When reason was founded, historians and political scientists routinely assumed that bigger government was better government. Constitutional law consisted largely of excuses for expanding the state. Keynesians dominated the economics profession. Technology meant ever-more-intrusive methods of surveillance and bureaucratic management. Even the fiction shelves were filled with authoritarian ideas. Clearly, not much has changed.
Except it has. Countertrends were already emerging in 1968, and in the 45 years since then they’ve flowered. Statism has hardly gone away, but the movement to roll it back is stronger than ever. We asked seven libertarians to recommend some of the books in different fields that made this cultural and intellectual revolution possible. A list this short is bound to be incomplete. But each of these volumes is an excellent place for a reader to start.
Michael Valdez Moses on Mario Vargas Llosa’s The War of the End of the World
Over the past five decades, Mario Vargas Llosa has won nearly every major international literary award, culminating in 2010 with the Nobel Prize for literature. Belonging to a prodigiously talented generation of writers that included Gabriel García Márquez (another Nobel laureate), Carlos Fuentes, Julio Cortázar, and José Donoso, the Peruvian novelist, dramatist, journalist, and literary critic has set himself apart from his compatriots by virtue of his repudiation of Marxism and embrace of classical liberalism, his direct participation in Latin American electoral politics (he ran unsuccessfully for the Peruvian presidency in 1990), and his adherence to a form of realistic fiction at odds with the “magical realism” of his Latin American literary cohort.
Vargas Llosa’s personal favorite among his novels is The War of the End of the World (published in 1981 as La guerra del fin del mundo), a vast historical epic that may be described as the Latin American War and Peace. It is one of the greatest novels written in any language in the last 45 years.
Based on Euclides da Cunha’s Os Sertões, a first-hand account of a violent rebellion in the backlands of late–19th century Brazil against the newly established national government, The War of the End of the World has proven to be an unusually prescient work of political fiction. The book recounts the efforts of Antonio Conselheiro, a charismatic lay preacher, to found Canudos, an independent community of religious followers—bandits, freed slaves, impoverished peasants, farmers, merchants, nomadic Indians—in the remote drought-ridden wastes of Bahia. When the federal republic attempts to impose a modern “rational” order inspired in part by the positivist philosophy of Auguste Comte, the counselor and his followers resist, rejecting the new taxes, census, civil marriage, municipal burial, and metric system being coercively imposed by the centralizing Brazilian authorities.
Increasingly violent clashes between the counselor’s followers and government officials escalate into an apocalyptic civil war that ends with the annihilation of Canudos, the indiscriminate massacre of its tens of thousands of inhabitants, and the violent deaths of hundreds more soldiers (many of them conscripts).
Written in the wake of an Iranian Islamic revolution led by a charismatic Imam who challenged the power of the American empire and the legitimacy of modern “western” culture, and in the midst of a struggle between Soviet-backed Marxist revolutionaries and U.S.-supported authoritarian dictatorships, Vargas Llosa’s novel skillfully evokes many of the fiercest ideological and political conflicts to have engulfed the globe in the last half-century.
But perhaps what most recommends The War of the End of the World, apart from its extraordinarily compelling array of memorable characters—ex-slaves, pious bandits, hubristic generals, utopian anarchists, degenerate aristocrats, religious zealots, scheming politicians, wandering circus freaks, militant peasants, skeptical journalists, indefatigable merchants—is its deeply skeptical view of modern politics. During his campaign for the Peruvian presidency, Vargas Llosa championed the traditional goals of a classical liberal statesman: liberalization of the economy, the wide distribution of private property, an end to the collusive relationship between government and privileged economic interests, the protection of civil liberties, the preservation of the rule of law. But as a novelist, Vargas Llosa has been more daring, more imaginative, and more disturbing.
Fans of James C. Scott’s 2009 text The Art of Not Being Governed will recognize in The War of the End of the World one of the enduring tales of modern life: the utopian dream of walking away from the modern state, of the spontaneous organization of a radical, communal alternative to what Max Weber called “the iron cage” of bureaucratic rationalization. But such readers cannot also fail to discern in Vargas Llosa’s great tragic novel the apocalyptic consequences that seem inevitably to follow when the modern Leviathan takes seriously the challenge that anarchistic dreaming poses to its unlimited claim of sovereignty.
Steven Horwitz on F.A. Hayek’s Law, Legislation, and Liberty
reason’s 45-year history has overlapped with a renaissance in pro-market economics, which makes it a difficult task to choose one book as the “best” of that period. Thomas Sowell’s Knowledge and Decisions and Israel Kirzner’s Competition and Entrepreneurship are obvious candidates. Milton Friedman’s Free to Choose might have been the most influential beyond the discipline. Julian Simon’s The Ultimate Resource II is brilliant, if underappreciated by economists.
But the book that stands out for its combination of deep insights about economics proper, its understanding of the broader context in which economics sits, and its influence on subsequent thought is F.A. Hayek’s three-volume Law, Legislation, and Liberty.
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