Socialism may be dead but Leviathan lives on, Nobel Laureate economist James M. Buchanan has written. This is especially the case in the United States where, despite much talk of a revolution, the conservative Congress has failed to cut a single tax, dismantle a single welfare program (creating new, state-based welfare bureaucracies with block grants doesnt count), or reduce the thousands of pages of regulations published annually in the Federal Register. The American military continues to extend its reach across the globe, from Haiti to Somalia, Bosnia, and the Persian Gulf, and governments at all levels are as determined as ever to regulate and control what we eat, drink, smoke, and think; confiscate private property in the name of environmentalism; deny us our Second Amendment rights; and tax away our wealthfederal, state and local taxes already account for about 47 percent of national income, a higher percentage than feudal serfs were compelled to contribute.
If we are ever to stop the welfare/warfare state from spreading like a cancer, Americans must regain an understanding of why a liberal society with free markets is the only path to domestic and international peace and prosperity. A good place to start is Bernard Bailyns The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution. In this classic, first published in 1967, Bailyn shows how the ideology that inspired the American Revolution was a cluster of convictions focused on the effort to free the individual from the oppressive misuse of power, from the tyranny of the state. Thomas Paines Common Sense, The Rights of Man and Other Essential Writings is a prime example of how the Founders convictions were expressed, as is The Life and Selected Writings of Thomas Jefferson, by Adrienne Koch and William Peden.
The Federalist Papers, by John Jay, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, and Herbert J. Storing and Murray Days The Anti-Federalist: Writings by the Opponents of the Constitution describe the epic struggle between the Federalists, who wanted a more centralized government, and the Anti-Federalists, who wanted governmental power to be much more limited and decentralized. This ancient debate has colored much of American history and remains central to virtually every major social policy being debated in America.
Alexis de Tocquevilles Democracy in America is probably the best exposition ever penned of the essential nature of American democracy as it was originally designed. Tocqueville was a brilliant observer who in the early nineteenth century visited America and described in his book the significance of popular sovereignty in America; the predominance of decentralized, local government and of civil institutions; the system of checks and balances as a check on federal power; civil liberties and the constant threat of the tyranny of the majority; and the importance of customs, religion, habits, and morals in maintaining American democracy.
The Civil War or the War Between the States marked the beginning of the end of the constitutional Republic created by the founding fathers. With the treat of secession eliminated, federal power began to grow virtually unabated, as documented in Jeffrey Hummels Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men: A History of the Civil War. When the war was over, Hummel writes, the number of federal bureaucrats had grown fivefold, federal spending had increased relative to GNP, tariffs had been raised to unprecedented levels, and more Americans had come to believe in the oxymoron, government problem solving. Then, Robert Higgss Crisis and Leviathan: Critical Episodes in the Growth of American Government is a discussion of how twentieth-century wars and other emergencies were used as excuses to ratchet up federal governmental power.
Ludwig von Mises was the greatest liberal economist of the twentieth century and his magnum opus, Human Action: A Treatise on Economics, first published in 1949, was described at the time by The Economist magazine as a magnificent book; intellectual power roars through it like a great wind; it has ...the impeccable coherence of Euclid.
Human Action is an advanced, sophisticated, and clearly written treatise on economics that defines the Austrian School of Economics. There is simply no better exposition on how the economic world works on the relationship between economy and state, and on the importance of economic understanding to maintaining a free society.
Bureaucracy is another Misesian gem that explains in detail why the phrase businesslike government is the very definition of an oxymoron. His additional book Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis, first published in the 1920s, explained why socialism was doomed to fail. One of the greatest tragedies of the twentieth century is that the world did not pay heed to the advice offered by Mises in this brilliant and insightful book.
Whenever anyone asks me what book will teach them the basics of economics while minimizing technical jargon, I recommend Henry Hazlitts Economics in One Lesson: The Shortest and Surest Way to Understand Basic Economics. Hazlitt was an Austrian School economist and journalist whom H.L. Mencken claimed as the only economist alive who could actually write. Economics in One Lesson I not a treatise like Human Action, but there has never been a more clearly-written exposition of basic economics and its importance to public policy. Milton and Rose Friedmans Free to Choose: A Personal Statement falls into the same category.
Frédéric Bastiat was a mid-nineteenth-century French economist, statesman, and author. His short but brilliant book, The Law: The Classic Blueprint for a Free Society, distinguishes between the proper use of the lawfor the protection of ones life, liberty and property and its improper and immoral use as an instrument of legal plunder by politicians and special-interest groups.
Because economists are so narrowly trained, few of them are qualified to write economic treatises. They focus instead on choppy, simplified textbooks. An exception is the late Murray Rothbard, author of Man, Economy, and State. The book is a tour de force of economic theory in the Austrian School tradition. As such, it employs deductive logic grounded on a few simple and self-evident axioms of human action, and presents all of economics as an interrelated whole to the intelligent layman. Clear, verbal logic leads the reader to a much higher level of economic sophistication than any other mainstream economics text does.
Rothbards For a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto, first published in 1973, is still the best exposition of public policy from a libertarian or classical liberal perspective, and his Americas Great Depression should have earned him the Nobel Prize for debunking decades of statist myths about the 1920s and 1930s.
Another of Misess students, Frederick A. Hayek, gained international notoriety in 1944 with the publication of The Road to Serfdom. Hayek was already at that time an internationally renowned economist, but his first attempt at popular writing sent shock waves around the globe. At a time when virtually every intellectual believed that socialism was the wave of the future, Hayek explained why and how socialism would inevitably evolve into authoritarianism or totalitarianism. But the book is not just of historical significance. As Milton Friedman wrote in his preface to the fiftieth anniversary edition: Its message is no less needed today than it was when it first appeared. Unfortunately, the road to serfdom is still well traveled.
No list of great books on liberty would be complete without the works of H.L. Mencken. All of Menckens work is a joy to read, and much of it is collected in A Mencken Chrestomathy: His Own Selection of His Choicest Writing and in Alistair Cookes The Vintage Mencken: The Finest and Fiercest essays of the Great Literary Iconoclast. Among my favorites are Menckens commentaries on farmers and politicians.
As for Politicians: If experience teaches us anything at all, it is that a good politician, under democracy, is quite as unthinkable as an honest burglar. His very existence indeed is a standing subversion of the public good...It is in the interest of all the rest of us to hold down his powers to an irreducible minimum, and to reduce his compensation to nothing...
A contemporary of Menckens was the writer Albert Jay Nock, whose Our Enemy, The State distinguishes between governmentan instrument of justice by protecting life, liberty and propertyand the state, an instrument of legalized theft through taxation, income redistribution, and regulation. Nocks Mr. Jefferson champions the nations third president and his libertarian ideals.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of Ayn Rands novel Atlas Shrugged which, along with The Fountainhead defines her philosophy of Objectivism. The characters in Rands novels champion the objectivist ideals that mans decisions must rest on objective facts, independent of emotions or feelings; that reason is the only means of perceiving reality; that man is an end in himself and need not apologize for not being a sacrificial lamb for the benefit of others; and that the ideal political-economic system for securing human happiness is laissez-faire capitalism.
Milton Freemans Capitalism and Freedom explains why economic and political freedom are interconnectedone cannot long have one without the other. Friedmans son David, in The Machinery of Freedom: Guide to a Radical Capitalism, goes even further by authoring what he calls a guide to radical capitalism, complete with a brilliant defense of private property, advice on how to sell off the state, and an explanation of why anarchyzero governmentwill not produce chaos.
More recently, a number of books with libertarian themes have been written that promises to become great books on liberty in the near future. These include Charles Murrays What It Means to Be a Libertarian: A Personal Interpretation, David Boazs Libertarianism: A Primer, and Randy Simmonss Beyond Politics: The Roots of Government Failure, the most readable survey of modern Public Choice theory available.
Taxes and consumption deemed politically incorrectfoods, drugs, tobacco, alcohol, travel, etc.have long been a convenient way for politicians to fund programs benefiting special interest groups. Taxing Choice: The Predatory Politics of Fiscal Discrimination thoroughly unmasks the costs and consequences of such predatory public practices, providing valuable ammunition to stem or reverse this trend.
The outcome of the struggle between freedom and governmental tyranny will not be decided by political power or military might, Ludwig von Mises observed in his 1927 book, Liberalism: The Classical Tradition, for it is ideas that group men into fighting factions, that press the weapons into their hands, and that determine against whom and for whom the weapons shall be used. These great books on liberty compose one of the most formidable arsenals known to man.