My dear wife (married 31 years this coming August!) told me that as a child she used to love to be in a bookstore or a library and just walk down the aisles and read the book titles. Not open the books. Not read the books. She just enjoyed reading the titles. If you are person who just enjoys reading book titles it is hard to go wrong reading libertarian titles. They may offer extremely questionable answers to society’s problems, they may have morally suspect fellow-travelers, they may show a near-complete insensitivity to the most vulnerable among us, but damn they can write a nice book title. As one who struggles with writing even a passable title, I can only gaze in wonder. There are Mozarts in the world and I will always be Salieri. You know the old saying: “Those who can compose a great book titles compose great book titles; those who can’t compose lists of other people’s great book titles.” What? It is too a saying! Shut up.
Libertarians have great titles because they manage to evoke the core of their ideology in very few words. The language they use is evocative, stirring up emotions while, somehow, simultaneously giving the appearance of cold rationality.
A couple things to keep in mind: first, this is not a list of great libertarian books (are there any?), it is a list of great libertarian book titles. I’m hardly qualified to give you a list of the books you should read to become a libertarian, but I love these titles. Second, no Ayn Rand titles. Atlas Shrugged may or may not be a good title, but I’m kicking her out of the competition because I’m arbitrary and capricious and narrow-minded.
With all that in mind, I offer to you a Top Ten List of great libertarian book titles.
10. “The Butcher with a Smile—More Mangling from Nancy MacLean” (2017).
This is the newest entry of the list, courtesy of Steve Horwitz at Bleeding Heart Libertarians. It is part of the piling-on to Nancy MacLean’s book which we’ve discussed at length here. The title is a wonderful reworking of a libertarian technique we will encounter again on this list: the juxtaposition of two terms to create an unsettling image. There’s Nancy MacLean, smiling at us all as she takes her cleaver to the quotations Horwitz claims she’s butchered. I have not actually investigated these particular charges, but we are just looking titles here.
And, yes, I know it isn’t a book title. Arbitrary and capricious, remember?
9. The Man versus the State. (1884).
From the newest to the oldest title on the list: The Man Versus the State was originally published in the Contemporary Review. The author was Herbert Spencer, who is only remembered by historians (and libertarians) but was one of the true intellectual giants of the 19th century. For example, it was Spencer who convinced Charles Darwin to insert the phrase “survival of the fittest” into the 6th (and final) edition of On the Origin of Species, a decision Darwin regretted eventually.
The title perfectly encapsulates a central libertarian theme: that “the state” or government is our opponent. None of this “government of the people, by the people, for the people” for libertarians. The state is an opponent, and they can’t wait to see it, or at least most of it, “perish from the earth.”
8. Free and Unequal: The Biological Basis of Individual Liberty (1953).
Roger J. Williams, a biochemist of some repute and a minor but notable character in libertarian circles, gave the imprimatur of science to a central tenant of libertarianism: that the individual is all that exists. Because no two individual humans were identical, Williams argued that the “idea of freedom arose directly out of this human variability.” The telling phrase is the notion that we are, by nature, not only free but also unequal. Like most conservatives, libertarians think equality is not a very important value. Williams argues that we are not equal to each other by nature, and many libertarians would further argue that the only way to make us equal is by impinging on our freedom by governmental coercion: “with hatchet, ax, and saw.”
7. One is a Crowd: Reflections of an Individualist (1952).
Decades before Three Dog Night declared that “One is the Loneliest Number,” (kids ask your
parents grandparents), Frank Chodorov declared that One is a Crowd. Again we have the wonderful evocation of the rough-and-tumble individualist who needs no one and nothing. You don’t want to be a weak “collectivist,” right? You don’t need the evil state (now often called the “nanny state“) to take care of you, right? NO! You do it all by yourself. Always have, always will. You are such an individualist you even annoy yourself!
6. Economics in One Lesson (1946).
Libertarians take a certain pride in the purported simplicity of their ideology. The World’s Smallest Political Quiz has long claimed to be able to tell you if you are a libertarian or a “statist.” It is all so simple: “The right to swing your fist ends where your nose begins!” is sometimes offered as capturing the entire political philosophy. But some of it is about economics! Borrring! Never fear, Henry Hazlitt’s short book, in print continuously since it was published seventy years ago, can explain that free trade, minimal (if any) regulation of the marketplace, no minimum wage, and zero unionization is all you need in order to understand economics!
5. Income Tax: Root of All Evil (1954).
No one likes paying taxes. No one. Even those collectivist statists among us, who say things to libertarians like “paying taxes is a privilege and patriotic duty” begrudgingly admit that paying taxes sucks when the libertarians aren’t around. But Frank Chodorov, the only author with two entries on this list, tells us that it is not only unpleasant, but it the actual root of all evil! At last, I know why I get these terrible headaches!
4. Road to Serfdom (1944).
Now we have Nobel prize-winning economist Friedrich August Hayek’s attack on socialist planning. Hayek’s title reflects the common libertarian argument, that any socialist planning inevitably leads to a totalitarian dictatorship. In other words, while you might think that something like a minimum wage is a good idea it will inevitably lead to totalitarianism. Hayek was a refugee from the Nazis and is the originator of the now-common right wing claim that National Socialism (see!) was a left-wing, not a right wing, ideology, an idea now carried by much less-able writers.
3. Our Enemy the State (1935).
Albert Jay Nock’s title takes that of Spencer and raises the stakes significantly. It is no longer merely “man versus state” in which you could always conceivably pick “state.” Now the state is definitely our enemy. I think the title is probably a play on the label “an enemy of the state“, which is what an authoritarian regime calls those who oppose it. Nock’s title nicely reverses the phrase in which the sovereignty to condemn the enemy lies, not with the illegitimate state, but with the individual citizens. I have not yet determined if Nock published this book before or after he became a notorious antisemite.
2. Jesus: A Capitalist (1952).
This is a work very much in the tradition of libertarian economics/theology represented by journals like Faith and Freedom. It is possible that the whole point of this post was to mention this very title, which, until two days ago, I had never even heard of. It was published by the American Council of Christian Laymen which was pretty much a one-man operation run by Verne Kaub, later a member of Willis Carto‘s Liberty Lobby. Kaub was worried about leftists taking over American churches, the United Nations, and Commie propaganda taking over our schools. Christianity was the only real barrier between us and atheistic Communism. And true Christianity was capitalism, as evidenced in this pamphlet where Jesus, we are told, was a “building contractor” who gave up his business to become a missionary. “There was no socialism in Nazareth of any kind or shape” the author assures us, “and Jesus in all his life never uttered a word which would encourage the tyrant or civic leader to tax by force the substance of the people and distribute the money according to his own whim.” Even though I’m a PK, I didn’t know any of this stuff.
1. “The Humanitarian with the Guillotine” (1943).
1943 was the annus mirabilis of the libertarian cause. Three women, whom Buckley called “the three furies,” each published a foundational work of libertarian ideology. Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, Rose Lane Wilder’s The Discovery of Freedom, and Isabel Paterson’s The God in the Machine, with this wonderfully titled chapter, “The Humanitarian with the Guillotine.” Paterson devastatingly captures the idea that those who inflict evil through the power of the State always think they are doing good. No one thinks they are a bad guy, and yet, they are the ones who end up doing the most harm. At the end of that long road to serfdom lies unimaginable violence, Paterson tells us. The title even signals to that ultimate bugaboo of the American Right, the French Revolution, in which the humanitarian efforts of the revolutionaries ended in The Terror as the latest weapon of execution made the streets run red with blood. Well played, Ms. Paterson, well played.
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