Books on Libertarian Philosophy

By T. Franklin Harris Jr.

Editor's note: Harris wrote this list circa 1994, with a small update in 1998 at the end of this page. This is not intended to be a "thumbs-up/thumbs-down" review or critique but simply a list of the most influential works in libertarian philosophy.

The following is a list of books on libertarian philosophy -- or, more properly, philosophical defenses of libertarianism. It is not meant to be exhaustive, but, rather, is meant to reflect the best examples of philosophical libertarianism as defended by various philosophical standpoints: Aristotelianism, contractarianism, intuitionism, utilitarianism, etc. It is also limited (of course) by my own knowledge of the libertarian canon. For instance, I am largely unfamiliar with various Kantian defences of libertarianism, apart from the works of Hans-Hermann Hoppe included below.

I hope this list will help libertarians -- and, by extension, non-libertarians -- become more familiar with the moral basis for their beliefs and where that basis may or may not be lacking or in need of further thought. As Bastiat said, the worst thing that can happen to a good idea is, not to be skillfully attacked, but ineptly defended.

Narveson, Jan, The Libertarian Idea (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988)

Narveson's book is one of the overlooked treasures of the libertarian canon. In this critic's opinion, his contractarian defense of liberty -- based largely on Hobbesian philosophy -- is the best defense of libertarianism currently available. Narveson utilizes game theory and value subjectivism to breath new life into the social contract.

The one major flaw in the book is Narveson's section on health care in which Narveson seems to claim that it is possible to defend a national health care system with the confines of libertarian moral theory. (Narveson, it should be noted, no longer holds this view.) But, nevertheless, ignore this one unfortunate section, and you will find Narveson's account inspiring.

Nozick, Robert, Anarchy, State, and Utopia (New York: Basic Books, 1974)

In professional philosophical circles, Nozick's work is regarded as the definitive defense of libertarianism. Other libertarians -- myself included -- find his intuitionist defense of liberty lacking to say the least. Still, because of the book's reputation, it is important for libertarians to be familiar with Anarchy, State, and Utopia.

Hoppe, Hans-Hermann, A Theory of Socialism and Capitalism (Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1989) and The Economics and Ethics of Private Property (Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1993)

Hoppe's Kantian defense of liberty rests upon the argument that it is illogical for one to argue against liberty as doing so places one with a logical contradiction. Hoppe argues that the ability to argue presupposes self-ownership, which presupposes an absolute right to private property.

So far, only Murray Rothbard has announced that he agrees with Hoppe. I remain unconvinced. Still, his work is useful and (depending upon your view) instructive in either how or how not to do logic.

Rothbard, Murray N., For a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto (New York: Libertarian Review Foundation, 1978) and Power and Market: Government and the Economy (Kansas City: Sheed Andrews and McMeel, Inc., 1977)

Half the time Rothbard sounds like Ayn Rand (and other Aristotelians listed below), while the rest of the time he sounds like Hoppe. The mix of Aristotelian and Kantian philosophy seems incoherent to me but not, it seems, to most other libertarians. Apart from Ayn Rand, Rothbard is the most infuential libertarian theorist, thus, his works are essential reading.

Merrill, Ronald E., The Ideas of Ayn Rand (La Salle, Ill.: Open Court, 1991)

Merrill provides the best critical introduction currently available to the philosophy of Ayn Rand. For my purpose here, his book is better than Rand's own, as Merrill provides a detailed discussion of how Rand's "Objectivist" philosophy relates to the modern libertarian movement.

Tannehill, Morris and Linda, The Market for Liberty (New York: Libertarian Review Foundation, 1984)

The Tannehills' near-classic book is the best introduction to the anarcho-Randian viewpoint -- that is, anarcho-capitalism as defended by the philosophy of Ayn Rand. Rand, however, disagreed violently with the anarcho-capitalist view.

Friedman, David, The Machinery of Freedom: Guide to a Radical Capitalism (La Salle, Ill.: Open Court, 1989)

David Friedman, son of economist Milton Friedman, presents the best defense of the anarcho-capitalist version of libertarianism available. (Although his discussions of moral theory are, I think, simplistic and self-defeating.) Friedman never shys away from the hard questions -- including the one with which anarcho-capitalists always have trouble: national defense.

Machan, Tibor R., Individuals and Their Rights (La Salle, Ill.: Open Court, 1989) and The Virtue of Liberty (Irvington-on-Hudson, NY: Foundation for Economic Education, Inc., 1994) and Human Rights and Human Liberties: A Radical Reconsideration of the American Political Tradition (Chicago: Nelson Hall, 1975)

Machan presents the most scholarly and coherent case for the Randian defense of liberty available. The Virtue of Liberty, in particular, is a very good introduction to libertarianism. Machan, however, typically casts Hobbesian libertarianism in an unjustified bad light -- usually with straw man arguments that, while they may apply to Hobbes's own philophophy, don't necessarily apply to the philosophy of present-day Hobbesian libertarians.

Rasmussen, Douglas B. and Douglas J. Den Uyl, Liberty and Nature: An Aristotelian Defense of Liberal Order (La Salle, Ill.: Open Court, 1991)

This book seems to have replaced (if only in libertarian circles) Nozick's as the book of libertarian philosophy. It is, perhaps, the most technical of all the book's I've listed -- sometimes, I think, overly so. And while I don't agree that Aristotelianism is either right or of use in defending liberty, the book is still full of insight.

Of particular note is the discussion of rights as "meta-normative" concepts -- a discussion that, I think, actually leads one to the conclusion that any teleological moral system (not just Aristotelianism) presupposes libertarian rights to life, liberty, and property.

January 1998 Update

Since writing the above remarks several years ago, I've changed my mind regarding neo-Hobbesian libertarianism. I still find great value, for example, in Jan Narveson's work, but it now seems incomplete. On the other hand, I have come to appreciate far more the works of my former teacher, Tibor Machan, and of his fellow Aristotelians (Rasmussen and Den Uyl). I've even come to agree with Dr. Machan's characterization of Hobbesian individualism as "naughty individualism."

This is a case of my living and learning, I guess.

Regarding Professor Hoppe's attempt to justify libertarianism, I am not convinced it cannot work, but it was, at least, a valiant effort.

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