The Books & Mortar of Libertarianism
January 5, 2009 2:49 PM   Subscribe

Which books comprise the canon of libertarian philosophy?

I'm looking for titles, authors and links. I hope this isn't too broad. Thank you for your help!
posted by dead_ to Religion & Philosophy (23 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Atlas Shrugged.
posted by tkolar at 2:53 PM on January 5, 2009

Originally expounded in The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand, she wrote Atlas Shrugged to flesh out the ideas after getting so much feedback.
posted by furtive at 3:05 PM on January 5, 2009

Anarchy, State, and Utopia, by Robert Nozick.
posted by Joe Beese at 3:06 PM on January 5, 2009

John Stuart Mill (wiki) - On Liberty (wiki)
Friedrich Hayek (wiki) - The Constitution of Liberty (wiki) and The Road to Serfdom (wiki)
Henry George (wiki) - Progress and Poverty (wiki)

Henry George is maybe a different branch of libertarian, but I threw him in because P+P is so good and so overlooked.
posted by Durin's Bane at 3:06 PM on January 5, 2009 [2 favorites]

Isn't Ayn Rand pure Objectivism? Wikipedia to the rescue: Libertarianism and Objectivism.
posted by trotter at 3:06 PM on January 5, 2009

Ok, libertarian philosophy is way older than Ayn Rand. Indeed, it is also much broader than just objectivism, which is her particular brand.

I would suggest Nozick's Anarchy, State, and Utopia is a good read for an interested student in modern libertarianism.

There are also a great deal of 'classic' liberal thinkers like Mill and Locke, who while not strictly libertarians in the modern sense, certainly helped lay the philosophical groundwork. A nice easy easy is On Liberty by Mill (probably canon for most of Western liberalism though).

Preview: Ack! Beaten to my suggestions.
posted by Sova at 3:19 PM on January 5, 2009

Check out Leonard Read as well. If you can get your hands on any past Freeman issues (put out by the Foundation for Economics Education), they're great for overviews of libertarianism.

I seem to recall that they have some sort of free online library (free? libertarians?) @, but that site doesn't seem to be loading right now.

Oh, wait. Voila.

Also, The Law is there, which is a perennial, snarky libertarian favorite.
posted by Barry B. Palindromer at 3:27 PM on January 5, 2009

Although the title of libertarianism has been co-opted by, to quote a great man, whiny professional tax-dodgers, it is worth noting that various lefties, including Noam Chomsky, have laid claim to being libertarians.

If you want another fiction author to go with Rand, you could do worse than Robert Heinlenn, particularly The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.
posted by rodgerd at 3:31 PM on January 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

Seconding Hayek.
posted by prefpara at 3:32 PM on January 5, 2009

If you'd like to read a great history of the movement, I HIGHLY recommend Brian Dougherty's "Radicals for Capitalism". It's hefty but good.
posted by willmize at 4:05 PM on January 5, 2009

Many libertarians would cite the classic foundational texts of post-Enlightenment liberal democracy, particularly the works of John Locke and Adam Smith.
posted by mr_roboto at 4:16 PM on January 5, 2009

Man I cannot believe people suggested Ayn Rand over the likes of John Locke, Adam Smith, Ludwig von Mises, and Milton Friedman.

I enjoyed reading Rand, but she's an Objectivist before anything else and has certainly contributed to the idea all libertarians are cold hearted and self serving.
posted by JFitzpatrick at 4:33 PM on January 5, 2009

all libertarians are cold hearted and self serving.

I'm sure Ms. Rand would thank you for the compliment.

Much as I enjoy Heinlein's meshugas, his conception of libertarianism extends to having sex with one's children - so I wouldn't consider him "canonical".
posted by Joe Beese at 4:52 PM on January 5, 2009

Man I cannot believe people suggested Ayn Rand over the likes of John Locke, Adam Smith, Ludwig von Mises, and Milton Friedman.

The threads of libertarianism run through quite a few of the western philosophers, but Rand does a good job of bringing it all together and placing it in a modern context. But yes, the Objectivist stuff does tend to clutter things up.
posted by tkolar at 5:04 PM on January 5, 2009

This might be helpful: LibraryThing books tagged "libertarian"
posted by Shebear at 5:29 PM on January 5, 2009

The Probability Broach by L Neil Smith, was my introduction to libertarian ideals.
posted by nomisxid at 6:19 PM on January 5, 2009

Rose Wilder Lane, the daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder, is often considered one of the founding mothers of modern libertarianism. Her book The Discovery of Freedom is still read today, and often required reading for scholars in the field. (I think she helped found the Freedom School, still around today.)
posted by Melismata at 6:56 PM on January 5, 2009

Much as I enjoy Heinlein's meshugas, his conception of libertarianism extends to having sex with one's children - so I wouldn't consider him "canonical".

That may be the single silliest summary of Heinlenn's works I've ever seen, which is quite an accomplishment.

Like him or not, he seems to be the jumping-off point for many of the young, particularly geeky, libertarians of the world.
posted by rodgerd at 8:11 PM on January 5, 2009

I'd look at the Table of Contents inside this book. And Nozick (upthread multiple times) is indeed the modern father of libertarianism.
posted by Kwantsar at 8:12 PM on January 5, 2009

Seconding the recommendations upthread, especially Hayek and Nozick. This is a bit like asking which Star Wars films are canon—guaranteed to get disputatious.

I'd add Frederic Bastiat, laff-a-minute 19th c. French polemicist; Milton Friedman, who was a great communicator of libertarian ideas; James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock, who developed the theory of public choice economics; Ludwig von Mises, elder of the Austrian school and author of "Human Action," which is definitely canon and definitely something like a thousand pages long; Joseph Schumpeter, who came up with the idea of "creative destruction." On the more radical side, there are folks like Murray Rothbard and Lysander Spooner. I'm a big fan of Richard Cobden and the Manchester School, but they might be Expanded Universe.

"The Libertarian Reader" is an excellent collection of libertarian writing and a good starting place. So is this reading list. There's also lots more online at the Library of Economics and Liberty. Good luck!
posted by ecmendenhall at 10:43 PM on January 5, 2009

"Canon" of libertarian philosophy?

You think libertarians actually agree on anything?
posted by Jacqueline at 10:43 PM on January 5, 2009

I don't know about canon, but try The Machinery of Freedom by David Friedman (son of Milton Friedman) at some point.
posted by dreadpiratesully at 11:49 PM on January 5, 2009

Some great suggestions here! I find Ayn Rand to be unreadably self-indulgent, and I would not suggest you include her before you've read the already-mentioned Radicals for Capitalism, which will put her into context within the libertarian world.

As already mentioned, it is crucial that you read Mill's On Liberty. It's short but will rock your world if you're new to classical liberalism-cum-libertarianism (Mill was no libertarian, but is essential to libertarian thought).

If, like me, you have the time to listen to audiobooks, you can download Bastiat's The Law for a short, punchy primer.

I don't think anybody has mentioned The Ethics of Liberty by Murray Rothbard yet (audio and pdf files available at, which I found extremely enjoyable and interesting. I disagreed with most of it (Rothbard is an Anarcho-Capitalist, so he doesn't see the need for a state at all) but it was thought-provoking and really forced me to reflect on why I thought certain state actions were justified. The book is hardly canon (Rothbard is a bit too uncompromising for any of his work to be canon).

You should also try to familiarise yourself with Monetarist (eg, Milton Friedman) and Austrian (eg, Ludwig von Mises or Friedrich von Hayek) economic ideas. If you have the will (and the time), Friedman's A Monetary History of the United States is certainly the primary "canon" Monetarist book. Finding the "canon" Austrian book is generally a matter of picking up Human Action, but this can be quite heavygoing (I haven't managed to finish it). Hayek's work on the business cycle is excellent and a good example can be found here. It's particularly relevant in these times!
posted by SamuelBowman at 1:21 AM on January 6, 2009

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