Back in 1956, Henry Hazlitt, free-market journalist and author most famously of “Economics In One Lesson” penned a book titled “The Free Man’s Library,” a bibliography of sorts containing commentary on 550 books that ”explain the processes and advantages of free trade, free enterprise and free markets; which recognize the evils of excessive state power; and which champion the cause of individual freedom of worship, speech and thought.”
In order to aid his readers, Hazlitt tips us off to the ‘ten best’ historic classics on liberty and individualism.”
Below are the all 10 of Hazlitt’s recommendations, along with his commentary on each title.
1. Areopagitica by John Milton
“This written oration against censorship is the noblest of Milton’s tracts, and one of the great documents on liberty. It is rich in magnificent sentences: “As good almost kill a man as kill a good book: who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God’s image; but he who destroys a good book kills reason itself.” . . . “Who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?” John Morley, in an article in the Fortnightly Review (August, 1873) wrote: “[John Stuart] Mill’s memorable plea for social liberty was little more than an enlargement, though a very important enlargement, of the principles of the still more famous speech for liberty of unlicensed printing which Milton enobled English literature two centuries before.”
2. Second Treatise of Government by John Locke
“His name and writings are not today very familiar to the general reader, because nearly all his principles were translated into practice by other men, famous in their day and tolerably well known to posterity, while Locke is little more than a name, venerated but nowadays seldom read. And yet he is, directly and indirectly, perhaps the most influential writer who has appeared in the last two hundred years…In Civil Government Locke expounds the Individualistic view of private property, and again lays down the quintessence of Individualism: “The great and chief end, therefore, of men’s uniting into commonwealths, and putting themselves under government, is the preservation of their property.” He qualifies his theory of a Social Contract, Compact, or Covenant, by pointing out that “men when they enter into society give up . . . liberty” of a kind; “yet it being only with an intention in every one the better to preserve himself, his liberty and property,” the power conferred “can never be supposed to extend farther than the common good, but is obliged to secure everyone’s property,” etc., etc. This artful qualification of the common good, serves as a complete defence of the “Glorious Revolution,” which gave us effective parliamentary government…Locke’s victory over all opposing schools of thought was so complete that Emancipation and Liberty became for more than a century after his death the keynotes of English political philosophy…The historical importance of…[his work] in the history of individualism is enormous.”
“Although Adam Smith referred to David Hume in his “Wealth of Nations” as “by far the most illustrious philosopher and historian of the present age,” even professional economists seldom seem to recognize the great intellectual debt that Smith owed to his older friend Hume, not merely in general philosophy but in the special realm of economics. These essays, published more than thirty years before “The Wealth of Nations,” embody many important ideas which Adam Smith later expanded and pushed further. The most important economic essays are Of Commerce, Of the Balance of Trade, Of the Jealousy of Trade, Of Money, Of Interest, Of Taxes, and Of Public Credit. In addition there are political essays, Of the Liberty of the Press, Of the Independence of Parliament, and Of Civil Liberty, that stand among the earlier developments of the modern philosophy of individualism. Hume was hardly less distinguished for the excellence of his literary style than for the originality and acuteness of his ideas.”
“Adam Smith is not merely the founder of political economy, but the father of economic liberty. In the 180 years since “The Wealth of Nations appeared,” the case for free trade, for example, has been stated thousands of times, but probably never with more direct simplicity and force than in that volume.
Gide and Rist, in their History of Economic Doctrines, have admirably summarized the qualities that make “The Wealth of Nations” unique: It “instantly eclipsed the tentative efforts of [Smith’s] predecessors. . . . His discussion of . . . questions is marked by such mastery of detail and such balance of judgment that he convinces without effort. His facts are intermixed with reasoning, his illustrations with argument. He is instructive as well as persuasive. Withal there is no trace of pedantry, no monotonous reiteration in the work, and the reader is not burdened with the presence of a cumbersome logical apparatus. All is elegantly simple. . . . In addition to this, Smith has been successful in borrowing from his predecessors all their more important ideas and welding them into a more general system. He superseded them because he rendered their work useless. A true social and economic philosophy was substituted for their fragmentary studies, and an entirely new value given to their contributions.”
5. Works by Edmund Burke
“The man who to me seems to be one of the greatest representatives of true individualism.”—F. A. Hayek. “To do Burke justice, it would be necessary to quote all his works; the only specimen of Burke is, all that he wrote.”—William Hazlitt. For individualists, however, the most important and most representative of his works are: Thoughts on the Present Discontents (1770); address To the Electors of Bristol (1774); the speech on Conciliation with America (1775); and “Reflections on the French Revolution” (1790). Even William Hazlitt, who was vehemently opposed to Burke’s stand on the French Revolution, said: “In arriving at one error, Burke discovered a hundred truths.”
6. Economic Sophisms by Frédéric Bastiat
“Bastiat, a friend of Cobden, was opposed to all descriptions of public waste and government interference. Both by his writings and by his action as a politician, he waged unceasing war against Bureaucracy, Protection and Socialism. The book cited above gained a great reputation; it is very witty and written in an attractive style. The Petition of the Candlemakers against the sun, which interfered with their industry, is well known. Each short study attacks some economic error, or pleads for the removal of some restrictions. The truth to be brought out is often enforced by dialogue or some other lively method. Bastiat was an optimist. His view was that the various human impulses and activities would, under free competition and an honest and peaceful government, result in steady progress and increasing prosperity and happiness. This was the theme of his Harmonies Économiques, of which only the first volume appeared owing to his untimely death.
“His complete works with introductory biography were published in France in 1855 shortly after his death. They include many brilliant pamphlets and articles against the fallacies of State Socialism and Communism, which were rampart in Paris in the last years of Bastiat’s life.”—PI.
“In Sophismes Économiques we have the completest and most effective, the wisest and wittiest exposure of protectionism and its principles, reasonings, consequences which exists in any language. Bastiat was the opponent of socialism. In this respect also he had no equal among the economists of France.”—Encyclopedia Americana.”
“This is by far the best book ever written about America, and the most penetrating book ever written about democracy. It won instant acclaim, not only in the writer’s native France, where Royer-Collard declared: “Nothing equal to it has appeared since Montesquieu,” but in England, where John Stuart Mill hailed it as “among the most remarkable productions of our time.” Its central theme is that democracy has become inevitable; that it is, with certain qualifications, desirable; but that it has great potentialities for evil as well as good, depending upon how well it is understood and guided. In the view of de Tocqueville, the greatest danger that threatens democracy is its tendency toward the centralization and concentration of power: “If ever the free institutions of America are destroyed, that event may be attributed to the omnipotence of the majority.”
There is revived interest in Tocqueville today because of what seems like the uncanny clairvoyance of his prophecies. For example (this by a Frenchman in 1835): “There are at the present time two great nations in the world, which started from different points, but seem to tend towards the same end. I allude to the Russians and the Americans. . . . The principal instrument of [America] is liberty; of [Russia] servitude. Their starting point is different and their courses are not the same; yet each of them seems marked by the will of Heaven to sway the destinies of half the globe.”
But the special reason for including “Democracy in America” in this bibliography is that, as John Bigelow wrote in his Introduction to the 1904 (Appleton) edition, it is “an intellectual arsenal in which the friends of freedom will long come to seek weapons.” F. A. Hayek has written of de Tocqueville and Lord Acton: “These two men seem to me to have more successfully developed what was best in the political philosophy of the Scottish philosophers, Burke, and the English Whigs than any other writers I know.”
8. On Liberty by John Stuart Mill
“‘On Liberty’ may be called the Individualist’s textbook. It is a plea for allowing scope to individual character and action—even eccentricity is better than convention. Its whole argument should be carefully studied. There is also a concise and useful statement towards the end: “The objections to government interference, when it is not such as to involve infringement of liberty, may be of three kinds. The first is when the thing to be done is likely to be better done by individuals than by the government. . . . The second . . . in many cases, though individuals may not do the particular thing so well, on the average, as the officers of government, it is nevertheless desirable that it should be done by them, rather than by the government, as a means to their own mental education.
“(Thus juries, ‘free and popular local and municipal institutions,’ and ‘the conduct of industrial and philanthropical enterprises by voluntary associations,’ are valuable on this principle as well as in themselves.)
“‘The third and most cogent reason for restricting the interference of government is the great evil of adding unnecessarily to its power.’ Gladstone, with most of our Victorian statesmen, disliked increasing the functions and expenditure of the State. He came to regard with dismay the vigorous growth of the Income Tax, his own child, which he had adopted from Peel, its actual father. He sometimes likens it to a sword of excessive sharpness which is a dangerous weapon to entrust to a minister. He writes to Cobden in 1864 (Morley’s “Gladstone,” Book V, Chapter iv): ‘I seriously doubt whether it [the spirit of expenditure] will ever give place to the old spirit of economy, as long as we have the income tax.’ The income tax was then sevenpence in the pound, and within fifteen months was to fall to fourpence, and a little later to twopence!
“Mill’s book “On Liberty” gives the pure doctrine of Individualism. His excellent Representative Government does not bear so closely upon our subject. The present Master of Balliol (Mr. A. D. Lindsay) remarks: ‘It reflects strikingly Mill’s curious political position, combining as it does, an enthusiastic belief in democratic government with most pessimistic apprehensions as to what the democracy was likely to do.’ This is due to Mill’s Individualism, for he saw that individual freedom might incur great danger from majority rule in a Democracy. It led him to attach much importance to such schemes as Hare’s Proportional Representation, which he hoped would protect minorities against tyrannical ignorance.”—PI.”
“One of the most powerful and influential arguments for limited government, laissez faire and individualism ever written. The prophetic insight of such essays as “The Coming Slavery,” pointing out the then unrecognized threat of socialism to the freedom of the individual, has led to a strong revival of interest in Spencer after long neglect.
“Dictatorial measures, rapidly multiplied,” he wrote in the preface to this volume in 1884, “have tended continually to narrow the liberties of individuals. . . . Regulations have been made in yearly-growing numbers, restraining the citizen in directions where his actions were previously unchecked, and compelling actions which previously he might perform or not as he liked; and at the same time heavier public burdens . . . have further restricted his freedom, by lessening that portion of his earnings which he can spend as he pleases, and augmenting the portion taken from him to be spent as public agents please.”
Spencer contended that the sphere of government should be “confined to the duty of preventing aggressions of individuals upon each other, and protecting the nation at large against external enemies.” It should, in other words, be confined to maintaining security of life and property, and the freedom of the individual to exercise his faculties. He warned against all efforts by the State to confer positive benefits upon citizens. He objected even to sanitary supervision. Even most individualists today would regard Spencer’s individualism as in many respects extreme. Yet no one concerned with individual freedom can afford to ignore his work. Every student of the subject should be familiar with it.
Hardly less important in its bearing on individualism is Spencer’s “Social Statics,” published in 1850. But the theme of individualism runs through all his writings—through “The Study of Sociology,” “The Principles of Ethics,” and the “Autobiography.”
10. Essays on Freedom and Power by Lord Acton
“Lord Acton (1834-1902) is chiefly remembered today through a single quotation: “All power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” But he was one of the most deeply learned men of his time, and recognized as few have ever done the true nature and value of liberty. It is, he declared, “not a means to a higher political end. It is itself the highest political end.”
His lifelong object was to write a great “History of Liberty,” but he immersed himself so deeply in reading and research that he never lived to complete it. Only two essays resulted from all this laborious preparation: “The History of Freedom in Antiquity” and “The History of Freedom in Christianity…” In the opinion of F. A. Hayek, the tradition of true individualism is most perfectly represented in the nineteenth century in the work of Alexis de Tocqueville in France and Lord Acton in England.”