Revolutionary Reading

Nine transformative books of the last 45 years


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.

The trilogy's three installments appeared in 1973, 1976, and 1979. The first volume, Rules and Order, sets out Hayek's broad vision of the roles of reason and evolution, and formulates his distinction between "cosmos" and "taxis"—spontaneous order and planned order, respectively. Later chapters explore the distinction between law, by which Hayek means general rules of just conduct, and legislation, the rules that govern the designed order of the administrative state.

Hayek's work here has been central to later thinking by Austrian, public choice, and new-institutionalist economists about the importance of rules and of institutions such as the law, money, and property rights in framing our ability to generate beneficial social orders without a designer. Rules and institutions matter because the incentives and knowledge signals they generate are what determine whether broadly self-interested behavior will produce socially beneficial or harmful results. In a culture of bailouts, for example, a capitalist's profits do not necessarily mean he has pleased consumers; he may have just pleased politicians. If misguided housing policy and an unconstrained central bank distort the incentives and knowledge facing mortgage lenders and potential homeowners, we should not be surprised when a boom turns to bust.

The second volume, The Mirage of Social Justice, contains Hayek's famous critique of fairness. He argues that the pattern of incomes that emerges in a market economy is an unintended consequence of numerous independent actions. If justice refers to whether a given action obeys what Hayek calls "rules of just conduct," then an outcome that is the product of no one's intention can be neither just nor unjust. The concept of "social justice" as a claim about the pattern of incomes that emerges in a truly free market is therefore nonsensical.

This argument, and specifically the chapter "The Market Order or Catallaxy," has been incredibly influential not just on economists working in the traditions noted above, but also on political and legal theorists and philosophers. The Catallaxy chapter might be one of the single best pieces ever written on the nature of the market as an undesigned order.

The third volume, The Political Order of a Free People, offers a positive proposal for political reform. Despite its emphasis on the importance of constitutional rules, this segment has been rightly criticized for being too much of an attempt at design in a work that is highly critical of central planning. But the volume's epilogue, "The Three Sources of Human Values," is one of Hayek's best essays on the relationship between a free society and human social evolution.

Law, Legislation, and Liberty opened up new ways of thinking about reason, social evolution, social justice, the nature of social rules, and the market as a spontaneous order. The book is indispensable for understanding modern political economy.

Constitutional Law
Chip Mellor on Richard Epstein's Takings and Randy Barnett's Restoring the Lost Constitution

Richard Epstein's Takings: Private Property and Eminent Domain resounded like a thunderclap in constitutional theory when it arrived in 1985.

The word "takings" refers to the government's power under the Fifth Amendment to take private property for public use upon payment of just compensation. Epstein states in his opening sentence, "The book is an extended essay about the proper relationship between the individual and the state." Within a few pages, one can see just how profound, indeed radical, this extended essay would become. Takings is no routine academic exercise. Epstein boldly challenges the very premise of the New Deal jurisprudence that unleashed the modern regulatory state.

The New Deal rested upon government's power to impose vast regulations on property and economic affairs. But this power could flourish only if government didn't need to compensate people for the negative impact that regulations had on property rights. A series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions removed any such constraint by relegating property rights to second-class constitutional status. Those decisions ushered in a presumption in favor of regulation, and the regulatory state was unleashed. By 1985, it had grown to enormous proportions, and the constitutional theory upon which it was based held hegemonic status in law schools and courts.

Then Epstein asserted that the presumption should be that "all regulation, all taxes, and all modifications of liability are takings of private property prima facie compensable by the state." His book builds a rigorous and compelling case for this presumption. Critics immediately pounced and sought to dismiss Takings as being beyond the pale. But Epstein never flinched, courageously defending his position in countless debates. The force of his genius won respect from adversaries and inspired a property-rights movement that continues to grow to this day. Takings served notice that the statist status quo rests on dubious moral and constitutional grounds.

Nearly 20 years later, Randy Barnett's Restoring the Lost Constitution: The Presumption of Liberty (2004) thrust other key provisions of the Constitution into the national spotlight and transformed the legal debate over constitutional interpretation. Legal interpretation during the preceding 70 years had increasingly read key provisions out of the Constitution, effectively amending it even though the words remained the same. As a result, the original meanings of the Commerce Clause, Necessary and Proper Clause, Ninth Amendment, 10th Amendment, and Privileges or Immunities Clause, among other provisions, disappeared, and with them the Constitution's core purpose of protecting individual liberty. Barnett sets out to restore this "lost Constitution."

Restoring the Lost Constitution has many virtues, but two merit particular attention, because they go to the heart of how we get from where we are today to a rule of law that respects individual liberty. The first is Barnett's recognition that the courts have a vital role in constitutional interpretation and that this interpretation should be guided by the original meaning of the Constitution. He rebuts advocates of judicial restraint while calling for an engaged judiciary to review both federal and state laws.

The second is the presumption of liberty. Sadly, the Supreme Court has created a presumption of constitutionality under which most laws—even those that flagrantly flout clear constitutional constraints—survive constitutional challenge. Barnett rebuts this misguided precedent. Through penetrating analysis and historical research, he explains that the burden should fall upon the government to justify a law through reference to either an enumerated power (in the case of the federal government) or a properly limited police power (in the case of the states). In each instance, the result would be a dramatic reduction in government latitude.

The strength of Barnett's book lies in the brilliant way he dissects prevailing constitutional theory and offers a principled alternative. It was just such integrity of intellect that enabled him to play a lead role in the constitutional challenge to Obama­Care.

Both Takings and Restoring the Lost Constitution present a constitutional philosophy in which individual rights are protected from arbitrary and excessive government. Both books are based on impeccable scholarship and thought-provoking advocacy. And both were written by individuals whose successful academic careers show that acting with the courage of your convictions can inspire people inside as well as outside the ivory tower.

Political Theory
Jesse Walker on James C. Scott's Seeing Like a State

The map, as the saying goes, is not the territory: The symbols we use to describe the world are not the same as the world itself. James C. Scott's 1998 book Seeing Like a State examines that gap between maps and territories through a political lens, exploring the conflicts between officials who want clear maps of the areas they rule and subjects who do not always want to be charted.

One insight of the book is the sheer amount of local knowledge that maps do not and often cannot capture. Another is how that missing information drives powerful people not just to try to make better maps, but to remake the territory itself—the real places where real people live—in order to make it more mappable.

The result is a wide-ranging, interdisciplinary, and brilliant book. It covers everything from Stalin's war on the Russian peasantry to the destruction wrought by urban renewal programs, from the rise of permanent surnames to the enclosures that expropriated the commons, from the evolution of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., to the transformation of forestry in 18th-century Germany.

Scott's themes include several subjects familiar to libertarians, such as the failures of central planning and the value of inarticulate knowledge, but he tackles them with a fresh eye, a wealth of research, and a talent for introducing useful concepts. High modernism, for example, is "a particularly sweeping vision of how the benefits of technical and scientific progress might be applied—usually through the state—in every field of human activity." Metis is practical, vernacular knowledge, which Scott contrasts with the abstract knowledge of the high modernists and their maps. Non-state spaces are the poorly mapped zones where mutuality and metis flourish.

Impressive as Seeing Like a State is, it is only one part of a sequence of studies in which Scott offers a bracing alternative to conventional political assumptions. Two earlier books, Weapons of the Weak (1985) and Domination and the Arts of Resistance (1990), investigate the ways apparently powerless people quietly resist their rulers. And 2009's remarkable The Art of Not Being Governed describes the history of a particularly long-lived non-state space—the vast Asian territory sometimes known as Zomia—and its relationship with the governments and quasi-governments it has bordered.

All of these books are well worth reading. Scott does not consider himself a libertarian, a point he occasionally pauses to stress, but the concepts he has introduced or developed belong in every libertarian's toolkit.

Adam Thierer on Ithiel de Sola Pool's Technologies of Freedom and Virginia Postrel's The Future and Its Enemies

The past 45 years have seen remarkable advances in information technology: the Internet, mobile communications, ubiquitous news and entertainment options, and much more. What made these and other innovations possible was a general openness to the unplanned, the unpredictable, and even the uncontrollable. In our willingness to embrace a world of uncertainty and incessant change, we found unparalleled technological abundance.

No two books more eloquently captured and celebrated the information age than Ithiel de Sola Pool's Technologies of Freedom (1983) and Virginia Postrel's The Future and Its Enemies (1998).

Penned long before most of us had heard of "the Internet" or "cyberspace," Pool's prescient text predicted a world in which "networked computers will be the printing presses of the twenty-first century" and where "there will be networks on networks on networks." In the future, he forecasted, "A panoply of electronic devices puts at everyone's hands capacities far beyond anything that the printing press could offer."

Beyond his remarkable prophecies, Pool's book set forth a passionate defense of technological freedom and unrestricted freedom of speech. "Technology will not be to blame if Americans fail to encompass this system within the political tradition of free speech," he wrote. "On the contrary, electronic technology is conducive to freedom."

While Pool was open to some minimal interconnection rules for communications networks, he called for tight constraints on regulators to ensure that new electronic networks could develop free of the innovation-crushing burdens of the past. "In a free society," he insisted, "the burden of proof is for the least possible regulation of communication." His book set forth 10 "guidelines for freedom" to facilitate that objective. Among them: "the First Amendment applies fully to all media," "anyone may publish at will," "enforcement must be after the fact, not by prior restraint," and "regulation is a last recourse."

Pool's paradigm and prescriptions were rooted in what Postrel, reason's editor from 1989 to 2000, defined as a "dynamist" worldview. In The Future and Its Enemies, Postrel made the case for embracing "a world of constant creation, discovery, and competition" over the "regulated, engineered world," or what she labeled the "stasis mentality." We should "see technology as an expression of human creativity and the future as inviting" while also rejecting the idea "that progress requires a central blueprint," she argued.

Postrel's dynamist vision explained that progress is "a decentralized, evolutionary process" in which mistakes aren't viewed as permanent disasters but as "the correctable by-products of experimentation." Of course, "a future that is dynamic and inherently unstable" and that is full of "complex messiness" is one that many will fear and resist. But that's also what makes it so exciting and full of potential, she argued.

Today's digital economy is the manifestation of Postrel's dynamist ethos: innovation and abundance born of complex messiness. Yet as she predicted, the detractors and worrywarts persist, mostly for elitist reasons. "Stasist social criticism," she noted, "brings up the specifics of life only to sneer at or bash them. Critics assume that readers will share their attitudes and will see contemporary life as a problem demanding immediate action by the powerful and wise."

To succumb to such fears, Postrel explained, is to surrender on human advancement: "This relentlessly hostile view of how we live, and how we may come to live, is distorted and dangerous. It overvalues the tastes of an articulate elite, compares the real world of trade-offs to fantasies of utopia, omits important details and connections, and confuses temporary growing pains with permanent catastrophes. It demoralizes and devalues the creative minds on whom our future depends. And it encourages the coercive use of political power to wipe out choice, forbid experimentation, short-circuit feedback, and trammel progress."

While plenty of tech pundits and academics cling to such stasist thinking today, Pool and Postrel's books continue to provide beacons for a better world, free from the top-down, technocratic mentality and prescriptions of the past. At least thus far, permissionless innovation has largely trumped the precautionary principle in tech policy. Let's hope the dynamist vision can hold the line for another 45 years.

Paul Moreno on Mark Warren Bailey's Guardians of the Moral Order

It remains a common view that in the late 19th century the American judiciary adhered to a survival-of-the-fittest laissez-faire ideology summed up in the phrase "Social Darwinism." Judges, the story goes, used this ideology to strike down all manner of laws meant to ameliorate the harsh consequences of the urban and industrial revolutions, including minimum-wage laws, maximum-hours laws, and laws protecting helpless workers from employer fraud. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. summed up the idea in his dissent in the 1905 case of Lochner v. New York, when he accused the majority of reading "Mr. Herbert Spencer's Social Statics" into the Constitution.

There are now numerous works showing that Darwin and Spencer had virtually no impact on the late 19th-century American courts. Though evolutionary ideas infiltrated American law schools that were modeled on German universities, this process had barely begun by the 1870s. (Ironically, Holmes, who accused his brethren of being Social Darwinists, was the only Darwinist on the Court.) The great contribution to this literature by Mark Warren Bailey's Guardians of the Moral Order: The Legal Philosophy of the Supreme Court, 1860–1910, is in describing the real philosophical background of turn-of-the-century judges. The result is a remarkable work of intellectual history, recapturing a lost world of ideas that has been distorted by generations of propagandists and scholars alike.

Most judges of that era had attended small, denominational colleges untouched by or hostile to Darwinism. They adhered to a traditional liberal arts curriculum, whose goal was not to produce cutting-edge research but to transmit what Bailey calls "a classical and Christian heritage deemed to be true and useful." Philosophy generally reflected "moral realism": a belief that moral truths existed and could be known, and that happiness consisted in living in conformity with them.

This worldview arose in the 18th century, and John Witherspoon established it firmly at Princeton; Yale became a stronghold as well. Fifty-eight of 75 college presidents in 1840 had graduated from either Princeton or Yale, so a liberal education informed mostly by the moderate British Enlightenment became the dominant theory of all major schools in the United States.

The resulting political economy did tend to endorse what might be called "laissez-faire," but the movement was more concerned with religious and ethical principles than with any particular economic and social order. Indeed, the basic academic worldview condemned both Darwin and the leading American Social Darwinist, William Graham Sumner.

By the late 19th century this academic model became frequently formulaic and doctrinaire—traditionalism (the dead faith of the living) rather than tradition (the living faith of the dead), as the Yale religious historian Jaroslav Pelikan put it. It was often used to defend what had become the status quo. But we often forget that classical liberalism was a dynamic, disruptive, and progressive force in the 19th century. What progressives criticized as "laissez-faire constitutionalism" derived from this older tradition of moral philosophy rather than from any 19th-century economic theory, and certainly not from Darwinism. It can be said to have been confidently but not overly rationalistic, and friendly to religion in a way that could span moderate evangelicalism to deism.

David Josiah Brewer, usually counted among the "laissez-fairest of them all," provides an example of the persistence of traditional pedagogy. Brewer's principal teacher was Theodore Dwight Woolsey, an ordained minister and classicist at Yale. Woolsey's political views presupposed "a divinely authored moral order," and he rejected utilitarianism and modern natural-rights theory, preferring older natural-law philosophy. Brewer's constitutional theory followed in these lines. He regarded the Declaration of Independence, with its view of government as the guarantor of preexisting natural rights, as the key to interpreting the Constitution. The 14th Amendment in particular more clearly articulated these founding principles.

Though late 19th-century political science had repudiated these ideas in favor of legal positivism—the idea that law was simply the will of the sovereign—classical liberalism retained vitality on the bench. It also resonated popular with the public at large: Brewer was the most popular justice of his day, and another popular justice, John Marshall Harlan, had a worldview whose jurisprudence was quite similar to Brewer's.

Bailey's account of the educational background of 19th-century judges reinforces the writing on 19th-century American law by legal scholars such as Peter Karsten. Nineteenth-century judges changed legal rules only very reluctantly; their intellectual tradition made them deferential to precedent. Far from being instrumentalists or pragmatists, they held a traditional view of the common law as the instantiation of the natural law. They did not think that they were "making" law, but that they were "discovering" it. And when they did change the law, they usually did so in order to aid the weak and the poor, rather than to subsidize entrepreneurs. Their values still derived from the Christian and classical sources of the Founding generation.

Late-19th-century judges were engaged in an earnest quest for justice. Bailey's books provides an excellent way for us to recover the principles behind their decisions.

Young Adult Fiction
Nick Gillespie on Frank Portman's King Dork

It's a coincidence (one hopes, anyway) that the self-conscious category of "young adult" (YA) fiction and reason got started around the same point in the late 1960s. The year 1967 saw the publication of Robert Lipsyte's The Contender, a novel about a black kid torn between the lure of ghetto fleshpots and the discipline of a boxing gym, and S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders, a slim but powerful account of class resentment set in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Both were literary works published by top New York houses (Harper & Row, Viking) but specifically pushed at readers in their teen years. By the time reason hit the mag scene a year later, the YA genre was already firmly established in the minds of publishers, librarians, parents, and kids themselves.

Even more than their adult counterparts, YA novels are all about the perils and possibilities of creating meaning, identity, and community out of endless desires and limited options. How do you negotiate the past, brute reality, and your own dreams? These questions neatly parallel the chief concerns of a magazine devoted to free minds and free markets. Over the past 45 years, the YA genre has offered up an embarrassment of riches covering topics and themes ranging from puberty to parenting to politics.

The Harry Potter series alone covers not only virtually every aspect of adolescence in spades, but it helped spark a reading renaissance among kids lucky enough to encounter the novels as they were being published in real time (from 1997 to 2007). Authors such as Judy Blume, Paul Zindel, and Ann Head have taught the past several generations more about lust, longing, love, and honest-to-God coitus than all the sex-ed teachers who will ever live or die. Louis Sachar's Holes (1998), set mostly in a boy's reform-school prison camp in Texas, shifts among historical settings more fluidly than anything written by Kurt Vonnegut and is as deep a meditation on race, gender, and national guilt as anything Faulkner ever coughed up.

If one YA book stands out for special notice, though, it's Frank Portman's comic-epic King Dork. Published in 2006, King Dork is an extended tour through that particular ring of hell known as high school as only the creative force of the punk band the Mr. T Experience could render it. (Portman has long fronted the group as Dr. Frank and warbles wry, funny songs with titles such as "Even Hitler Had a Girlfriend" and "The Weather is Here, Wish You Were Beautiful.")

Tom Henderson is a sophomore loser whom anyone with a soul will recognize and empathize with. "No one ever actually calls me King Dork," he announces. "It's how I refer to myself in my head." His life is an endless series of forced, unfair negotiations with the past, present, and future. He is undersized in a world of bullying jocks and cool kids, and he fits "the traditional mold of the brainy, freaky, oddball kid who reads too much, so bright that his genius is sometimes mistaken for just being retarded." At the start of the novel, his policeman father has died under ambiguous circumstances and has been replaced by "Big Tom," a well-meaning but clueless "full-on hippie" who married Tom's mother at a Neil Young concert.

At the heart of King Dork is a generational divide symbolized by the force-feeding of The Catcher in the Rye in virtually every class. "They live for making you read it," Tom says of his baby boomer teachers. As Tom investigates his father's death and tries to avoid trouble at home and school, Portman renders a rich fictional universe in which all things seem possible but also unlikely to pan out.

The power of the novel, which is steeped in high- and low-culture asides that will make you a smarter and funnier person, is following Tom to the point where he finally realizes that, "compared to Hillmont High School, Holden Caulfield's prep school troubles seem like a sort of heaven on earth. But honestly, I've got my mind on other things." That is, by the close of King Dork, he has made peace with the past while learning from it and is moving toward his own future.