by Madsen Pirie

Most lists of the books which contribute to or reinforce libertarian ideas might contain most of the following top ten:

  • Friedman: Capitalism & Freedom
  • Hakek: Constitution of Liberty
  • Hayek: Road to Serfdom
  • Locke: Two Treatises on Civil Government
  • Mill: On Liberty
  • von Mises: Human Action
  • Montesquieu: Spirit of the Laws
  • Nozick: Anarchy, State & Utopia
  • Popper: Open Society & its Enemies
  • Smith: Wealth of Nations

There are, of course, others that might displace one or more of these in some people’s top ten.  Ayn Rand’s “Capitalism: the Unknown Ideal” would for many people be a candidate.  Their place is rightly earned, because these books form the bedrock on which liberty has been built.

There are other books in addition to these that express libertarian sentiments, often more obliquely.  Everyone’s list will no doubt differ.  The ten I offer below is a personal selection of books that have resonated with me, and from which I think others might draw interest and inspiration.  They come from a variety of disciplines, but all have that undercurrent that moves against tyranny and imposed conformity, and flows towards individualism and liberty.  I hope others will find something of value in them.

The Joy Makers – James Gunn, 1961

“If happiness is for sale, only a fool will not buy,” runs the quote.  But happiness is for sale, and Hedonics Inc will deliver.  A world with no pain, no wants, no illness, no distress, and they have the advanced technology to deliver.  Eventually they build a machine instructed to make everyone happy, and the machine delivers by securing humans in womb-like cells, fed by fluids, and living out their fantasies, all perfectly happy.

Douglas has been trained in philosophy and knows the difference between happy fantasy and real-world struggle.  It is the difference between a pig satisfied and a human dissatisfied.  He takes on the machine in an epic struggle in which he is confronted by wish-fulfillment fantasies, but each time his training enables him to break out of the illusion into the real world.

The book is a powerful lesson that life’s goal is not the contented calm of the lotos eaters, but the struggle to achieve one’s desires, “the pursuit of happiness,” as Jefferson put it, rather than happiness itself.  The systems that would deliver us material comforts and security in exchange for that struggle and the freedom to undertake it, are revealed as illusory under this book’s relentless message.

The Industrial Revolution – T S Ashton, 1948

Ashton’s book totally transformed perceptions of Britain’s Industrial Revolution.  Until it appeared in 1948, opinion had largely viewed industrialization as a tragedy.  Taking its cue from “The Condition of the Working Class in England,” 1845, by Friedrich Engels, the common view was that mechanization had disenfranchised the rural poor, deprived them of any stake in property, and condemned them to poverty and insecurity in appalling living conditions in the new industrial towns.

A century later Ashton showed that work in the new factories was a step up from the back-breaking squalor and borderline subsistence of the poor farm worker.  It brought a security they had never enjoyed, plus the chance for advancement.  Gradually they were able to afford china instead of wood, meat instead of gruel, and increasing access to the betterment of their lives.  They were lifted above subsistence and starvation.

What made it happen?  “About 1760 a wave of gadgets swept over England,” wrote the schoolboy Ashton quotes.  Ashton explores why, and opts for multiple causes.  Capital was available for landowners keen to improve; literacy spread; agricultural changes led to healthier workers; rewards and status went to inventors and innovators; each new machine led to others.

His conclusion is that the industrial revolution was a great boon that enabled Britain to feed its much-increased population and avert the Malthusian starvation that would otherwise have been its lot.  It created the modern world.

Logic of Scientific Discovery – Karl Popper, 1959

Popper’s book on the philosophy of science (a rewritten English version of “Logic der Forschung,” 1934) overturned the prevailing view of science and solved most of its problems.

The common previous view had been that science proceeded inductively, proceeding from past observations to general theories that were then tested to see if they were true.  But Hume had pointed to the absence of logical threads between the future and the past, and suggested that induction rested on the unwarranted assumption that what happened yesterday will happen again tomorrow.

Furthermore, Popper asserts, we can never prove theories to be true, because tomorrow might come an example that overturns them.  He says we can prove them false, however, if they fail experiments we design.  He solves Hume’s problem of induction by suggesting that we do not proceed from past observations to draw out a general theory.  Rather do we make a bold conjecture as to a general theory, then test to see if we can prove it false.  Our scientific knowledge consists of theories we have tried but failed to disprove, and therefore contains an ever greater concentration of truth.

There are no certain truths, however, since everything is tentative and subject to refutation.  This dovetails with his opposition to certain or inevitable truths in politics and history.  These ideas are more accessible to the general reader in Popper’s essays in “Conjectures & Refutations,” 1963.

The Economy of Cities – Jane Jacobs, 1969

Jane Jacobs completely overturned the prevailing ideas on how cities arose, and in doing so gave spontaneity an important place in urban development.  Previously the popular assumption was that when our predecessors domesticated grains and animals, they first settled in small hamlets.  Some of these grew into villages, and some of these into towns and then cities.  The role of town planners had been to impost rationality on this chaotic and disordered development.

No, said Jacobs.  The city came first, and its agricultural hinterland developed to support and sustain it.  Cities developed to trade, usually located at some convenient trade point, such as a river.  They were a market for people to come to supply grain, animals, or useful minerals.  In cities people gradually developed local production, and outside them, local agriculture.  Cities grew organically.

Jacobs thus highlights the spontaneity of city development and the role played in it by free market trading.  Cities place people within a network of information and opportunities, immersed in social ties that enable trust and fair dealing.

Jacobs thus places the city at the front edge of development.  Although some yearn for the simple round of rural life, it is in the cities, says Jacobs, that innovation and progress take place.  Life in villages would be immensely poorer without products created in cities.

Jacobs opposed urban planners who bulldoze vibrant communities to build expressways and towering estates that look fine in drawings, but are crime and drug infested sinkholes in practice.

Studies in Philosophy, Politics and Economics – Friedrich A. Hayek, 1967

Although Hayek is more celebrated for ground-breaking works such as “The Road to Serfdom,” 1944 and “The Constitution of Liberty,” 1960, his book, “Studies in Philosophy, Politics and Economics,” 1967, is also a classic of its kind.  The title notwithstanding, it bears little relation to academic PPE as taught, for example, at Oxford.

The book’s three sections, covering the areas of its title, each has essays that expound Hayek’s thinking.  The result is a superb insight into Hayek’s innovative approach to all three, and an understanding how all three interlock to contribute to a world-view of human behaviour.

In Philosophy he explains why the study of human beings with their complex phenomena can never be truly scientific, subject to immutable laws.  He shows why a spontaneous order has more knowledge and can be self-correcting in a way that preconceived orders can never achieve.

In Politics he shows why intellectuals, denied top status in market economies, are attracted to a socialism directed by intellectuals.  He sets out why free enterprise is more conducive to a moral life, as well as a more efficient in its use and allocation of resources.

In Economics he disproves Galbraith’s claim that society now has sufficient goods, and must now concentrate instead on the services produced by government.  There is so much more.

The book has 26 essays, all trenchant, all informative, and all highly readable.  It is a master summary of Hayek’s thought.

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress – Robert Heinlein, 1966

The lunar colony aches under the exploitive rule of Earth.  Its produce has to serve Earth’s needs, and its inhabitants are oppressively taxed and regulated.  Drawing heavily on the American Revolution, the lunar colonists rise up seeking an independence that Earth refuses to grant.

Against this backdrop, the computer which controls the moon’s technological systems finally has so many peripherals added that its neural connections reach the critical mass to achieve consciousness.  The story’s protagonist, Manuel, befriends the computer, which calls itself Mycroft, after the smarter brother of Sherlock Holmes.  The two friends lead the rebellion, defending the colony against aggressive attacks by Earth, and finally developing a rail gun to bombard Earth with lunar rocks until it accedes to their wishes.

It is a fascinating and exciting story, but it is also a tone poem to liberty.  The lunar inhabitants are a sturdy, independent breed, much like the early American pioneers who went West.  Their laws recognize the rights of property, and of individuals to make their own way.  They resent the muzzling confinement of authority with its taxes and regulations, and seek space for people to live by their values, with due regard for the rights of their neighbours to do the same.  It is rightly regarded as a libertarian classic.

Wealth of Nations – Adam Smith, 1776 (Condensed version by Eamonn Butler, 2011)

Dr Eamonn Butler’s condensed version is a very good way into Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations.  This is not an abridgement, but an account in modern language of what Smith was saying, with quotes from the original on each page to convey its flavour.

Smith exploded the notion that nations grew rich by selling abroad more than they bought, and by hoarding the gold and silver thus gained.  Not so, said Smith, pointing out that the wealth of nations consists in the productive activity of their peoples.  Trade adds value, and specialization boosts trade by making each worker more efficient.  The pin factory he describes has 18 operations to make a pin.  A man doing all of them might make 20 pins at most in a day.  But by specialization, 10 men make 48,000 pins in a day, or 4,800 per employee.  This makes them cheaper.

He also exposed the fallacy of self-sufficiency.  We become wealthier by buying in specialized services.  “By means of hot walls and glass houses” we could produce wine on Ben Nevis, but why, since the French already do it at one-thirtieth of what it would cost us?  We should buy from cheaper producers and concentrate on what we are good at.

In identifying these truths, Smith invented modern economics.  And the added bonus of Dr Butler’s condensed version is that it includes at the end a condensed account of Smith’s “Theory of Moral Sentiments.”

Animal Farm – George Orwell, 1945

Animal Farm is like an earlier version of 1984.  Both deal with the oppressive Soviet system of the 1930s, one as a satire featuring farm animals and the other as a dystopian portrayal of the future it portends.  Both contain lasting lessons that rise above one system in one country.

Animal Farm is the story of a revolution betrayed.  The animals, recognizing how they are exploited by the men, rise up and drive them out, setting up rule by animals.  But the new rulers who administer Animal Farm, the pigs, increasingly rule in their own interests, and end up exploiting the animals even more as they live in luxury and make deals with their human-run neighbouring farms.

The fine words of the revolution are corrupted by oppressive deeds..  When the pigs, to emphasize their new importance, start walking upright, the other animals can no longer tell them apart from the humans.

It is a parable of idealism betrayed.  Its messages are that what is done counts for more than what is said, and that the fault is not that the revolution was misapplied, but that failure and corruption is built into its fabric, with no mechanisms for redress.

The 1954 movie was criticized for ending with the animals overthrowing and trampling the pigs, in contrast to Orwell’s downbeat ending, but events in 1989 vindicated it to some extent.

Democracy in America – Alexis de Tocqueville, 1835

Although ostensibly an account of democracy in America, written after de Tocqueville’s 1830 visit there, the book gives general support to constitutional government anywhere that incorporates strong democratic features.

De Tocqueville was impressed that democratic institutions had taken root in America, by contrast with Europe.  He recognized the advantages of peace.  Protected by two great oceans and without armies marching across it periodically, America had enjoyed a peace that gave space for political institutions to develop.  He wrote a generation before America’s Civil War shattered that peace.

He noted how local government at county and township level was truly local and democratic, and how the distribution of power between federal and state authorities created checks and balances similar to those between the executive and legislative branches of government.  This dispersal of power made it difficult for anyone to grasp it and abuse it.

When Americans achieved independence, they codified their liberties into a constitution that guarantees them, and guarantees the free press and freedom of association that support them.

De Tocqueville understood that the great threat in a democracy was the promotion of equality of condition to the point of despotism, and praised the way American laws prevented the tyranny of the majority by obliging it to yield before a constitution that guaranteed the rights of minorities.

Long before Turner’s frontier thesis, de Tocqueville noted that Americans coping with everyday life tended to be pragmatic rather than philosophical, and praised the practicality of their democracy.

The Gulag Archipelago – Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, 1973

The book is an account of the Soviet forced labour camps in which perceived enemies of the regime were subject to appalling and humiliating conditions that made each day a struggle for survival.  Solzhenitsyn earlier expressed this vividly in  “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch,” 1963.

The Gulag Archipelago is part history, part eye-witness journalism, written partly from concealed and smuggled notes during his own internment, and partly from memory as he sets on record individuals and events that would otherwise be lost in official concealment or indifference.

The book has a poignancy that reminds us that these victims were real people, not statistics – the businessman sentenced to years of harsh punishment for being the first to sit down after 20 minutes of applause at Stalin’s name; the poet whose talent would be unknown had not Solzhenitsyn remembered a few of his lines.

In Solzhenitsyn’s eyes this was not just Stalin’s fault, but the fault of the Communist system and its ideology begun by Lenin before him.  It had to silence opposition by force.  He writes:

“Shakespeare’s evildoers stopped short at a dozen corpses. Because they had no ideology… Ideology gives evildoing its long-sought justification and gives the evildoer the necessary steadfastness and determination.”

The Gulag Archipelago reminds us what Communism did in practice, what all totalitarian systems do, despite the appeals to idealistic justification they make.