5 Essential Books for Liberty Lovers in Dark Times

What Mises, Herbert, and Machiavelli teach us

This year has provided liberty lovers many learning opportunities.

It’s been the best year in the history of technology and therefore for witnessing the expansion of human well-being around the world. The app economy has matured to the point that it has challenged entrenched government regulations. Material prosperity has never been more widespread — and this is due not to government programs but rather to spontaneous market innovations.

Meanwhile, at the very same time that the world of economics is serving up miracles by the day, the world of politics has hit rock bottom. Authoritarianism, socialism, fascism, militarism, imperialism — these ideologies are on the loose, and the people are being asked to choose.

The fear of terrorism — real and imagined — is fueling the surveillance state. Regional conflicts are threatening wider perpetual war. Social divisions are deepening based on race, sex, and religion. The political leaders who promise fixes are selling various forms of despotism, and many people seem ready to buy.

Getting clear on the distinction between freedom and politics is a priority. Otherwise, we might find ourselves back where we started.

Machiavelli’s The Prince

How to wipe away the illusions promised by political control? An excellent place to start is Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince. Written in 1513, it considered the founding document of what is today called political science. Speaking from his own experience as an adviser to the Medici family, the Borgias, and other aspiring power centers in Italy at the dawn of modernity, he presents a strategic plan for obtaining and retaining power.

It is an eye opening read, simply because it is such an unvarnished account of the primary purpose of the state. It is a manual for states to do the best possible job at achieving their aims.

And what is that aim? Back in the day, the excuses for power were to secure the population against invasion, to protect the people’s faith against heresy, to control the mob so as to restrain chaos that makes life impossible. Today the exoteric reasons for state control include those but add many others: making incomes fair, stopping discrimination, cleaning up the environment, and so on.

It’s a near-universal habit to be the arm-chair tyrant and talk about what governments should do with their power. It is presumed that giving power to the state is some kind of magic formula for molding society in conformity with one’s values. Everyone has different ideas, but few put thought into whether the aims of anyone (much less everyone) can be realized.

You gain a very different impression of the aim of the state from Machiavelli’s account. His account strips away all the illusions. He lays bare the esoteric truth. The state, he says, has one aim: to gain and maintain power. Nothing else. This and only this must drive the decisions of the Prince or anyone who sits at the head of state. The excuses change, the rationale shifts, the techniques of control adapt, but the purpose remains the same.

It is common to denounce Machiavelli as counseling evil or to suggest that his advice is based on some kind of deep cynicism and lies. I don’t sense that at all. He was an adviser to states and their leading interest groups. His council was realistic and truth telling. He said what he had to and he spoke as plainly and bluntly as he knew how. True, his words are rather embarrassing for those who imagine the possibility of benevolent, public-spirited states, but that makes them all the more valuable.

Ludwig von Mises’s Liberalism

Between the First and Second World Wars, nations and people had an opportunity to embrace freedom rather than planning and control. But somehow the classical conception of freedom was off the table. It was widely perceived that the future presented only a choice between socialism and fascism. Hardly anyone disputed this.

One dissident intellectual took issue with the entire prevailing paradigm. He was Ludwig von Mises and his marvelous book was Liberalism (1927). He wrote it as a primer to a generation that knew nothing of the wisdom of the classical tradition. But he did more than restate what was known from the traditions of England and Europe. He infused his account with insights from the Austrian tradition, and, hence, put private property up front as the essential liberal institution.

His description of liberalism deserves a re-reading every year. Why? Because a genuine liberal spirit is a difficult proposition in times like ours. Liberalism has no party, no candidate, no mass movement. It is too great an abstraction for most people. And even committed liberals of classical variety (most often called libertarians today) find themselves buffeted about by the winds of politics, drifting left and drifting right and then back again.

So what is the liberal spirit? It is globalist, tolerant, community-minded, and public spirited, instead of merely advancing special interests. It is based not only on populist rabble rousing but on reason, reflection, and rationality. It is uncompromising in its dedication to individual rights but also focused on the common good. It aspires to free trade, free migration, religious liberty, and universal security and prosperity. It seeks to protect the spontaneous ordering of society against impositions from planning elites.

Sometimes liberty minded people don’t read books like this because they think they already know the contents. It’s not true. What you get from Mises’s account, above all, is a reminder of what it means to have a liberal spirit. It is not angry, emotional, or manipulative. It is clear headed and independent, detached from the frenzies of the day and instead focused on the long-run well-being of all.

Mises’s Omnipotent Government

Almost two decades after writing Liberalism, Mises’s Omnipotent Government appeared (1944). In the intervening years, politics and life had taken a terrible turn. Fascism had taken power all over Europe, as a seeming alternative to socialism. Mises had been driven out of his beloved Vienna, not by the communists, as he had long predicted, but rather by a different but equally illiberal threat from the Nazis. He had found refuge in Geneva, but that could not be his permanent home. So at the age of 60, he found himself in New York, and asked to write and teach in a language that was not his native tongue.

Omnipotent Government is one of Mises’ lesser known works, but it is the one that speaks most immediately and poignantly to the problems of fascism and Nazism. Because of the outcome of the war, it has been widely assumed that fascism as an ideology would be forever relegated to the margins of civic life. Mises shows that this is a dangerous presumption.

Fascism is a form of socialism that is purged of its least popular elements, such as the attack on property, religion, and the family. It uses the language of national pride, race, and energetic executive rule to control the population.

What distinguishes its ideological structure is its non-leftist character. It doesn’t appeal to egalitarianism and social justice. Instead, it appeals to majority identity as a political principle. It demonizes foreigners in trade and migration, urges independence as an economic policy, and plays to the rooted biases of the native population for economic and physical security.

The urgency of this book cannot be overstated. Fascism, the real thing, does indeed threaten the Western world, and that threat is intensified by the widespread lack of understanding of what this ideology is and what it purports to do. Libertarians have a special obligation to school themselves on this topic. It is not only socialism that endangers liberty but also its “new and improved” version that has proven vastly more attractive to the masses of people.

Mises discovered that dangers to liberty can come from unexpected places. He had always known about the dangers of fascism (see his comments in Liberalism), but the rise of Hitler taught him more immediately about the intense political dangers of an anti-leftist statism that threatened the whole world.

Auberon Herbert’s The Right and Wrong of Compulsion by the State

In the waning years of the age of laissez faire, before the world knew of the dangers of total war and total state, liberal ideology and thinking had reached a glorious height. I can think of no better example that the writings of British Member of Parliament Auberon Herbert and his essays collected in The Right and Wrong of Compulsion by the State. I read this book in 2015 for the first time, and I find myself mystified that it is not more famous. Quite frankly, I was embarrassed that I had never encountered it before.

His statement of concerning human liberty is as pure and comprehensive as anything I’ve read. He gets it all correct and foresees all the essential points that were later fleshed out in the course of 20th century liberal writings. He is Smith, Bastiat, Hayek, Mises, Rothbard, and Ridley all in one. It’s a remarkable display. I’m especially delighted that Herbert refuses to set human rights against consequentialist thinking: in his mind they are one and the same.

His vision of how society could work in absence of what we now call the state has a beautiful purgative effect on one’s thinking. His work is proof that a genuine humanitarianism is inseparable from a consistent and radical love of liberty as a first principle.

Terence Kealey’s Sex, Science, and Profits

Where do innovation and resulting prosperity come from? Are they a product of central planning or markets? Do they emerge from singular geniuses or are they the crowd-sourced result of information sharing?

Terence Kealey’s remarkable Sex, Science, and Profits chooses the paradigm of evolution to explain how humankind emerged out of the state of nature to build civilization. In so doing, he puts empirical flesh on many libertarian bones, and tells a story is both gripping and revealing.

In his view, private property is a discovered technology that makes for social peace in the absence of universal plenty. Technology emerges through trial and error from many different sources working toward practical solutions. The knowledge capital of civilization is the well from which each new generation draws to build a better future.

What you come to realize in the course of his narrative is just how much we tend to exaggerate the role of great states and great men. Patents and copyrights in particular come under fire for limiting the flow of information economies and establishing crushing monopolies that hold back progress. Such policies are the result of corporatist lobbying and illustrate the extent to which capitalists cannot be counted on to come to the defense of capitalism.

This book helps the reader gain an intense appreciation of the decentralized process of market innovation, and thereby reveals the preposterous conceit of political institutions that seek to supplant them in every area.