The Capitalist Reader, edited by Lawrence S. Stepelevich, New Rochelle, N.Y.: Arlington House, 1977, 272 pp., $9.95
For some years now I have kept in my office numerous copies of the paperback edition of Henry Hazlitt's little classic, Economics in One Lesson, and given a copy to any student in my classes who wanted one and promised to read it. Not being a teacher of economics, and not being able to take the time in philosophy courses to guide the students through the concepts of free enterprise economics, I nevertheless found in courses of ethics and political philosophy that this was the greatest single lacuna in the students' background. They might know all about the pros and cons of abortion, drugs, the right to free speech, and the causes of war, but most of them knew nothing about what seemed to me the most elementary principles of economics. To provide some empirical input for discussions of morality and social philosophy, I found it easiest in the long run to set them loose on Hazlitt—and then, often, they were ready for more. It often turned out that the truth of libertarianism seemed obvious to them once they had crossed the one big hurdle where all their hang-ups were—economics.
Now I shall have, not one, but two books to give them. The Capitalist Reader provides a mine of well-written information to anyone who is not yet fully into the economics of liberty. Many of the great classic authors are represented in this anthology: Adam Smith, Bastiat, Boehm-Bawerk; and many great twentieth-century writers as well: Ayn Rand, von Mises, Hayek, Friedman, Fertig, Roepke, Kelso, John Chamberlain. Every item in the collection is a gem, and even to the already initiated it makes fascinating reading.
The book is divided into three parts. The first is on economic theory. Including as it does Adam Smith on the invisible hand, Ayn Rand's essay "What is Capitalism?" and von Mises' description of capitalism from The Anti-Capitalist Mentality, it is heady stuff (written with clarity and elegance) for those whose reading has not heretofore included these writers. Part 2 deals with capitalism and justice. Here we find Hayek on myths concerning the early history of capitalism, von Mises on the justice of capitalism, Milton Friedman on capitalism and discrimination, Ayn Rand on the roots of war, and others. The third part deals with capitalism and freedom. It includes the famous chapter from Hayek's Road to Serfdom on the relation between economic controls and political totalitarianism, Friedman's essay on the relation between economic and political freedom, a fine selection from Lawrence Fertig's book Prosperity through Freedom, and others.
The selections, made by professor of philosophy Lawrence Stepelevich of Villanova College, are all excellent; but one cannot help wish there were more of them. Many first-rate gems are omitted. Hazlitt himself is entirely left out. Passages from von Mises' Omnipotent Government and Socialism should have been included (the sections most heavily marked in my copy, that is). Much more of Bastiat's The Law, so brief, succinct, elegant, and quotable, should have been there, as well as some of his Economic Sophisms. There are many other pieces crying out to be included, such as Benjamin Rogge's essay on the connection between political and economic freedom, and most of all some passionately intense pages from Rose Wilder Lane's The Discovery of Freedom (e.g., the dramatic opening pages on the things we have and take for granted that are provided by the free enterprise system—pages largely quoted without quotation marks at the beginning of Henry G. Weaver's The Mainspring of Human Progress).
There are no running heads at the top of each page, so one has to go back constantly to the table of contents to find out where each selection is. Aside from this, my only complaint about the book is that more items should have been included. Perhaps the publisher placed certain restrictions of space on the editor. At any rate, sins of omission are not as bad as sins of commission, and none of the latter occur here. This is one of the books to give as a gift to someone who you think needs to know more about the workings of the free enterprise system and who wants to take it in relatively easy doses of lucid, elegant, and powerful prose.
Contributing Editor John Hospers writes frequently for REASON.