Roy A. Childs, Jr. on the Literature of Liberty (1987)

Roger Bissell

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Reading the Literature of Liberty

by Roy A. Childs, Jr., May 1987

Any listing of the "great books" of liberty published in recent times must necessarily be a personal one. Libertarianism is first and foremost the doctrine championing individual freedom, private property, unfettered capitalism, and free trade. As such, it has never been captured fully in any one book or essay. As a doctrine, it lies scattered throughout the pages of countless books and articles; as a point of view, it has many variations. Any list of books and essays must be incomplete, but that does not mean that we should eschew the attempt. Here is my own list of "great books," culled from more than twenty years of reading.

I always begin with Economics in One Lesson by Henry Hazlitt. It is the damndest book: a brilliant introduction to economics, a work that teaches you how to think in terms of political and economic principles, and a refutation of hosts of myths about the free market, all in one package. Hazlitt gives example after example. You want to "cure unemployment," Hazlitt says, or protect American jobs from foreign competition. You favor some government program to do just that. The problem is, you are only looking at the program's obvious results; you aren't looking at its unintended consequences. Yet you must, in order to see the whole picture. In twenty-six chapters, Hazlitt will lead you through illustration after illustration of this basic principle, and show how those favored government programs do more harm than good. This is a mind-opening book. Every single year thousands of new readers discover it to their delight.

Move from economics to one of the keenest essays ever written on political theory, Frederic Bastiat's The Law. We are born into the world naked, he writes, and to live we human beings must produce the things we need. That's why we need property rights, and the function of just laws under a just government should be to protect these basic rights. But alas! the law has been perverted, and has become an instrument for legalized plunder. The Law was first published as a pamphlet in 1850; its truths remain eternal. If you want a collection of Bastiat's essays that includes The Law along with other breathtaking essays too, get Selected Essays on Political Economy. Bastiat anticipates Henry Hazlitt and Ayn Rand in important respects.

My next choice is a personal favorite: Rose Wilder Lane's magnificent book, The Discovery of Freedom. This is a soaring hymn to freedom first published in 1943 that surveys the broad scheme of human history. Here is the story of "Man's Struggle Against Authority," the search over the centuries for human freedom. Written with the passionate eloquence of a novel, this book continues to enchant new readers year after year.

Albert Jay Nock's classic Our Enemy, the State was first published in 1935, and is a highly readable essay in historical interpretation. Nock was a fascinating man who was very nearly alone in holding high the torch of liberty in the dark New Deal days. He looks at American history and develops the theme that history is a race between state power and voluntary social power. His indictment of statism is withering.

The next step must certainly be Ayn Rand's monumental novel, Atlas Shrugged. There has been a strong revival of interest in Rand's work since her death in 1982, particularly following the publication of Barbara Branden's superb biography The Passion of Ayn Rand last year. In reviewing the biography for the Washington Post, George Gilder wrote that "Atlas Shrugged is the most important novel of ideas since War and Peace," and noted that Rand had "flung her gigantic books into the teeth of an intelligentsia still intoxicated with state power" back in 1957 when Atlas was first published. For many people, particularly the young, reading Atlas is an explosive intellectual event. Millions have read it since it was published -- and it continues to attract more than one hundred thousand new readers every year. It is an unequalled celebration of reason, human ability, individual freedom, and capitalism. By all means get the hardcover edition of Atlas Shrugged. You will want to return to it many, many times.

Probably the only libertarian whose public visibility is even greater than Ayn Rand is the ubiquitous Milton Friedman, the most respected advocate of capitalism of our time. His 1962 work Capitalism and Freedom is in my view the best statement of his viewpoint. Here you'll see a great mind at work, and appreciate the power of quiet eloquence. And if you ever get the chance, don't pass up an opportunity to witness Milton Friedman's genius is all its glory: the ten hour PBS series Free to Choose.

Next I'd recommend the works of F. A. Hayek. His seminal work The Road to Serfdom was first published in 1944 and has become a classic warning against the dangers to freedom inherent in the planned economy; it's as powerful today as the day it was written. Chapters like "Why the Worst Get on Top" and "The End of Truth" are both provocative and chilling. Don't pass this one up! Then move on to not one but two other masterpieces by Hayek: The Constitution of Liberty and the three volume set Law, Legislation, and Liberty. These are among the most richly rewarding books you will ever read.

Turn now to the works of Murray Rothbard. His manifesto For a New Liberty sets out his own version of the principles of libertarianism, and proceeds to look at one problem area after another. Here you'll find suggestive answers to all those thorny problems that people keep raising: public education, the welfare state, even streets, roads, environmentalism, foreign policy, and more besides! Thousands of people have found this an excellent overview of libertarianism. If you want food for thought, here is a gourmet's delight! But don't neglect the works that really made Rothbard's reputation as a young man: his treatise Man, Economy, and State is a magnificent contribution both to economics and to political theory, while its sequel, Power and Market launched a full-scale critique of state intervention in the economy.

Let's end with the works of two of the great minds of our time: Ludwig von Mises and Robert Nozick. We carry nearly everything Mises ever wrote because without a doubt he has made a greater contribution to the intellectual defense of capitalism in our time than anyone else. Get copies of his two undeniable masterpieces: Socialism and Human Action. Socialism is without a doubt one of the great works in social philosophy of the twentieth century; it is the most devastating indictment of socialism ever penned. Human Action is a bit more difficult to read, but it is undeniably one of the greatest products of the human mind of the 20th century. It is a full-scale treatise that really covers much more ground than just economics. It was first published in 1949, but thousands of new readers discover it afresh every year, and countless others find themselves returning to it.

Last but not least, Robert Nozick's Anarchy, State and Utopia is a razzle-dazzle work in political philosophy that has already been proclaimed a classic. It's a work of astonishing intellectual virtuosity, wisdom, wit and insight. That's my list of the "great books" of liberty. There are many, many others, and those that are in print you'll find scattered through the catalog. There are classic works by Thomas Sowell, Thomas Szasz, James Buchanan, Israel Kirzner, and many others, of course. Each author I've mentioned has a unique perspective, and often disagrees heatedly with others. So be it!

Good reading!

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Another nice overview by Roy.

Roy and I had a few arguments about Nozick's book; he always thought more highly of it than I did. It is a good book, but it is not a great book, by any means. I claimed AS&U received the attention and acclaim that it did largely because Nozick was a Harvard professor, and that if the same book had been written by Roy or myself, it would have fallen stillborn from the press. As I recall, the opening line of the book is "Individuals have rights," or something to this effect. Nozick makes no effort to justify this assertion; he merely accepts it as a given. Nobody except an ivy-league professor could get away with this.

Nozick, in my judgment, did not give proper credit to Rothbard. In addition, Nozick received undeserved credit for originality in regard to his Wilt Chamberlain argument. The same argument (i.e., that inequality of property will result under freedom, even if you start with equal distribution) can be found in the writings of David Hume and other classical liberals.

The best thing about Nozick's book is that it made libertarian ideas respectable in the academic community. This was a significant achievement, of course, but most reviewers of AS&U were academics who knew nothing about what libertarians had been writing about for years. They therefore tended to overrate Nozick's originality.

Many years ago, when I first read Nozick's critique of Rand in The Personalist, I was surprised that someone of his intelligence could so badly misunderstand Rand's argument about the conceptual relationship between "life" and "value." Later, after reading how brilliant Philosophical Explanations was supposed to be, I purchased a copy and dug in. I stopped reading, however, after I encountered Nozick's nothingness curve (or whatever he called it). How one can plot nothingness on a graph puzzled me greatly.


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