwer, 1989).
On the history of taxation, see Charles Adams, For Good and Evil: the Impact of Taxes on the Course of Civilization (Lanham, MD: Madison Books, 1999), in which he shows the central role that taxes play. For understanding the current moment in politics in light of the last 400 years, nothing beats Martin Van Creveld’s amazing The Rise and Decline of the State (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999).
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For American history in particular, I recommend Robert Higgs’s Crisis and Leviathan: Critical Episodes in the Growth of Government (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987) and John Denson (ed.) Reassessing the Presidency: the Rise of the Executive State and the Decline of Freedom (Auburn, AL, 2001). On the founding, see The Anti-Federalist Papers (Ralph Ketcham edited, NY: Mentor Books, 1996). It turns out that the skeptics of the Constitution were exactly right! On the Civil War, read Thomas DiLorenzo’s The Real Lincoln (NY: Prima Publishing, 2002) in which he shows that Lincoln was an inflationist, mercantilist, and all-round proponent of big government, and Charles Adams’s When in the Course of Human Events (NY: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000), which defends the right to secession, while deprecating the war.
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Rothbard’s America’s Great Depression (Auburn, AL: Mises Institute, 2000 ) remains the definitive account of what caused the calamity (it wasn’t the free market). And if you really want to understand American history, you must start long before the Constitution, and your best guide is Rothbard’s Conceived in Liberty (4 vols.) (Auburn, AL: Mises Institute, 1999).
On war, a wonderful and sweeping treatise is John V. Denson (ed.) The Costs of War (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1997). On World War I, see Thomas Fleming, The Illusion of Victory: America in World War I (New York: Basic Books, 2003), Niall Ferguson’s The Pity of War (NY: Basic Books, 2000), and Ludwig von Mises’s Nation, State, and Economy (NYU Press, 1983 ).
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On World War II, see The New Dealers’ War: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the War Within the War (NY: Basic Books, 2001), John T. Flynn’s As We Go Marching (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1944), Garet Garrett’s The People’s Pottage (Belmont, MA: Western Islands, 1965), and Ludwig von Mises’s Omnipotent Government: The Rise of Total State and Total War (New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House, 1969), which is the best attack on national socialism ever written.
Mises writes of those who would romanticize war; two outstanding antidotes to such nonsense are Paul Fussell’s Wartime (NY: Oxford University Press, 1990) and Chris Hedges’s War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning (NY: PublicAffairs, 2002). On postwar politics, see William Appleman Williams’s The Tragedy of American Diplomacy (NY: Dell, 1962).
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For a political outlook, I’ll again stick with books that depart radically from mainstream. Hans-Hermann Hoppe’s Democracy: The God That Failed (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2002) will change your thinking about freedom and the vote. Mises’s Liberalism (San Francisco: Cobden Press, 1985 ) remains the best modern statement of the classical ideal, with an appropriate emphasis on peace and property. On statism generally, reading Albert Jay Nock’s Our Enemy, the State (Tampa, FL: Hallberg Publishing Corp., 2001) is a transforming experience, and the same is true of Herbert Spencer’s The Man versus the State (Indianapolis: Liberty Press, 1982 ). Étienne de la Boétie’s The Politics of Obedience (NY: Free Life Editions, 1975) was written in 1552, but it explains why people go along with the birds who are ruling us today (the Rothbard introduction is indispensable).
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Secession, State, and Liberty (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1998), edited by David Gordon, is your guide to breaking up the consolidated state. John T. Flynn’s The Roosevelt Myth (NY: Fox & Wilkes, 1998 ) remains the essential debunking of his icon (the Ralph Raico introduction is crucial). Murray N. Rothbard’s Egalitarianism as a Revolt Against Nature and Other Essays (Auburn, AL: Mises Institute, 2002) is Rothbard at his applied best, while The Ethics of Liberty (NYU Press, 1998) is the best modern treatise on political theory. Rothbard’s For a New Liberty (NY: Macmillan, 1973) is the libertarian manifesto, and still the best introduction to the libertarian worldview.
Two other Rothbard books offer spectacular commentary on our times: Freedom, Inequality, Primitivism, and the Division of Labor (Auburn, AL: Mises Institute, 1991) and The Irrepressible Rothbard (Burlingame, CA: Center for Libertarian Studies, 2000). To understand neoconservatism, see Justin Raimondo’s Reclaiming the American Right: the Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement (Burlingame, CA: Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993). For a frightening look at the social and cultural consequences of modern statism, see Paul Gottfried’s After Liberalism: Mass Democracy in the Managerial State (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999) and Helmut Schoeck’s magisterial book Envy (Indianapolis: Liberty Classics, 1981 ).