A guide to books on the history of liberty and libertarianism.
The history of libertarianism is more than a series of scholarly statements on philosophy, economics, and the social sciences. It is the history of courageous men and women struggling to bring freedom to the lives of those living without it. The works on this list give important context to the ideas found on the others.
A first step
“A History of Libertarianism” by David Boaz
This essay, reprinted from Libertarianism: A Primer, covers the sweep of libertarian and pre-libertarian history, from Lao Tzu in the sixth century B.C. to the latest developments of the 21st century. Because it’s available for free on Libertarianism.org, the essay also includes numerous links to more information about major thinkers and their works. For a general sense of the rich history of the movement for liberty, this is easily the best place to start.
The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution by Bernard Bailyn
Bernard Bailyn’s Pulitzer Prize-winning history of the ideas that influenced the American Revolution had a profound influence on our understanding of the republic’s origin by exposing its deeply libertarian foundations. Bailyn studied the many political pamphlets published between 1750 and 1776 and identified patterns of language, argument, and references to figures such as the radical Whigs and Cato the Younger. Because these were “notions which men often saw little need to explain because they were so obvious,” their understanding was assumed by the Founders and thus not immediately obvious to modern readers. When the Revolution is reexamined with Bailyn’s findings in mind, there’s no way to escape the conclusion that America was always steeped in libertarian principles.
Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement by Brian Doherty
The libertarian movement in America in the 20th century is the focus of this delightful history from Brian Dorhety. Radicals for Capitalism is more the story of the men and women who fought for freedom and limited government than it is an intellectual history of libertarian ideas. But it is an important story because it helps to place the contemporary debate about the place of libertarianism in American politics within the context of a major and long-lived social movement.
The Decline of American Liberalism by Arthur A. Ekirch Jr.
Ekirch traces the history of the liberal idea in the United States from the founding through World War II. He places the high point of true liberalism in the years immediately following the American Revolution, before the federal government began its long march of ever more centralized control over the country. And he shows how this shift has negatively impacted everything from global peace to the economy to individual autonomy.
Against the Tide: An Intellectual History of Free Trade by Douglas A. Irwin
Ever since Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations appeared in 1776, the case for free trade — both its economic benefits and its moral footing — seemed settled. Yet in the ensuing two centuries, many have attempted to restrict freedom of trade with claims about its deleterious effects. Irwin’s Against the Tide traces the intellectual history of free trade from the early mercantilists, through Smith and the neoclassical economists, and to the present. He shows how free trade has withstood theoretical assaults from protectionists of all stripes — and how it remains the most effective means for bringing prosperity and peace to people throughout the world.
The Triumph of Liberty: A 2,000 Year History Told Through the Lives of Freedom’s Greatest Champions by Jim Powell
If Radicals for Capitalism is the tale of the men and women who fought for liberty in the 20th century, Jim Powell’s The Triumph of Liberty fills in the backstory. The book is an exhaustive collection of biographical articles on 65 major figures, from Marcus Tullius Cicero to Martin Luther King, Jr., summarizing their lives, thought, and impact. While not all of them were strictly libertarian, every one of the people Powell covers was instrumental in making the world a freer. For a grand sweep of liberty’s history through the lives of those who struggled in its name, there’s no better source than The Triumph of Liberty.
How The West Grew Rich: The Economic Transformation Of The Industrial World by Nathan Rosenberg and L. E. Birdzell Jr.
The central question that How the West Grew Rich addresses is precisely what its title implies. For thousands of years, human beings lived in unrelieved misery: hunger, famine, illiteracy, superstition, ignorance, pestilence and worse have been their lot. How did things change? How did a relatively few people — those in what we call “the West” — escape from grinding poverty into sustained economic growth and material well-being when most other societies remained trapped in an endless cycle of birth, hardship, and death? This fascinating book tells that story. The explanations that many historians have offered — claiming that it was all due to science, or luck, or natural resources, or exploitations or imperialism — are refuted at the outset, in the book’s opening chapter. Rosenberg and Birdzell are then free to provide an explanation that makes much more sense.
The State by Franz Oppenheimer
Much political philosophy begins with a “social concept” theory of the state. Mankind originally existed in a “state of nature,” and the state only arose when people came together and agreed to give up some of their liberties in exchange for protection of others. Oppenheimer rejects this rosy picture and replaces it with his much more realistic “conquest theory,” which finds the genesis of states in roving bands of marauders who eventually settled down and turned to taxation when they realized it was easier than perpetual raiding. The State also features Oppenheimer’s influential distinction between the two means by which man can set about fulfilling his needs: “I propose in the following discussion to call one’s own labor and the equivalent exchange of one’s own labor for the labor of others, the ‘economic means’ for the satisfaction of needs, while the unrequited appropriation of the labor of others will be called the ‘political means.’”
Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World by Deirdre McCloskey
In Bourgeois Dignity, McCloskey offers a different story of economic growth from the common one of capitalism and markets. The West grew rich, she argues, not simply because it embraced trade, but because its cultural ideas shifted, specifically in granting a sense of dignity to the bourgeoisie. It is that dignity — and the rhetoric surrounding it — that sparked the Industrial Revolution and, in turn, lead to the modern world. Bourgeois Dignity traces the influence of these changing ideas — and uses them to explain not just the rise of the West but also the recent, monumental growth of India and China. The book is the second in a four-volume series, “The Bourgeois Era.”