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Monday, June 28, 2010

My Favorite Libertarian Books*

Five Introductions to Libertarian Thought

I am one of the many millions of beneficiaries of Andrew Carnegie’s public libraries. The one in the small town in which I grew up (Rahway, New Jersey) fed my early interest in books, providing a range of reading matter that was available in no other way, since there were few books at home. That started me on a lifelong addiction.

I have been asked what was my first introduction to libertarian thought. I find that hard to answer, involving as it does looking back nearly three quarters of a century. But if I had to make a guess, I would conjecture that it was John Stuart Mill ‘s Essay on Liberty, which I must have read in my first or second year of college.

Herewith are my five favorite libertarian books.

Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations

First, Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations. This book, published in 1776, founded economic science. It introduced the notion of the “invisible hand” and explained how free trade could produce cooperation among people in achieving economic productivity. It remains a book well worth reading, full of wonderful comments to warm a libertarian’s

Mill’s Essay on Liberty

Second, John Stuart Mill’s Essay on Liberty. The most concise and clearest statement of the fundamental libertarian principle, “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others …. ”

Dicey’s Lectures on Law and Public Opinion

Third, A. V. Dicey’s Lectures on the Relation between Law and Public Opinion in England during the Nineteenth Century. A remarkable work initially presented as lectures at Harvard in the 1890s and reprinted with a new and very important preface in 1914. Dicey saw clearly the ultimate outcome of initial social welfare measures in the first decade of the twentieth century. He essentially predicted the emergence of the full-fledged welfare state. More than a century ago, Dicey explained why the rhetoric in terms of the general interest is so persuasive: “The beneficial effect of state intervention, especially in the form of legislation, is direct, immediate, and so to speak, visible while its evil effects are gradual and indirect and lying out of sight …. Hence the majority of mankind must almost of necessity look with undue favor upon governmental intervention.”

Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom

Foutth, F. A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom. This profound book was highly influential in the immediate post-World War II period when it was a lone voice presenting the case for libertarian philosophy and pointing out the consequences of an increase in the role of the state. It was certainly one of the most effective works leading people to take libertarian principles seriously.

My Own Favorite: Capitalism and Freedom OR Free to Choose?

Fifth, I have been asked to include one of my own books. I am torn between Capitalism and Freedom, published in 1962 with the assistance of Rose D. Friedman, and Free to Choose, published in 1980 jointly with Rose D. Friedman. Both present the same philosophy and cover many of the same topics. Capitalism and Freedom is more succinct, scholarly, and abstract; it was a product of a series of lectures that I gave in June 1956 at a conference at Wabash College directed by John Van Sickle and Benjamin Rogge [a long-time FEE trustee] and sponsored by the Volker Foundation.

Free to Choose, based on the television program of the same title, is more popular, less abstract, more concrete. It presents a fuller development of the philosophy that permeates both books; it has more nuts and bolts, less theoretical framework. The TV program on which Free to Choose is based is available in videocassette and, if I were to consider it as a book, would clearly be my favorite.

*Excerpted from an insert that appeared in the April 2002 issue of The Freeman.

  • Milton Friedman (1912-2006), recipient of the 1976 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science, is a Senior Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution.