Libertarian Theory: A Reading List

A selection of books to take readers beyond the basics of libertarianism and into the philosophy and economics that provide its foundations.

If you’re already familiar with the basics of libertarian thought and are interested in exploring deeper, the books on this list provide a thorough overview of the rich fundamentals. A mixture of established classics and modern contributions, these books are a bit more demanding than those on the “Introducing Libertarianism” list. But for the serious student of liberty, these works greatly reward careful study.

A first step

The Libertarian Reader: Classic and Contemporary Writings from Lao Tzu to Milton Friedman by David Boaz

The scope of libertarian philosophy can be overwhelming. With countless thinkers stretching back thousands of years, it’s difficult to know where to start. David Boaz’s The Libertarian Reader is a great source for the major works, including essays and selections from books. Divided thematically and featuring both classics and newer contributions, it’s the perfect first step in exploring libertarian theory. By reading The Libertarian Reader, you’ll come away with an appreciation of the full reach and complexity of libertarian thought — as well as a sense of where to focus future exploration.

Further reading

The Structure of Liberty: Justice and the Rule of Law by Randy E. Barnett

In The Structure of Liberty, Randy Barnett tackles the problem of justifying a complete libertarian philosophy. Starting with a clear, compelling, and secular account of natural law and natural rights, Barnett moves on to address three significant problems with power, government, and central control: the problem of knowledge, the problem of interest, and the problem of power. Barnett explains how a decentralized markets and polycentric legal orders can best deal with these fundamental limitations of human institutions.

The Bastiat Collection by Frédéric Bastiat

More than 150 years after his death, the works of Frédéric Bastiat remain some of the most incisive critiques of protectionism and big government — was well as the most thoughtful and clear articulations of the benefits of free trade. Bastiat possessed a remarkable ability to make economic analysis clear and compelling and he is unmatched as a popularizer of economic thinking. Highlights include “That Which Is Seen, and That Which Is Not Seen,” which features the now-famous “broken window” fallacy, and “A PETITION From the Manufacturers of Candles,” a terribly funny satire of protectionism, which has a coalition of lighting manufacturers petitioning the government because, they say, “We are suffering from the ruinous competition of a rival who apparently works under conditions so far superior to our own for the production of light that he is flooding the domestic market with it at an incredibly low price.” They are speaking, of course, of the sun.

Simple Rules for a Complex World by Richard A. Epstein

Richard Epstein is one of the most important contemporary consequentialist libertarian thinkers. His scholarship focuses on the intersection of law and economics, and Simple Rules is no exception. The book sets out a powerful argument for reducing the scope of law to a handful of “simple rules” (autonomy, first possession, consensual exchange) and defines a simple rule as one that generates more benefits than harm. Thus streamlined, law will be more efficient and more conducive to a flourishing society.

Capitalism and Freedom by Milton Friedman

Capitalism and Freedom is the book that introduced Milton Friedman to general audiences. In it, Friedman, who would go on to win the Nobel Prize in Economics, shows how political freedom depends upon economic freedom. He develops this argument through examinations of education, discrimination, the regulation of monopoly, occupational licensing, and poverty. And he shows how free markets, and the incentives they unleash, can address many of the social concerns governments have failed to solve.

The Constitution of Liberty by F. A. Hayek

The Constitution of Liberty is Hayek’s monumental restatement of the principles of classical liberalism. Hayek is arguably the most important libertarian thinker of the 20th century, and The Constitution of Liberty is the most thorough and accessible summary of his thought. Hayek’s major contribution is in understanding the way that knowledge operates within a society and how unplanned and emergent behaviors and institutions are better able to draw upon knowledge held by individuals than are bureaucrats and central-planners. The Constitution of Liberty sets out his vision for what a free society respecting these principles would look like.

Second Treatise of Civil Government by John Locke

One of history’s most important works of political philosophy, John Locke’s Second Treatise is a classic and timeless statement of the principles of individual liberty and limited government, one that had a major influence on the founding of the American republic. By starting with a hypothetical “state of nature,” Locke develops a system of human rights, including a right to property, and shows how governments are created by men in order to protect those rights. He argues that, because governments are so limited, citizens are justified in rebelling when the rulers overstep their bounds — an idea that found clear expression in the Declaration of Independence.

On Liberty by John Stuart Mill

“The sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number is self-protection,” John Stuart Mill writes in his classic utilitarian defense of liberalism, On Liberty. This very libertarian argument leads Mill to defend a great many rights against state incursion, including liberty of conscience, freedom of thought and expression, association, freedom to choose one’s own path in life, and more. On Liberty is a powerful — and beautifully written — defense of the core beliefs of libertarianism.

Anarchy, State, and Utopia by Robert Nozick

Robert Nozick’s book, released to widespread critical and popular acclaim in 1974, was almost single-handedly responsible for making libertarianism a force in modern academic philosophy. In Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Nozick shows how a minimal state — one that acts only to protect its citizens from violence and fraud — can arise within a state of nature, and without violating any rights. He then goes on to argue that such a minimal state is the only morally legitimate form of government and that it is also the form most conducive to human happiness and a pluralistic conception of the good. Anarchy, State, and Utopia retains a proud place in the canon of political philosophy.

Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal by Ayn Rand

Rand’s collection of essays — which also includes pieces from Nathaniel Branden, Alan Greenspan, and Robert Hessen — represents an extended defense of laissez-faire capitalism, which Rand considers the only system compatible with man’s rational nature. The book’s first section addresses the fundamental theories supporting capitalism, as well as its history. The second section applies these ideas to then-contemporary political issues. Taken as a whole, Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal offers a thorough application of the ideas of Objectivism to politics and the economy. The book closes with an appendix republishing two major essays, “Man’s Rights” and “The Nature of Government,” which first appeared in The Virtue of Selfishness.

Moral Principles and Political Obligations by A. John Simmons

Most political philosophy begins by assuming the existence of the state and the duty of its subjects to obey its rules. In Moral Principles and Political Obligations, Simmons asks us to take a step back and first address the question of what duty — if any — do we have to obey the state? He examines the most common arguments for state authority — including consent, gratitude, fair play, and natural duty — and finds them either uncompelling or unrealistic when applied to existing governments. His conclusion is “philosophical anarchy,” the idea that we don’t have a moral duty to obey the government — but that there may be other, non-moral reasons for doing so. Political authority is an important issue paid far too little attention by both libertarian and non-libertarian thinkers.