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Six Books on Government that Libertarians Should Read

by | Jan 9, 2024

Six Books on Government that Libertarians Should Read

by | Jan 9, 2024

a stack of books on the shelf

Libertarians may be masters at telling stories of government incompetence and malfeasance, but they have a tendency of knowing less about making government work (relatively) well. This is understandable, because libertarians don’t like government and thus often aren’t interested in the art of statecraft. Also, many libertarians are anarchists, which has the advantage of being straightforward in that you simply don’t believe in the state, but it also doesn’t require learning very much about political theory.

All this puts libertarians at a disadvantage when they try to get involved in government. For example, positions on city councils and school boards are generally held by liberals who like government and public schools, and see holding these positions as a nice way to serve the community. Alternately, libertarians (and conservatives) only get involved at the point when they find government intolerable, and thus are always on their back heel. Further, when a government is incompetent and the public notices, the government generally responds with oppression. Sometimes, such as with he American Revolution, this cycle leads to more freedom, but most commonly it just leads to oppression.

If libertarians want to be more effective when they become involved in government, and thus reduce its harm, there are some key texts on political theory they should read.1All of the following citations are based on the internal organization of the respective texts, except for Reflections on the Revolution in France, which lacks such organization.

The Laws by Plato is overshadowed by The Republic, but is in fact a better, and less dystopian text. The most important ignorance this text can cure is the idea that functions of the government are “new,” or not “traditional,” when in fact, as Ron Paul is fond of pointing out, tyranny is very old, while liberty is a newer and less popular idea. One thing of note is that “Market Wardens” are seen as a key function of government and trade is regulated in a variety of ways (763). This demonstrates that the ideology of “Agorism” is fallacious—or at least misnamed—because Agoras (marketplaces in ancient Greece) were never unregulated. In reality, everything the statists want to do past governments have tried, insofar as technology at the time allowed it.

Politics by Aristotle sets out the types of government and parts of a state while also showing many real and fictional examples of how states have been constituted. This text is useful for understanding the government you live under and what its agents are doing. This foundational work of political theory is the most important early text on a “mixed constitution,” which is the form of almost all modern governments (1294a). A mixed government seeks to combine monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy, such as how we have a president, Senate, and House of Representatives. This text is fundamental for understanding how the different components of government interact within a republic.

Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes has an unmerited bad reputation among libertarians for its association with “big government.” Though Hobbes defends the existence of states generally, it is not a defense of big government so much as an admonition to tolerate government when it is tolerable and to try and enjoy your life, especially given the horrors of war. It’s amusing to note that he lists among man’s natural rights to “enjoy air,” making him perhaps the only political philosopher to express a direct basis for opposing mask mandates centuries before anyone thought of them (I.15.22). This is a challenging book for anyone, and libertarians will also find much to disagree with that will test their views. Hobbes is particularly useful in thinking about choosing your battles, as libertarians tend to be of oppositional dispositions, and often fall into the trap of getting so caught up fighting the government about minor matters that they give the government more control over their lives than it would have on its own.

Discourses on Livy by Niccolo Machiavelli is the great political theorist’s treatise on free government. Though his name is synonymous with amoral grasping towards power, in reality, Machiavelli was a cynical realist with a view on how government functions quite similar to libertarians. It is my view that this book is unpopular because it is radically pro-freedom. It is a guide to the creation, preservation, and loss and restoration of human liberty. Machiavelli’s big innovation is that liberty often comes from conflict between the upper and lower classes. He argues that those who condemn disturbances in a state condemn the cause of liberty, writing “all laws which are passed in favour of liberty are born from the rift between these two” (I.4). It needs to be noted that no one seriously denied the role of class conflict in human affairs until people began arguing against Marx; our own government is designed with an understanding of the interests of different classes.

The Spirit of the Laws by Baron de Montesquieu is one of the most influential books of the Enlightenment. It is credited with popularizing the concept of “separation of powers,” though in reality this was a key premise of “mixed government” since Antiquity. This wide-ranging treatise on government and law is especially of interest to Americans as the greatest influence on James Madison when he designed the United States Constitution. Montesquieu writes, “The corruption of every government generally begins with that of its principles” (I.VIII.1). This being the case, it is good if we should understand the principles of our own government. Writing in the mid-18th century he says. “One nation there is also in the world that has for the direct end of its constitution political liberty” (I.XI.5). By this he means England, but things came to such a pass that we would take from them that title, even if our republic has now become corrupted.

Reflections on the Revolution in France by Edmund Burke had a profound impact on American political thought, though as with the rest it is not read by many in our modern era. Burke, as a member of the British House of Commons, was a leader in the opposition to the many usurpations and abuses which led to the American Revolution, and further opposed the crown’s war against America when it came to that point, instead promoting fraternity and commerce. However, he greatly opposed the French Revolution, which he saw as the irresponsible destruction of a society in need of wise reforms. He viewed liberty as a great good, but also had the wisdom to know that the institutions of a functional society allow man to thrive. He wrote, “I flatter myself that I love a manly, moral, regulated liberty as well as any gentleman…But I cannot stand forward and give praise or blame to anything which relates to human actions, and human concerns, on a simple view of the object, as it stands stripped of every relation, in all the nakedness and solitude of metaphysical abstraction.” The point being that liberty is good because it is good for humans, and an act of government must be viewed by the impact it actually has. The revolutionists Burke criticizes are remarkably similar to our own loony leftists. We commonly call such people Marxists, but one notices that they don’t care about economic class issues but instead only care about zany social issues: the truth is that they are more like 1790 Jacobins than any type of Marxist.

As is common in our society, libertarians are most likely to have only read a selection of popular, recent authors who bring their own perspective to classic texts. It is a mistake to let yourself be removed from the source material, on this or any other topic. What libertarians would find by reading the classics for themselves is that there are a variety of conceptions of liberty and that there has historically been robust discourse about what liberty is and how it is created. More importantly, regardless of what we may wish, the state is going to continue in most of the functions it has now, and the best thing we can do for liberty is to know how to make a limited government work decently, because incompetent government reliably leads to oppression. This important task requires great wisdom, and fortunately we have thousands of years of such wisdom at hand.

Brad Pearce

Brad Pearce

Brad Pearce writes The Wayward Rabbler on Substack. He lives in eastern Washington with his wife and daughter. Brad's main interest is the way government and media narratives shape the public's understanding of the world and generate support for insane and destructive policies.

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