What Every 20-Year Old Should Know about Liberty
October 12, 2016
A bright spot for me in this otherwise grim political year has been speaking for the regional conferences of Students for Liberty. The events are more crowded than ever, and the curiosity of the attendees is palpable and intense.
What does the idea of human liberty imply about how you should understand the changing world?Just imagine that you are 20 years old. You have only known the digital age. The first web browser was invented the year before you were born. You were 11 when the first iPhone came on the market. Uber was founded before you were legally allowed to drive. You live on your mobile applications, which are borderless and permissionless. It’s how you communicate with friends, and your communities of interest take shape and live on them. The digital world is where you live.
This election year is your first introduction to real-time politics. The top two presidential contenders are speaking about a world that has very little to do with anything you have ever experienced. You think of the world as spontaneous, creative, emergent, filled with opportunity, and driven by the choices you make in your life. The leading candidates see the world as planned, legislated, wholly physical, and imposed by great leaders through laws and powers. They are reactionaries, not only in the sense that their style and views are formed in opposition to each other but also in the sense that they both seem to long for a world gone by.
You are looking for something different. The campus has organizations that offer a third way, a hopeful way that focusses on human liberty. But what does it all mean? What does the libertarian worldview offer for your life? And what does that imply about how you should understand the changing world and the existing conventions of politics? These are the questions that drive people to come to these seminars.
You hear the lectures, socialize with the speakers and other attendees, but now you want more.
It is for this reason that I’ve assembled this highly efficient reading list. I’ve thought very carefully about what it should include and the order in which these readings are assembled. They are meant to be read in the order in which they are listed. There are no gigantic books. They are the most compelling essays that have stood the test of time. What they provide is a new framework of understanding, a lens through which to see the world and your place in it.
You see for the first time the immense complexity of the undesigned order all around you.
1. I, Pencil, by Leonard Read. This classic from 1958 explains something wildly implausible: no person alone could ever make a pencil, the simplest object on your desk. This is for two related reasons. The assembling of anything not given in nature – and the state of nature is grim indeed – requires cooperation through the division of labor. More importantly, the knowledge necessary to make a pencil is itself dispersed among many human minds. No one mind could master all the technical details, up and down the structure of production, to make it happen. The lesson here is that we owe the goods around us to a vast network of production that can only emerge out of the market process.
How does this essay contribute to your thinking? Once you understand the lesson, you see for the first time the immense complexity of the undesigned order all around you, and marvel in the coordination that occurs within society that no one has dictated from the top down. Apply the lesson to smart phones, driverless cars, virtual reality, and social media apps and you begin to understand the illusion of politics itself. The choice of whether to have a free market is not about political ideology; it is about whether we want high-quality lives that adapt to social needs. Once you see this, you develop an appreciation for the aesthetic of liberty, followed by a genuine love for freedom as a social system, and here you have the first step to adopting the liberal worldview.
I actually prefer this truth bomb by the Victorian radical Herbert.
2. The Right and Wrong of Compulsion by the State, by Auberon Herbert. The usual recommendation for newcomers is Bastiat’s The Law, and it should not be neglected. But as for essays dealing with ethics and liberty, I actually prefer this truth bomb by the Victorian radical Herbert. In this 1885 essay, he mightily defends the right of individuals to associate, speak, believe, trade, and otherwise live in maximum freedom so long as they hurt no one in the process. He explains the detrimental effects of all state action: it must always and everywhere curb freedom in a way that is not beneficial to individuals or society. He is especially good at tracing social divisions to which we are accustomed in modern democracies to every manner of legislation and police imposition. You will recognize all the features he names here, for they are metastasizing at an alarming rate. Herbert reveals the underlying cause.
Eastman is one of those 20th century literary geniuses who had seen it all.
3. What To Call Yourself, by Max Eastman. Max Eastman, in this piece from 1953, is a great guide to the absurdity of political labels in our time. We hear them every day: progressive, conservative, alt-right, leftism, socialism, and so on. It can all become confusing, especially once you notice that the advocates of each label seem to have a penchant for some form of government planning, so long as they and their friends are the planners. Eastman is one of those 20th century literary geniuses who had seen it all. He was a socialist in the earliest years of the century, not because he favored an all-powerful state but because he thought that this was the path toward freedom. To be on the left was to oppose the establishment, entrenched hierarchies of power, censorship, and war as a means of social change. In the course of time, he discovered the lie: socialism trends toward government despotism, not freedom. And he came to realize the contribution of commercial freedom, and, indeed, was gradually led to see that only through private property and individual rights was the world made free. This article discusses political labels and their inadequacy. He wanted to call himself a genuine liberal but that word was taken. His dilemma is not unlike that felt by many today.
I’ve known many people whose lives were fundamentally changed by this book.
4. Anthem, by Ayn Rand. I’ve placed Ayn Rand’s classic novella as fourth in the list because it is never too early to discover that freedom is about much more than how society can be organized. It is primarily a personal principle to live out through your own choices. All people in all times face huge barriers to personal achievement. They result from a culture of control and are instantiated in government policy. They fear change and progress and seek to crush individual initiative. How do we deal with them? In Rand’s book, we encounter one such person who had to face a choice: acquiesce to the status quo in which he could not live his dreams, or live with courage and change the world. As with all of Rand’s books, this one turns out to be autobiographical in some respects. More than that, you can see your own life through this work. It is pure allegory. I’ve known many people whose lives were fundamentally changed by this book. Just trust me on this.
Liberalism is not about leaders, uniforms, parades, songs, and party rallies.
5. Liberalism, by Ludwig von Mises. Moving back to political and economic theory, this 1927 book (it’s not long) by Mises remains the best statement of what liberalism means. He wrote it between the wars as an attempt to revive, or at least preserve, the core beliefs that built the modern world. He knew when he wrote it that liberalism was on the decline, rejected by academia, the press, and government. But he also saw that it was only through liberalism that progress in this world could be achieved. Government planning would only lead to economic upheaval, war, and human suffering. The book should be considered a canonical statement of what it means to love freedom in modern times. As you approach the end, he offers a moving statement of what a genuine liberal movement feels like. It is not about leaders, uniforms, parades, songs, and party rallies. It is about reasoned argument, calm discussion, and the gradual formation of communities of understanding. Time and again, in the midst of so many political controversies, I’ve turned to this book for clarity and solace.
Libertarians should be the most passionate advocates of universal rights.
6. Human Rights are Property Rights, by Murray Rothbard. Mises says in his book that private property is the indispensable institution of a free society, and Murray Rothbard (his student) elaborated in this essay written for the Foundation for Economic Education. The essay was born of frustration. All these activists out there correctly demanding greater respect for human right and liberties, even as they oppose the very foundation and guarantor of those, which is private property. Indeed, argued Rothbard, all human rights boil down to the ownership of ourselves and the property we can call our own. Libertarians should be the most passionate advocates of universal rights because only through a recognition of the rights of ownership can human beings achieve their real potential.
Mises was identified as fascism leading opponent.
7. Planned Chaos, by Ludwig von Mises. Mises spent a huge swath of his career on a rigorous critique of socialism. His 1922 book on the subject was sweeping and comprehensive, given the year in which it was written. But an interesting thing began to happen over the coming decades, culminating in the Nazi cancer spreading through Europe and planned societies entrenching themselves in the countries that were fighting the Nazi menace. A new form of socialism had been born under a different ideological label. And this new form purported to be the preferred option to communism. It was fascism. Mises was identified as fascism's leading opponent and driven out of his home. When he came to the U.S., FEE became his sanctuary. In 1947, FEE president Leonard Read asked for him to broaden his narrative and the results were this essay, arguably his most profound and in-depth treatment of the topic. The threats to liberty, Mises argued, take many ideological forms, and this is his tutorial on recognizing them.
Hayek argues that if we already knew the kinds of results that would emerge from freedom, we wouldn’t need it at all.
8. The Case for Freedom, by F.A. Hayek. Here is a small excerpt from Hayek’s gigantic book, The Constitution of Liberty. The size of this essay masks its astonishing pith and profundity. I’ve probably read it 20 times and it still keeps giving. Hayek presses his case against government regulation and control – and his insight concerning how knowledge is disseminated and used in society – as far as he can. He makes points here that stop you in your tracks and force you to think and rethink. For example, he argues that if we already knew the kinds of results that would emerge from freedom, we wouldn’t need it at all; we would just implement it now. He further says that the whole purpose of freedom is to discover in the future what we do not know now, and therefore the case for it is ultimately rooted in humility and deference to future human experience. Don’t worry if you don’t comprehend his position immediately. This is a profoundly brilliant essay that will inform the whole of how you live the rest of your life.
Hazlitt begins with a parable and extends it to one basic lesson that is surprisingly potent.
9. Economics in One Lesson, by Henry Hazlitt. Readers who are already acquainted with the liberty tradition might be surprised that I list this staple of the literature so far down, but my decision is informed by a conviction that the aesthetics and ethics of liberty are more fundamental than economic understanding. Still, it remains true that a real understanding of the free society cannot cohere until you grasp certain core propositions of economics. After all these years (this book was written in 1946, the year of FEE’s founding), it remains the best introduction to economic thought. Hazlitt begins with a parable and extends it to one basic lesson that is surprisingly potent: economics concerns itself not with the effects on one group but all groups, and not just for the short run but for the long run too. This lesson has countless applications.
10. Great Myths of the Great Depression, by Lawrence Reed. You can be right on theory, possess a flawless moral system, and be thoroughly convinced of a certain social and economic vision. But in the end, we all need to to be convinced too of the workability of a worldview. Here the opponents of commercial freedom have long told parables of depressions and mass suffering that result from capitalism, and the Great Depression is their exhibit A. This is why I suggest this essay: it blows up the main myth about economic freedom from the twentieth century. It also has the advantage of helping the student to become doubtful of the truth claims of conventional historiography. It’s just one slice of history but an important one, and Reed does a fantastic job in setting the record straight.
These ten suggestions are just a beginning. The ideas of liberty have inspired centuries of the greatest in literature, history, philosophy, and economics. There are whole libraries to tackle. But no reason to retire to the parlor to follow the progress of liberty-minded ideas in our time.
You can receive the daily email from FEE.org and experience real-time narration of how the ideas are enlightening the world in which we live. You can also download these five expertly curated volumes of short essays by the great thinkers.
In the end, it comes down to a life philosophy: how we see the world and what we are willing to do about it. Liberty is your light in dark times.