Austrian libertarians, more than most, should be acutely aware of the impossibility of coming up with a truly objective "top ten" list. Smith’s most valued book may be far down on Jones’s subjective rankings. Nonetheless, we forge ahead because such lists can be provocative, illuminating, and interesting. So in response to "The Ten Best Libertarian Books" from the September 2006 issue of Liberty, which provoked some discussion on the Mises blog, I’ll offer my own admittedly idiosyncratic and personal choices — books or authors I consider great or notable, or that have had some significant influence in my own intellectual development.
Great Libertarian Books and Authors
Hans-Hermann Hoppe, A Theory of Socialism and Capitalism. Topping my list is A Theory of Socialism and Capitalism, as well as a host of other works, by Hans-Hermann Hoppe, our greatest living intellectual. Hoppe’s other influential works include Democracy: The God That Failed, The Economics and Ethics of Private Property, and Economic Science and the Austrian Method. Sure, Hoppe stands on the shoulders of giants — primarily Mises and Rothbard — but to my mind his edifice of thought is the pinnacle of Austro-libertarian thinking. Somewhat sobering is the realization that Hoppe was only forty when he wrote Capitalism. Gulp.
Ludwig von Mises, Human Action. And his other works too, including another of my favorites, The Ultimate Foundation of Economic Science. Arguably the greatest genius of the twentieth century, if not all of human history. Need anything else be said?
Murray N. Rothbard, The Ethics of Liberty. And Man, Economy and State, Power and Market, For A New Liberty, and countless other works. The Mises-Rothbard-Hoppe troika are the standard-bearers for modern Austro-libertarianism. I’m tempted to call them the Austro-libertarian trinity, but to avoid offense, I’ll refrain.
Henry Hazlitt, Time Will Run Back. Okay, okay, I know it’s not a great novel, but it’s a favorite of mine. An illuminating tale of a dictator slowly appreciating the limits of centralized socialist planning. And Hazlitt’s Economics in One Lesson is one I often recommend as a starting point for a novice interested in learning more about the freedom philosophy. As is my next choice —
Llewellyn H. Rockwell, ed., The Free Market Reader: Essays in the Economics of Liberty. This underappreciated selection of classic short pieces — mainly by Rockwell and Rothbard — from The Free Market is a fantastic introduction to sound economic thinking. See also the followup, The Economics of Liberty.
Frederic Bastiat, The Law. Another great introductory book. They don’t make ’em like they used to.
Milton Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom. I might now find things I don’t agree with in this magnificent book — perhaps whiffs of positivism, insufficient radicalism — but, for me, reading it was eye-opening and helped deepen my budding appreciation for libertarianism and free market economics.
Linda & Morris Tannehill, The Market for Liberty. For minarchists and mainstreamers, a mindblowing introduction to the possibilities of non-state order and liberty. David Friedman’s The Machinery of Freedom: Guide to a Radical Capitalism complements the Tannehills’ book well, as does "Imagining a Polycentric Constitutional Order: A Short Fable," chapter 14 of Randy Barnett‘s The Structure of Liberty. Something about Friedman’s Machinery always bugged me — maybe it was the way he noted that Hazlitt’s Economics in One Lesson is "reputed" to be a good introductory book on economics, but "I have not read it" — as if he does not need to. From someone with degrees only in physics and chemistry, I suppose I would have expected a bit more humility; and his over-reliance on "law and economics" has always made Friedman seem just a tad too much the dilettante and Austro-cynic for my taste. Nonetheless, Machinery has to be mentioned here.
Lysander Spooner, No Treason No. VI: The Constitution of No Authority. An eye-opening expose to the lies spread by contractarians and constitutionalists.
James J. Kilpatrick, The Sovereign States: Notes of a Citizen of Virginia. The works noted above are all by libertarians or proto-libertarians (e.g., Spooner and Bastiat). Kilpatrick was no libertarian but this work is probably one of the best non-fiction books I’ve ever read, and reading it would be immensely valuable to all libertarians today, especially those who too readily condone state centralism. See, for example, this brief excerpt on the Kentucky and Virginia Resolves, and the federal judiciary. And consider this passage, describing the Supreme Court’s illegitimate expansion of power under the guise of the Constitution’s interstate commerce clause:
It was an insidious process, conducted with the care of the cat that stalks her prey — now creeping forward, now pausing to sniff the air; now advancing, now lying still as the bird takes alarm; then edging forward again, and so, step by inexorable step, moving to the ultimate seizure. [p. 235]
Sounds a lot like the tactics used by the left over the last several decades, doesn’t it? Kilpatrick may not have been a libertarian, perhaps, but this book is great libertarian ammunition. Would that this were required reading in all law schools, if not all high schools.
There are of course many others that could be listed, but they can’t all be on the "greatest" list. Some are too recent/modern, or too narrow (e.g., too American-centric), but are still high on my list. These include Jan Narveson’s The Libertarian Idea and Loren Lomasky’s Persons, Rights and the Moral Community. There’s much to disagree with in both books, but each has a load of provocative insights.
Those who find Kilpatrick’s work of interest might also profit from Felix Morley’s Freedom and Federalism and Raoul Berger’s Government by Judiciary: The Transformation of the Fourteenth Amendment, as well as his The Fourteenth Amendment and the Bill of Rights and Federalism: The Founder’s Design. Bruce Benson’s The Enterprise of Law also seems destined to be a classic, and would be appreciated by those who like the Tannehills. I also suspect George Reisman’s massive tome Capitalism deserves to be in any “greatest” list, but I haven’t absorbed it completely enough to make this judgment yet.”
And if I were not growing increasingly distant from Rand’s thought and annoyed by many of her modern-day followers, I’d probably include on the list above Atlas Shrugged, Philosophy: Who Needs It, and Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal.
Speaking of fiction, other than Hazlitt’s Time Will Run Back, I just can’t bring myself to include any among the company of the "greats" listed above, but there is some I’ve found very enjoyable as well as illuminating portraits of possible libertarian societies: these include Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, of course Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, J. Neil Schulman’s Alongside Night, L. Neil Smith’s The Probability Broach and The Gallatin Divergence, and my newest favorite novelist, John C. Wright, author of the sci-fi trilogy The Golden Age.
Didn’t Make the Cut
As for others that just don’t come close to making my cut: some rave about Herbert Spencer’s The Man vs. the State. Hey, I just can’t get past the annoying use of "the" in the title. Reminds me of the affectation of referring to "the calculus." Other purportedly "great" books or authors that I just can’t seem to motivate myself to read or finish include Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, Isabel Paterson’s The God of the Machine, Rose Wilder Lane’s The Discovery of Freedom, Hayek’s Road to Serfdom (and other works), John Stuart Mill, anything by anyone who ever even flirted with Georgism or Galambosianism, "mutualism," or "conjecturalism/anti-justificationism."
The interested reader can find many other very interesting recommendations in the LRC bibliographies — see especially Hans-Hermann Hoppe on Anarcho-Capitalism, David Gordon on Liberty, and Lew Rockwell on Reading for Liberty.