A small list of books that encapsulate the classical liberal tradition.
P. Christopher Shelton
The Road to Serfdom by Friedrich Hayek
Hayek’s seminal work that warns of the danger of tyranny that inevitably results from government control of economic decision-making through central planning. He further argues that the abandonment of individualism and classical liberalism inevitably leads to a loss of freedom, the creation of an oppressive society, the tyranny of a dictator, and the serfdom of the individual.
Liberalism by Ludwig von Mises
The foundation of liberalism, Mises says, rests on an understanding and appreciation of private property, social cooperation, the freedom idea, ethics and morality, democracy, and the legitimate role of government. Liberalism is not a political party; it is a system of social organization. The liberal program aims at securing equality under law and freedom of opportunity for everyone to make their own choices and decisions, so long as they do not interfere with the equal rights of others; it offers no special privileges to anyone. Under liberalism, the role of government would be limited to protecting the lives, property, and freedom of its citizens to pursue their own ends and goals. Mises is more specific here than elsewhere in applying the liberal program to economic policy, domestic and foreign. Also in this book, Mises contrasts liberalism with other conceivable systems of social organization such as socialism, communism, and fascism.
The Vision of the Anointed By Thomas Sowell
The Vision of the Anointed is a devastating critique of the mind-set behind the failed social policies of the past thirty years. Thomas Sowell sees what has happened not as a series of isolated mistakes but as a logical consequence of a vision whose defects have led to disasters in education, crime, family disintegration, and other social pathology. In this book, “politically correct” theory is repeatedly confronted with facts — and sharp contradictions between the two are explained in terms of a whole set of self-congratulatory assumptions held by political and intellectual elites. These elites — the anointed — often consider themselves “thinking people,” but much of what they call thinking turns out, on examination, to be rhetorical assertion, followed by evasions of mounting evidence against those assertions.
The Federalist Papers by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay
The Federalist Papers are a collection of eighty-five articles and essays written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay in favor of ratifying the United States Constitution. First appearing in 1787 as a series of letters to New York newspapers, this collective body of work is widely considered to be among the most important historical collections of all time. Although the authors of The Federalist Papers foremost intended to influence the vote in favor of ratifying the Constitution, in Federalist No. 1 Hamilton explicitly set their debate in broader political terms. “It has been frequently remarked,” he wrote, “that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.”
The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith
The Wealth of Nations is a clearly written account of economics at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. The book was a landmark work in the history and economics as it was comprehensive and an accurate characterization of the economic mechanisms at work in modern economics. Smith believed in a Meritocracy. Smith emphasized the advancement that one could take based on their will to better themselves. This is simply one of the most important books ever written on the subject of economics.
The Constitution of Liberty by Friedrich Hayek
Considered Hayek’s classic statement on the ideals of freedom and liberty, ideals that he believes have guided—and must continue to guide—the growth of Western civilization. Here Hayek defends the principles of a free society, casting a skeptical eye on the growth of the welfare state and examining the challenges to freedom posed by an ever expanding government—as well as its corrosive effect on the creation, preservation, and utilization of knowledge. In opposition to those who call for the state to play a greater role in society, Hayek puts forward a nuanced argument for prudence. Guided by this quality, he elegantly demonstrates that a free market system in a democratic polity—under the rule of law and with strong constitutional protections of individual rights—represents the best chance for the continuing existence of liberty.
Crisis and Leviathan by Robert Higgs
More than a study of trends in governmental spending, taxation, and employment, Crisis and Leviathan is a thorough analysis of the actual occasions when and the specific means by which Big Government developed in the United States. Naming names and highlighting the actions of significant individuals, Higgs examines how twentieth-century national emergencies–mainly wars, depressions, and labor disturbances–have prompted federal officials to take over previously private rights and activities. When the crises passed, a residue of new governmental powers remained. Even more significantly, each great crisis and the subsequent governmental measures have gone hand in hand with reinforcing shifts in public beliefs and attitudes toward the government’s proper role in American life.
Integrating the contributions of scholars in diverse disciplines, including history, law, political philosophy, and the social sciences, Crisis and Leviathan makes compelling reading for all those who seek to understand the transformation of America’s political economy over the past century.
Principles of Political Economy by John Stuart Mill
First published in 1848, Principles of Political Economy established Mill as a leading economic thinker of his time, and this work endured as the principal economics textbook for the balance of the nineteenth century. As a comprehensive treatment of economic thought, the book touches on the full range of micro- and macroeconomic topics, including taxation, national debt, and theories of money, production, and prices.
Basic Economics by Thomas Sowell
Basic Economics is a citizen’s guide to economics, written for those who want to understand how the economy works but have no interest in jargon or equations. Sowell explains the general principles underlying different economic systems: capitalist, socialist, feudal, and so on. In readable language, he shows how to critique economic policies in terms of the incentives they create, rather than the goals they proclaim. With clear explanations of the entire field, from rent control and the rise and fall of businesses to the international balance of payments, this is the first book for anyone who wishes to understand how the economy functions.
Capitalism and Freedom by Milton Friedman
How can we benefit from the promise of government while avoiding the threat it poses to individual freedom? In this classic book, Milton Friedman provides the definitive statement of his immensely influential economic philosophy—one in which competitive capitalism serves as both a device for achieving economic freedom and a necessary condition for political freedom.
The Second Treatise of Government by John Locke
A highly influential figure in the Age of Enlightenment in England and France, whose works helped inspire the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, John Locke was one of the most important political theorists in Western history. In The Second Treatise of Government, a major contribution to the principles underlying modern democracies, he achieved two objectives: refuting the concept of the divine right of monarchy, and establishing a theory of government based on the ultimate sovereignty of the people.
In A Letter Concerning Toleration, composed as early as 1667 but not published for political reasons until 1689 — after the “Glorious Revolution” — Locke pleaded for religious tolerance on grounds similar to his argument for political freedom, i.e., that all men are by nature “free, equal, and independent,” and are entitled to freedom of thought, freedom of speech, and freedom of worship. To help guarantee the latter freedom, Locke called for separation of church and state.
The basis of social and political philosophy for generations, these works laid the foundation of the modern democratic state in England and abroad. Their enduring importance makes them essential reading for students of philosophy, history, and political science.
Planned Chaos by Ludwig von Mises
The title comes from Mises’s description of the reality of central planning and socialism, whether of the national variety (Nazism) or the international variety (communism). Rather than create an orderly society, the attempt to central plan has precisely the opposite effect. By short-circuiting the price mechanism and forcing people into economic lives contrary to their own choosing, central planning destroys the capital base and creates economic randomness that eventually ends in killing prosperity. This important work was written decades after Mises’s original essay on economic calculation and includes the broadest and boldest attack on all forms of state control.
By the People by Charles Murray
American freedom is being gutted. Whether we are trying to run a business, practice a vocation, raise our families, cooperate with our neighbors, or follow our religious beliefs, we run afoul of the government—not because we are doing anything wrong but because the government has decided it knows better. When we object, that government can and does tell us, “Try to fight this, and we’ll ruin you.”
In this provocative book, acclaimed social scientist and bestselling author Charles Murray shows us why we can no longer hope to roll back the power of the federal government through the normal political process. The Constitution is broken in ways that cannot be fixed even by a sympathetic Supreme Court. Our legal system is increasingly lawless, unmoored from traditional ideas of “the rule of law.” The legislative process has become systemically corrupt no matter which party is in control.