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Books for Back to School: Because Liberty Never Sleeps: The Top 10 Top Ten Libertarian Books You Have Never Heard Of

  • Capitalism and the Historians by F. A. Hayek
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09/25/2006Justin M. Ptak

1. The Right and Wrong of Compulsion by the State, Auberon Herbert

I first found this little gem of a book in a corner of the Ward Library at the Mises Institute during my first journey to Auburn for the Mises University so many years ago. It was, naturally, Murray Rothbard's copy, and I was just blown away by its brilliance and eloquence. I knew right then that the Institute was maintaining and developing a tradition that goes back hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Auberon Herbert was a writer, philosopher, and member of the British parliament who is also known as the father of voluntaryism.

2. Les Soirées de la Rue Saint-Lazare: Entretiens sur les lois économiques et défense de la propriété, Gustave de Molinari

This Belgian-born economist was described by Frédéric Bastiat on his death bed as the leader of the next generation of laissez-faire liberals in France. Here is one choice quote:

"The monopoly of government is no better than any other. One does not govern well and, especially not cheaply, when one has no competition to fear, when the ruled are deprived of the right of freely choosing their rulers. Grant a grocer the exclusive right to supply a neighborhood, prevent the inhabitants of this neighborhood from buying any goods from other grocers in the vicinity, or even from supplying their own groceries, and you will see what detestable rubbish the privileged grocer will end up selling and at what prices! You will see how he will grow rich at the expense of the unfortunate consumers, what royal pomp he will display for the greater glory of the neighborhood. Well! What is true for the lowliest services is no less true for the loftiest. The monopoly of government is worth no more than that of a grocer's shop. The production of security inevitably becomes costly and bad when it is organized as a monopoly. It is in the monopoly of security that lies the principal cause of wars which have laid waste humanity."

3. New Individualist Review, Ralph Raico & Ronald Hamowy (editors)

A journal initially sponsored by the University of Chicago chapter of the Intercollegiate Society of Individualists. They declared from the onset that the journal was "founded in a commitment to liberty." The first article of the first edition was titled "Capitalism and Freedom." Milton Friedman, F.A. Hayek, and Richard M. Weaver were the first faculty advisors, later to be joined by George Stigler and Benjamin Rogge. Between 1961 and 1968, seventeen issues were published including articles by Russell Kirk, William F. Buckley, Ludwig von Mises, and Murray N. Rothbard. This large volume sat on my father's shelf gathering dust since his days at the University of Chicago. Little did he know that one of his sons would get such great use out of it.

4. The Illusion of Victory: America in World War I, Thomas Fleming

World War I is among the most misunderstood conflicts of our time, and this confusion is still leading to destruction and bloodshed to this day. In this book you will learn about the true nature of Woodrow Wilson and his "war to end all wars." This is a must-read in order to understand the foreign policy situation that has worked counter to our own self-interest and the imbroglio that we still find ourselves in today.

5. Capitalism and the Historians, F.A. Hayek (editor)

The essays in this book combat the conventional socialist view of the evils of the industrial revolution. It illustrates by way of essays by F.A. Hayek, T.S. Ashton, L.M. Hacker, Bertrand de Jouvenal, W.H. Hutt (among others) that this age was actually the ascent of a new civilization that established a growing standard of living for the mass of the population, and resulted in longer and healthier lives. It was not, contrary to popular belief, characterized by coercion and social devastation, but rather increasing realms of freedom and the blossoming of individual choice.

6. The Economics and Ethics of Private Property, Hans-Herman Hoppe

You may have read Dr. Hoppe's Theory of Socialism and Capitalism or Economic Science and the Austrian Method, or Democracy: The God That Failed, or even The Myth of National Defense where he served as editor, but this is a powerful, hard-core defense of private property that was disturbingly unknown until its recent re-release.

Barron's recently wrote:

"Hoppe's writings are like a laser beam. The clarity and force of his arguments seemingly can't fail to hit their targets. But be prepared for arguments that push you beyond your limits. For Hoppe is a Misesian of the Rothbardian kind: an anarcho-capitalist eager to convince you that anything useful that the state does, the market can do better — in fact, that the state so abuses its appointed roles, there is really no contest between the two."

7. Daodejing, Laozi

Laozi once wrote, many moons ago, that "the more official taboos and restrictions there are in the world, the more the people are impoverished … The more that laws and regulations are given prominence, the more thieves and robbers there will be." This quote should be all that is needed to pique your curiosity and inspire you to delve deeper into the Chinese proto-history of libertarianism. Roderick Long sees more Austro-libertarian antecedents in early Confucianism than in Taoist thought. So I hope you will take a look and make up your own mind.

8. The Writings of Zhuangzi, Zhuangzi

Murray Rothbard thought of Zhuangzi as "perhaps the world's first anarchist"; Zhuangzi said, the world "does not need governing; in fact it should not be governed," and, "Good order results spontaneously when things are let alone." Rothbard wrote in his history of economic thought that Zhuangzi was the first to work out the idea of spontaneous order, predating the works of Proudhon and Hayek.

9. Essai sur la Nature du Commerce en General, Richard Cantillon

Cantillon remains one of the great mysterious figures in libertarian lore, but this work sets the table for the development of the Austrian School in the years to come. Hayek stated that "W.S. Jevons, who rediscovered the Essai, was scarcely exaggerating when he entitled it the 'Cradle of Political Economy.'" Cantillon was one of the first economists to discuss the importance of the role that the entrepreneur plays in the economy. He also utilized a logical-deductive style that is characteristic of the Austrian School. It is said that he made a killing speculating in shares of Compagnie Perpétuelle des Indes and died under mysterious circumstances.

10. De Rege et Regis Institutione and De Monetae Mutatione, Juan de Mariana

These two papers are perhaps the most powerful, and yet most neglected, of all in the proto-libertarian oeuvre. De Rege et Regis Institutione was published in 1598, and in it Mariana defends the principle of tyrannicide. He states that any citizen has the right to assassinate a king who imposes taxes without the consent of the people, seizes the property of individuals and squanders it, or prevents a meeting of parliament.

In De Monetae Mutatione, published in 1605, Mariana discusses the fact that the king is not the proper owner of the property of his citizens or vassals. He states that "the tyrant is he who tramples everything underfoot and believes everything to belong to him; the king restricts or limits his covetousness within the terms of reason and justice." He goes on to discuss the effects of the debasement of currency and government tampering with the market value of money:

"Only a fool would try to separate these values in such a way that the legal price should differ from the natural. Foolish, nay, wicked the ruler who orders that a thing the common people value, let us say, at five should be sold from ten. Men are guided in this matter by common estimation founded on considerations of the quality of things, and of their abundance or scarcity. It would be vain for a Prince to seek to undermine these principles of commerce. 'Tis best to leave them intact instead of assailing them by force to the public detriment."

The Top 10 History Books for Libertarians

1. The Rise and Decline of the State, Martin Van Creveld

Martin van Creveld gave the keynote lecture at the The Rise and Fall of the State Mises Institute Conference in October 2000. It was devoted to discussing his book on the subject among other works such as la Boetie, Nock, Mises, Oppenheimer, and Rothbard. Van Creveld, a military historian who teaches at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, provides a timeline and a thorough history of "the birth of the bureaucratic state, its rising place in the management of society, its catastrophic results in the 20th century, and its systematic decline in the 21st century."

2. Conceived in Liberty, Murray Rothbard

In this book you will discover the libertarian roots of those who fled Massachusetts to found a more tolerant state in Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. In 1636, Roger Williams, after being banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony, settled at the tip of Narragansett Bay. He called the site Providence and declared it a place of religious freedom.

The article of agreement declared:

"We, whose names are hereunder written, being desirous to inhabit the town of Providence, do promise to submit ourselves, in active or passive obedience, to all such orders or agreements as shall be made for public good by the body in an orderly way by the major consent of the inhabitance, masters of families, incorporated together into a township, and such others as they shall admit into the same only in civil things."

You will also discover the anarchist roots of Pennsylvania, and much much more.

Read a sample chapter: The Growth of Libertarian Thought in America.

3. The Triumph of Liberty, Jim Powell

An inspiring book that looks at the lives of 64 champions of liberty over the course of 2,000 years of history. You will find heroic figures living "through tumultuous times including the crisis of the Roman Republic, the Reformation, the Thirty Years War, English Civil Wars, English Revolution, the American Revolution, French Revolution, Napoleonic Wars, abolitionist movement, free trade movement, struggle for Irish emancipation, women's rights movement, World War I, the Holocaust, the civil rights movement and the modern libertarian movement."

This book explores the exiled, the imprisoned, the beheaded, and the shot to death, all in order to achieve breakthroughs for liberty.

4. Modern Times, Paul Johnson

Not the new Bob Dylan CD. This is a book by someone who has really done his research since day one. He is only interested in the living truth of history and writes in a style that brings a pulse to each event on every page. It is 880 pages that will never let you down.

The "Avid Reader" from Amazon.com describes what you will discover from this book:

"The 20th century is the collectivist century. Every variant of collectivism from communism, fascism, tribalism, socialism and religious classism has been tried with catastrophic results."

5. Reassessing the Presidency : The Rise of the Executive State and the Decline of Freedom, John Denson (editor)

If you haven't read this book you really should question how much you know about the American presidency. Once you finish reading the one thousand pages including the detailed footnotes you will never look at this institution the same way again.

It traces the progression of power exercised by American presidents from the early American Republic up to the eventual reality of the power-hungry Caesars which later appear as president in American history. Contributors examine the usual judgments of the historical profession to show the ugly side of supposed presidential greatness.

The mission inherent in this undertaking is to determine how the presidency degenerated into the office of American Caesar. Did the character of the man who held the office corrupt it, or did the power of the office, as it evolved, corrupt the man? Or was it a combination of the two? Was there too much latent power in the original creation of the office as the Anti-Federalists claimed? Or was the power externally created and added to the position by corrupt or misguided men?

6. Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought, Murray Rothbard

As soon as I saw one of the few remaining first editions of this two volume set sitting on the shelf at the Institute store, I just knew I had to have it. This is the real inside story from a libertarian perspective on the history of economic thought down through the ages. I begged, borrowed, and gave up my travel scholarship to be able to bring a copy home. Fortunately, it has now been reissued and no one has to mortgage their home to afford this brilliant work. The only sad part is that there will never be a third volume.

7. The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History, Thomas Woods

Dr. Woods has written a great overview of American history that every one of your friends will thank you for having introduced them to this magnificent, and yet concise, work.

He shows that the Constitution was never understood to be a permanent union, that big government caused the North-South conflict, that Alexander Hamilton's friends were racketeers, that the US didn't have to enter WW I, that Hoover was a big government conservative, that FDR made the Depression worse, that there really were Communists in government, that FDR made WW II inevitable, that the Marshall Plan was a flop, that the Civil Rights movement increased social conflict and made everyone worse off, that unions made workers poorer, that the 80s weren't really the decade of greed, that Clinton's wars were aggressive and avoidable, and that his personal issues were a major distraction from the real problems of the 1990s.

Thomas Woods studied under Rothbard before completing his PhD at Columbia. He writes in a Rothbardian spirit, combining scholarship, radicalism, and a burning desire to communicate.

8. How Capitalism Saved America: The Untold History of Our Country, from the Pilgrims to the Present, Thomas DiLorenzo

This is another brilliant work where Dr. DiLorenzo, like Dr. Woods, provides a great synopsis of American history. DiLorenzo pays special attention to the economic machine that raised living standards throughout the nation, and that has provided us with the beginnings of the prosperity that we enjoy today.

The text never slows, as he marches through the history of the pilgrims, the American Revolution, the 19th century debate over internal improvements, the advancement of workers amidst capitalist advance, the myths of the Robber Barrons, the great depression, the New Deal, the energy crisis, and the modern debate on the environment, social regulation, and the war on vice. This whole book is a kind of guerilla manual for beating back the most common economic myths one is likely to encounter on campus or in public debate. Master this book and you have overcome most of the bad economic thinking of our time.

9. Crisis and Leviathan, Robert Higgs

Dr. Higgs illustrates his ingenious theory of the ratchet effect: that government grows in periods of crisis, most prominently during war and depression, but never returns to the level of limited government before the aggression or intervention. He demonstrates this in a detailed look at twentieth century economic history.

Higgs's thesis has become the dominant paradigm for understanding this ratchet effect: government grows during crisis and then retrenches afterwards, but not to the same level as before.

"This book is absolutely essential for anyone who seeks to understand the dynamics of government growth and the loss of liberty."

10. The Costs of War, John Denson (editor) Perhaps a look at what a few other scholars have said about this book may persuade you:

"An original and scholarly appraisal of America's wars and their consequences, The Costs of War is easily one of the most important books to emerge from American conservatives in a generation…." Thomas Woods, Modern Age

"John Denson's The Costs of War offers a devastating critique of Washington's interventionist tendencies. The book, a series of conference papers, shows how, for instance, the Civil War sparked the federal government's (still ongoing) centralization of power and how World War I reflected the triumph of collectivism." Doug Bandow, World

"This book is the most convincing attack on the warmongering state to appear since the end of the Second World War." Gerard Radnitsky, Neuezuericher Zeitung.

"Nothing is so dangerous to liberty as the power to make war, argues this remarkable collection of essays. There can be no reconciling freedom and empire."

The Top 10 Proto-Libertarian Works

1 The Law, Frederic Bastiat

Read it carefully, follow every word, and understand every concept.

Reread it.

Attempt to refute it.

Internalize it.

Nothing more needs to be said.

2. Discourse of Voluntary Servitude, Etienne de la Boetie

The ideas discussed in this work are of such monumental importance that I cannot stress enough the need for everyone to read this book. If this was required reading in every school, the world would be a much better place. The Discourse was written while he was a law student at the University of Orleans, but was never published during his lifetime. La Boetie looks critically at the nature of the tyrant's rule and examines the role of the general public who grant their consent. La Boetie served with Montaigne in the Bordeaux parliament and was immortalized in Montaigne's essay on friendship.

3. The Production of Security, Gustave de Molinari

In the preface to the 1977 English translation, Murray Rothbard called The Production of Security the "first presentation anywhere in human history of what is now called anarcho-capitalism." I doubt any more needs to be said since you'll just have to read it for yourself and recognize that these ideas are a lot older than your grandparents.

4. Our Enemy, The State, Albert Jay Nock

This is another brilliant eye-opener where one is so pleased to learn that someone of such character, insight, and courage existed in the recent past. I won't even go in to detail, but let you discover the brilliance of Albert Jay Nock for yourself. After you have devoured this work of his you will be pleased to learn that he has written many more works that you will surely enjoy.

5. No Treason: The Constitution of No Authority, Lysander Spooner

Spooner is known as an early individualist anarchist. He advocated what he called Natural Law, or the "Science of Justice," where acts of actual coercion against individuals and their property were considered "illegal."

In 1844, Spooner founded the American Letter Mail Company to contest the United States Post Office's monopoly.

In this essay, Spooner argues that "the Constitution was a contract of government which had been irreparably violated during the [civil] war and was thus void. Furthermore, since the government now existing under the Constitution pursued coercive policies that were contrary to the Natural Law and to the consent of the governed, it had been demonstrated that document was unable to adequately stop many abuses against liberty or to prevent tyranny from taking hold. Spooner bolstered his argument by noting that the Federal government, as established by a legal contract, could not legally bind all persons living in the nation since none had ever signed their names or given their consent to it - that consent had always been assumed, which fails the most basic burdens of proof for a valid contract in the courtroom."

6. The Man Versus the State, Herbert Spencer

"Spencer…was a laissez-faire radical in times when academia was becoming ever more ill-liberal. He was an opponent of militarism, economic regulation, infringement on personal liberty, and government centralization.

This fiery book published in 1884 — and this edition includes additional material — the great English libertarian sociologist Herbert Spencer sees a statist corruption appearing within the liberal ideological framework, and warned of the Coming Slavery.

It was Darwin who took his metaphors from Spencer, who was one of the last defenders of the classical liberal idea in England. He was the scholar who argued for the law of equal freedom: ‘Every man has freedom to do all that he wills, provided he infringes not the equal freedom of any other man.'"

7. Of Laws of War and Peace, Hugo Grotius

"Hugo de Groot" was a jurist in the Dutch Republic, and laid the foundations for international law based on natural law. He was also a philosopher, Christian apologist, playwright, and poet.

In 1625 he published his book De jure belli ac pacis libri tres (Of Laws of War and Peace) where he presented his theory of just war and argued that all nations are bound by the principles of natural law.

8. Of the Law of Nature and Nations, Samuel Pufendorf

Born in 1632, a German jurist, political philosopher, economist, statesman, and historian.

Pufendorf, as an envoy of the Swedish sovereign, was once held in captivity for eight months under Danish rule. He occupied his time by meditating on what he had read in the works of Hugo Grotius and Thomas Hobbes, and constructed a system of universal law. In 1661, at the end of his captivity, he published the fruits of his reflections under the title of Elementa jurisprudentiae universalis libri duo while at the University of Leiden.

Gottfried Leibniz once dismissed Pufendorf as "vir parum jurisconsultus et minime philosophus" (roughly: "He is not much of a lawyer, and least of all a philosopher").

Consider the source, read his works, and decide for yourself.

9. On Power: The Natural History of its Growth, Bertrand de Jouvenal

"Power is the primary menace to peace, freedom, and civilization — such is the lesson we learn from the great works of literature, philosophy, and history. Why then do we tolerate it? Where did it come from? How did it come to be unleashed in such fury in the last century and this? What can we expect can be done to curb it? These are the themes of this erudite treatise, of which F.A. Hayek said when it appeared in 1948: ‘his picture of one of the great historical forces is a work of art.'

Bertrand De Jouvenel, scholar and liberal aristocrat, provides a sweeping history of the development of power in the age of the rise of the nation state, and traces it through the democratic age that has given presidents and parliament's power that would have been the envy of medieval barrons.

His theme is the steady expansion of power, its psychological roots, and its cultural effects. In particular, he explains the dangers of majoritarian democracy, and what they are sure to mean for the idea of liberty. On this particular point, he is especially illuminating."

10. The State, Franz Oppenheimer

Murray Rothbard writes:

The great German sociologist Franz Oppenheimer (1864-1943), who wrote this magnificent little book called The State, put the case brilliantly.

In essence, he said, there are only two ways for men to acquire wealth. The first method is by producing a good or a service and voluntarily exchanging that good for the product of somebody else. This is the method of exchange, the method of the free market; it's creative and expands production; it is not a zero-sum game because production expands and both parties to the exchange benefit. Oppenheimer called this method the "economic means" for the acquisition of wealth.

The second method is seizing another person's property without his consent, i.e., by robbery, exploitation, looting. When you seize someone's property without his consent, then you are benefiting at his expense, at the expense of the producer; here is truly a zero-sum "game" — not much of a "game," by the way, from the point of view of the victim. Instead of expanding production, this method of robbery clearly hobbles and restricts production. So in addition to being immoral while peaceful exchange is moral, the method of robbery hobbles production because it is parasitic upon the effort of the producers.

With brilliant astuteness, Oppenheimer called this method of obtaining wealth "the political means." And then he went on to define the state, or government, as "the organization of the political means," i.e., the regularization, legitimation, and permanent establishment of the political means for the acquisition of wealth.

In other words, the state is organized theft, organized robbery, organized exploitation. And this essential nature of the state is highlighted by the fact that the state ever rests upon the crucial instrument of taxation.

Quibble over the rankings if you must, but I had a hard enough time trying to limit the lists to ten.

And, yes, no Mises, I thought that would be much too obvious.


Justin M. Ptak continues to live by the words of General John Stark, to live free or die, because death is not the worst of evils.

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